Showing posts with label Graham Davis article. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Graham Davis article. Show all posts

Friday, April 19, 2013

X-Post: Grubsheet - The Pacific Axis Shifts.

Source: Grubsheet

An outstanding success: Voreqe Bainimarama arrives in Port Moresby (Photo:ABC)
An outstanding success: Voreqe Bainimarama arrives in Port Moresby (Photo:ABC)

There’s elation in Fijian Government circles over the highly successful outcome of this week’s visit to Papua New Guinea by the Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, at the head of the biggest Fijian trade and investment mission ever to visit another country. The original aims of the visit were ambitious enough – to lay more of the foundation for the creation of a single, integrated market for the countries of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Yet the results exceeded even the most ambitious expectations of the PM, his Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, and the trade delegation of 65 Fijian business leaders from 47 companies. 

Commodore Bainimarama described himself as being “on a high”. And the normally ultra-calm and measured Permanent Secretary for Trade and Industry, Shaheen Ali, said he was “overwhelmed” by the “marvelous” outcome of the visit. Within hours, some of the Fijian companies were already receiving orders and entering into agreements with PNG suppliers and distributors. And by day two of the mission, two more Fijian businesses had registered as foreign investors in PNG. This is in addition to the F$180-million investment by Fiji’s national superannuation fund, the FNPF, in Bemobile – a major telecommunications provider in PNG and Solomon Islands – and the management takeover of its operations by Vodafone Fiji.

The Fijian Government sees itself as equal partners with PNG in ultimately leading the other MSG countries into an economic union to improve the lives of every Melanesian. There’s a notable absence of rivalry of the sort we’ve witnessed over the years in Europe, where Germany, France and Britain have consistently maneuvered for advantage in the European Union. As Fiji sees it, Papua New Guinea has the biggest market – seven million people compared to around 900,000 here – plus the massive wealth that flows from its minerals and energy sectors. And Fiji has an established manufacturing base, a skilled and educated workforce and is positioned at the crossroads of the Pacific. 

In other words, their assets are complimentary. Each country has its particular challenges – Papua New Guinea with corruption and lawlessness and Fiji still grappling with finally putting to rest the divisions that have hampered its development since Independence. Yet there’s a strong feeling on both sides that working in tandem in a joint leadership role is the best way to improve the lives of their own citizens and their Melanesian brothers and sisters in the smaller MSG states. 

There’s no doubt that Melanesian solidarity generally was a big beneficiary of this visit. As Commodore Bainimarama put it, PNG -Fiji ties go way beyond the mutual respect and cooperation that is the traditional benchmark of diplomacy. The peoples of both countries genuinely like each other, enjoy each other’s company and share a vision of a stronger Melanesia building a common economic and political future for all its citizens. And of course, both Governments bear significant grudges against the most dominant power in the region, Australia, which they regard as generally arrogant, overbearing and indifferent to Melanesian sensibilities. The same applies to New Zealand, albeit to a lesser extent.

As Grubsheet has written before, Australia’s mishandling of its Pacific neighbours – and especially Fiji – is a mistake of historical proportions. Its failure to fully engage with them, let alone comprehend their challenges, and its propensity to prescribe and even hector, has driven influential Pacific countries like Fiji and PNG further into each other’s arms and the arms of others outside the region. The Australian trade union heavies and their stooge of a Prime Minister who currently determine Pacific policy – and the foreign affairs establishment which implements it – seem to have little concept of Melanesian sensitivities and protocols. 

It’s well known in Suva than even the mention of Australia can trigger a surge of anger in Prime Minister Bainimarama, who feels sorely aggrieved that Canberra chose not to even  sit down with him, let alone try and comprehend his reforms. During this visit, the PM kept his counsel, adhering to the diplomatic convention of not criticising another country on someone else’s soil. In fact, it was the Papua New Guineans who made unflattering public comments about Australia. PNG’s Trade Minister, Richard Maru, accused Canberra of using his country as a “dumping ground” for its goods and said it wasn’t in Australia’s interests for the Melanesian countries to become self sufficient in anything. If that was what was being said publicly, then we can be sure that the language behind the scenes would have been a lot more colourful. The shared grievances of both governments about Australia would have been fully aired.

Certainly, there was general astonishment about the way in which this visit appeared to have been downplayed by Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, which also has a significant presence in PNG. Aside from one story that correctly cited a series of “historic” agreements, the rest of the visit was generally ignored. Indeed on the first day, Radio Australia’s current affairs program, Pacific Beat, chose to lead with an item criticising Fiji’s constitutional process rather than give weight to the region’s two biggest and most influential island countries forging closer ties. It merely reinforced the notion in Fijian minds of the ABC’s chronic bias against the Bainimarama Government and Radio Australia as a lapdog of Canberra’s foreign policy. By any normal journalistic standard, this was a big Pacific story of significant interest to the populations of PNG and Fiji and, to a lesser extent, those of Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the Kanaks of New Caledonia, who make up the rest of the MSG. It was buried. 

