Sunday, April 12, 2009

What on earth did the Fiji Appeal Court expect?

Pictured, the Fiji Times in a happier mood on the day before the Appeal Court judgment ruling the regime illegal - and the subsequent clampdown on press freedom. Once again, the New Zealand media has failed to give a wide enough range of analysis and opinion on the complexities of the Fiji crisis. While this major upheaval (albeit predictable) is happening right on our doorstep with enormous consequences for the region, the country's largest daily newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, could only find room for two short single column stories tucked inside the print edition. Both had local angles only - the first on Saturday in the Weekend Herald summed up Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully's view (on page 4) while eight pages of foreign news carried not a word about Fiji. Today's coverage highlighted Australian PM Kevin Rudd's reaction on page 2 and six pages of foreign news were astonishing for the absence of Fiji. Café Pacific offers a commentary from longtime NZ academic in Fiji Croz Walsh whose blog provides many insights that no other local media provides.

Open letter by Crosbie Walsh

I WOULD have preferred a few days to reflect on Good Friday's developments but given that others are not disposed to do so, I add my thoughts for consideration.

Leave aside for the moment the rights and wrongs of events of Friday, 9 April 2009: the Appeal Court's decision that the President's appointment of the Interim Government in 2007 was unlawful; Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama's apparent acceptance of the decision; the President's abrogation of the Constitution, and the reappointment of the Interim Government, together with decrees dismissing the judiciary and limitations on media freedom. These are matters we can address later.

For the moment the most important questions seem to be:

First, what on earth did the court (and Laisenia Qarase who had challenged the earlier High Court's decision that the Interim Government was lawful) expect? That an adverse decision would see the President comply with the Appeal Court ruling -- which may yet be appealed? That Bainimarama, the military leaders and the Interim Government would abandon their 2006 takeover objectives and hand everything back to Qarase so that things would be just as they were before, bowing to the racial and religious extremism that had infiltrated the Qarase regime? Because that is exactly what a new election under the existing undemocratic and racially-skewed communal voting system would produce.

Abandon the work done on the People's Charter and the President's Political Dialogue Forum; a fairer electoral system; provision for tri-lingualism in schools and government offices, that could lead to a more tolerant and inclusive Fiji? Abandon work on the renewal of land leases, the sugar industry, rural infrastructure, the NLTB, fairer land rent returns to ordinary Fijians, a minimum wage, and the work on poverty reduction that could lead to a fairer, more equitable Fiji? Abandon work (that has proved exceedingly difficult due in part to the denied absence of overseas forensic accountant experts) to expose corruption and clientism at the highest levels, but which most surely benefits sections of the business and chiefly elite? Throw two and one-half years' work, opposed at every turn by Qarase and others who could have cooperated had they really believed in democracy, into the old Lami rubbish tip?

Secondly, how are the (new) Interim Government, their opposition, the media and "moderate" NGOs, going to handle this new situation? The answer to these questions, at the moment, seems to be: "very badly." Commodore, it is essential the emergency regulations are implemented with restraint and removed as soon as practicable. Akuila, I have respected you since the mid 1970s when you protested the expulsion of the Malekula squatters at Flagstaff. And Netani, who I have never met, you have blanked your Fiji Times pages in protest of censorship. I respect your courage and intent but surely neither of you, Akuila and Netani, support the return of a racist regime. That, ultimately, is the choice. Look at the bigger picture, beyond the clumsiness, provocations and abuses of power by the Interim regime. Continue your protest but with judgment. Keep the end in sight. Think. What, in this new situation, is best for Fiji? This is not a moment for prevarication. Now, you have to decide between the known racist and undemocratic stance of the Qarase regime, and the suspect but probable good intentions of Bainimarama. Negotiate and be patient for space to comment objectively. For freedom of the press. A hard stance now could see all doors closed, and your important contribution to Fiji's future denied. This may soothe your justifiable pride, but it will not help Fiji.

Thirdly, what is going to be the reaction of the "international community"? Well, here at least there are no surprises. They are handling the new situation as they did before, within the narrow blinkers of supposed "democracy" and "media freedom." They, who earlier rejected the findings of the Fiji High Court (because it did not support their position), now accept without question this decision of this first Court of Appeal, because it does (even though it yet may also be appealed).

From my New Zealand, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, a total denial of realities. Honestly, Minister, what do you know about Fiji? Who, if anybody, are you listening to? In MFAT or in the NZAid you would see ended? To my friends, if I may call you that, Jim Tully on media and Rod Alley of the Beaglehole-Somerset-Alley conjoined clans, other than your illustrious ancestors' contributions to liberal causes, what is your special expertise on Fiji? And to my friend Toke Talagi, chairman of the Pacific Island Forum, why has Australia and New Zealand spoken with no reference to you? Do they chair the Forum? What also of other Forum members? Are their opinions of less importance than NZ and Australian commentators?

The role of the international community is important but not necessarily decisive. Fiji will resolve its own problems in its own way. But the community is in a position to help or hinder, to see whether or not ordinary Fiji citizens, in the key sugar and tourist industries, and their downstream cousins, will suffer unduly. Australia, New Zealand, the ECC and the Commonwealth can devastate the Fiji economy, but still see no "return to democracy." And their continuing inflexible opposition to Bainimarama will further buttress and encourage the Qarase opposition to do what we do not know --- and dare not imagine.

My Lords, Justices of Appeal, safely back in Sydney (whose judgment I will later address, because it seems, to this layman, to contain inconsistencies favouring Australian and Qarase positions), how now do you see what your detached, removed, judgment has achieved? Would you not agree that Fiji --ordinary, everyday Fiji, impoverished, bereft, isolated Fiji -- not you or Australia, face the consequencies of what you, in your lofty legal wisdom, judged to be not "chaotic"? And how does this situation, that you have helped create, differ from that the President sought to control early in 2007, using powers you claimed he did not have?

Professor Crosbie Walsh is a development geographer who was former director of the Institute of Development Studies at Massey University and then headed a similar programme at the University of the South Pacific for five years.

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