Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fiji needs lasting solutions and compassionate neighbours

By Thakur Ranjit Singh

IF THERE are any lessons to be learnt from the previous coups, hurriedly-prepared elections and token changes to rules do not usher in real democracy. As New Zealand Air Force Boeing 757 descended on Port Moresby on the night of 26 January 2009, carrying New Zealand Prime Minister John Key to attend the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting, we had hoped his first trip to the Pacific since coming to power would make a difference.

However the outcome of the PIF meeting was a big disappointment. We had expected and hoped for some change with a new bloke in control. But it appears that despite his right arm in plaster, John Key was still using the other arm to cling on to Helen Clark’s petticoat when it came to determining his stance about Fiji. He still appeared to be doing that in Port Moresby as he met the Pacific leaders and gave an undiplomatic and paternalistic grilling to Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Fiji’s Interim Attorney General, who represented Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Key even went to the extent of suggesting Khaiyum should be tried for his crimes.
For those of you who are unaware, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key suffered multiple arm fractures after a fall at Auckland’s Greenlane ASB Showgrounds to mark the Chinese New Year on January 17, just over two weeks before the PIF meeting. He attributed his tripping and falling down the small flight of stairs to a "momentary lapse in concentration - I was looking out instead of looking down".

While we are sorry to see this happen, at least some thought that there was a brighter side to this unfortunate incident - with one arm already preoccupied, he would be less tempted to snatch at Labour’s petticoat. There are indications that the National Party was still copying and pasting the non-compromising foreign policy of Labour Party and its former leader Helen Clark who is reported to be National’s de facto adviser on Fiji matters.

So much has already been written as to why an election alone would not solve Fiji’s problems. New Zealand and Kevin Rudd’s obsession with elections is merely an escape valve to show to the world that these big Anglo-Saxon brothers still rule the Pacific. The only problem is that these two countries are bereft of any brotherly love. They have always gained from Fiji both in terms of trade imbalance and the well-trained English speaking professionals, businessmen and qualified blue collar workers who do the jobs that need to dirty the hands. The biggest beneficiaries of the coups and instability in the Pacific have been these two big brothers who saved millions, if not billions in not having to train migrants who were already trained by the Fiji government, its taxpayers, its work ethics and its stable family environment.

I am one of them.

Fiji has had elections since its independence in 1970, but these elections were a mere shadow of democracy. John Key and Rudd need to understand that even in past Fiji elections, real democracy was never been achieved. It had merely been a sham of democracy; in many instances autocratic leaders used their traditional powers and influence to manipulate democracy and masquerade as democratic leaders.

In my past writings, I have already enumerated the fundamental problems with Fiji, but today, the biggest problem for an election is an unfair electoral system and arrangement that hits at the heart of democracy.

There is a need to remove the race-based politics and election and have an electoral system and process that gives same weight and importance to every vote. The current system is flawed in this respect where some provinces with only 6000 people have a seat while others with three times more people still have one seat. Fewer rural population have greater number of seats while urbanites miss out.

The United Nations and internationally recognised principles of democracy dictate that each person's vote is to be of equal importance; hence Fiji’s electoral system is in breach of these. In addition, some 20 percent of voters in 2006 either did not vote because of a rigged and ineffective system with many names not on the roll, or had their votes declared invalid because the system is too complicated for many to understand.

Is John Key aware of this major flaw in Fiji’s electoral system? Are other Forum leaders aware of this? Would they tolerate this in their countries?
The adage that age brings maturity was aptly displayed by the host of PIF meeting, Sir Michael Somare. Despite their economic richness and advancement, Key and Rudd were rendered mere dwarfs by the sensitivity, reason, humility, compassion and generosity flowing from this eminent person.

It is hoped Australian and New Zealand bureaucrats in the Beehive in Wellington can teach this lesson to their leaders that I have been echoing for years now. Sir Michael summed it very aptly:
“If there are any lessons to be learnt from the previous coups, hurriedly- prepared elections and token changes to rules do not usher in real democracy.”
In true Pacific way, Papua New Guinea gave NZ and Australia a lesson in diplomacy, neighbourly love and maturity in pleading that the Forum owed it to the people of Fiji not to commit the same mistakes of the past. He suggested that a roadmap be drawn up with realistic timelines to return Fiji to a durable democracy. Sir Michael promised financial and logistic support, and volunteered to provide all the assistance that Fiji required to carry it towards path to a long-lasting democracy, based on equality and justice. Perhaps the developed-country (read Australia and NZ) leadership in PIF countries need to learn from the supposedly backward Pacific countries which have a heart for their neighbours in trouble. It has become obvious that the two strong and rich Pacific neighbours do not understand and appreciate the true meaning of the Pacific Way.

Sir Michael’s pronouncement should echo for a long time and reverberate in future Forum meetings:
"Forum leadership is not about imposing our will, but about listening and extending a helping hand in ways that bring about long term solutions.”
New Zealand can continue to ignore the advice of migrants like me and others, but they need to heed the advice of their own former diplomat who suggested that a team of experts should be sent to Suva to establish the broad outlines of new constitutional requirements. He cautioned that tone and style would be important and New Zealand needs to stop acting ethnocentrically.
His advice to his own government was to reflect on the observation: There's only one thing worse than a coup, and that's a failed coup.

On that fateful day when John Key stumbled and fell in Auckland, he blamed it on a momentary lapse in concentration as he was looking out instead of looking down.

John Key needs to learn from his experience. He once again stumbled and fell in Port Moresby and further fractured the relations that NZ Labour Party had failed to mend. He needs to learn from the elder Sir Michael Somare, and he needs to free his non-plastered hand from the previous government’s policy and develop his own foreign policy towards Fiji with advice from seasoned leaders with a heart - like Sir Michael.

My advice to John Key is to start looking down and closely at Fiji before looking out at far away countries, to avoid future falls, like his stumble in Auckland followed by the one in Port Moresby.
He may end up being the fall guy of NZ Labour Government’s failed and non-compromising foreign policy on Fiji.

He may, hence end up copping the blame for a failed coup and the resulting dictatorship in Fiji!

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