Is Australia sensitive about the fact that its so-called smart sanctions against Fiji haven’t turned out to be smart at all? You bet. American diplomats report that far from modifying their policies in the face of defeat, the Australians have stepped up their efforts internationally to isolate Fiji. Was Commodore Bainimarama’s visit a collective two-finger salute to Australia? Well, maybe just a little. Yet the overriding sentiment in official circles in Suva nowadays is that Australian attitudes are irrelevant. In any event, Blind Freddy can see that Julia Gillard’s Government is toast -with a 29 per cent primary vote in the most recent opinion poll – and that Australian policy towards Fiji is bound to be more realistic, if not more favourable, when the Coalition’s Tony Abbott storms into power in the Australian election in September. A full year out from the promised Fijian poll, Abbott and his likely foreign minister, Julie Bishop, will have ample time to end Labor’s vendetta and rebuild the relationship. 

There were many highpoints of this visit, not least the Bemobile signing -Fiji’s biggest foreign investment on behalf of all Fijians through the FNPF in one of the most dynamic sectors of the global economy- telecommunications. The Government’s critics continually harp on about the FNPF putting the retirement savings of ordinary Fijians at risk. Yet with Vodafone Fiji running Bemobile, the potential to grow that investment seems rock solid. In Fiji, there are more mobile phones than people – a penetration rate of 105 per cent. In Papua New Guinea, the penetration rate is 35 per cent. That’s a lot of potential customers and a lot of mobile phones.

Among other highlights of the visit:

  • ·      The announcement that citizens of both countries will no longer require visas to visit each other. This is on top of existing plans to achieve a seamless flow of labour between the MSG countries.

  •  ·      The provision for retired Fijian civil servants – who are obliged to vacate their jobs at 55 – to work in Papua New Guinea to boost the local skills base.

  •  ·      The plan for a permanent Fiji Trade Mission in Port Moresby and the continuation of the joint effort to break down the remaining impediments to trade and investment, with a view to developing a common market.

  • Most important of all – at least in the shorter term – is the financial support Papua New Guinea has offered Fiji to conduct its election in September 2014 and introduce the first genuine parliamentary democracy in the country’s history of one-person, one vote, one value.

According to officials travelling with Commodore Bainimarama, the PM couldn’t believe his ears when the amount of the PNG contribution was announced out of the blue by his opposite number, Peter O’Neill. “What did he say?”, he asked. At first, the Ministry of Information flashed a media release that the amount was 15-million Kina. But it soon became clear that the fifteen was actually FIFTY. A sense of astonishment, delight and gratitude swept the Fijian delegation and text messages lit up in the corridors of power in Suva. More than 40-million Fijian dollars!  By any standards and especially in the Pacific, it is an astonishingly generous amount. 

This contribution has sealed the Fiji-PNG relationship and laid to rest the concerns of some that PNG was more intent on cementing its own interests during this visit than pursuing a genuinely equal partnership. It means that Fiji no longer requires other outside assistance to finance the poll, and especially from those countries or groups of countries like the European Union, which appear more interested in using the money as political leverage than in assisting Fijians to determine their own future. Instead of having election observers from the EU – as happened controversially in 2006 – the Prime Minister wants election observers from PNG and the other MSG countries. He accused the EU observers of endorsing a “flawed” election in 2006 and said Fiji wanted an observer group with “integrity”. This will not be music to the ears of Fiji’s voluble EU Ambassador, Andrew Jacobs, who before the PNG announcement, was telling people that Fiji would need to  approach the EU for assistance and accept certain conditions that are now decidedly moot.

With Commodore Bainimarama having now travelled across the world to New York to chair a meeting of the G77 Plus China and the rest of the Fijian delegation making its way home, it’s clear that this visit has been an outstanding success. History may also judge it as the week that Fiji and PNG cemented their common future and came to realise more fully the potential they have – working together – to establish the MSG as the pre-eminent regional grouping and its integration as the best way to improve the lives of all Melanesians. One thing is certain. The axis of power in the Pacific is gradually shifting, whether Australia, NZ and their Polynesian client states such as Samoa like it or not.  

Club Em Designs

Saturday, June 23, 2012

X-Post-Grubsheet: #99 SMALL COUNTRY, BIG VOICE

 By Graham Davis
Fiji chairs the UN General Assembly (Photo: UN)

The sight of Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Peter Thomson, chairing the General Assembly is yet another reminder that although Fiji is a relatively small country, it punches way above its weight. This week, Peter has been Acting President of the General Assembly, conducting the everyday business of the UN from the famous podium that has produced some of  history’s most memorable images – from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat waving his pistol to Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev banging his shoe. Along with hundreds of speeches from everyone from Che Guevara to Nelson Mandela, from the Queen to Frank Bainimarama.

Thirsty work: Peter Thomson (l) with his Fiji Water within reach (Photo:UN)
It was especially apt that with Ambassador Thomson in the chair, the General Assembly considered reports about the financing of UN peacekeeping operations. This is what really makes Fiji an indispensable member of the club of nations – its ability and willingness to provide troops to wear the UN blue beret in some of the world’s toughest places. All Fijians owe a great debt to the men and women of the military who’ve given their unstinting service – and sometimes their lives – to improving the lives of ordinary people in the Middle East and elsewhere by protecting them from conflict. And for sending the money they earn home to help support their communities in Fiji.
Fijian UN peacekeepers ( photo: UN)

It’s made heroes in the most unlikely places of tough but softly spoken people from island villages on the far side of the world. And it’s given a country of which many would otherwise never have heard gratitude and respect.  Yes, Fiji gets an important source of revenue from its peacekeeping operations. But it remains one of the few nations able and willing to put its troops in the firing line to defend the UN ideal of collective responsibility for all the world’s people.
Ambassador Semesa Sikivou (r) with UN Secretary General U Thant in 1970 ( Photo: UN)

Graham Davis

" Peter has worked tirelessly for the country’s interests, shifting the axis of its global relationships from its traditional western allies to a policy of being “a friend to all”. He has spearheaded the Bainimarama government’s Look North Policy, launched formal diplomatic relations with more than three dozen countries and organised its membership of the Non Aligned Movement[...]

Fiji gain the benefit of lining up with some of the biggest players of the Asia Pacific region, the global powerhouse of the 21st century. And it has moved these countries out from under the skirts of their “big brothers” Australia and New Zealand, which belong to an entirely separate UN bloc – the Western European and Others Group. "

Peter Thomson is the latest in a long line of Fijians who’ve represented the country in New York, starting with the late Semesa Sikivou at the time of independence in 1970. He has had a remarkable personal and professional history. The son of Sir Ian Thomson– one of the most respected administrators of the colonial era who stayed on to head the sugar industry and Air Pacific – Peter began his career as a district officer in Fiji and was then a diplomat in Tokyo and Sydney. He was Permanent Secretary for Information when – with a pistol on the table – Sitiveni Rabuka forced him to write the formal announcement of the first coup of 1987. Then, after he became permanent secretary to the then governor-general, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, Peter became a target of ethno-nationalist extremists in the second coup of the same year. He was tracked down and thrown into a prison cell for several days before being forced to leave the country altogether.

Peter effectively spent more than 20 years in exile, first in New Zealand and then Australia, where he became a successful writer and authored Kava in the Blood, a compelling account of his life in Fiji. Then out of the blue three years ago came a call from Frank Bainimarama’s office. Would he agree to represent Fiji at the UN?
Ambassador Peter Thomson with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon ( Photo:UN)

Would he ever. Grubsheet – an old friend – recalls the immense satisfaction for Peter in being recalled to represent his country of birth. It was as if his life had come full circle, the lifting of a two-decade long punctuation mark in his career of service to Fiji.

In New York, Peter has worked tirelessly for the country’s interests, shifting the axis of its global relationships from its traditional western allies to a policy of being “a friend to all”. He has spearheaded the Bainimarama government’s Look North Policy, launched formal diplomatic relations with more than three dozen countries and organised its membership of the Non Aligned Movement. He has vigorously pursued Fiji’s interests in such areas as tackling global warming and rising sea levels, preserving the maritime environment and, of course, the peacekeeping operations that are so important to the country’s economy and prestige. And he has played a vital role in batting off attempts by Australia and New Zealand to have Fiji excluded from those operations as punishment for the 2006 coup.

Frank Bainimarama addresses the UN (Photo:UN)
Even more importantly, perhaps, Peter has taken steps to fundamentally lift Fiji’s status in the global community. He was a prime mover in the formation of the UN voting bloc known as the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), which gives Pacific nations a far bigger voice in global affairs by acting in concert. PSIDS has succeeded in joining the Asian Group at the UN, which is now officially known as the Asian and Pacific Small Island Developing States Group. This means countries like Fiji gain the benefit of lining up with some of the biggest players of the Asia Pacific region, the global powerhouse of the 21st century. And it has moved these countries out from under the skirts of their  “big brothers” Australia and New Zealand, which belong to an entirely separate UN bloc – the Western European and Others Group.

The strategic importance of such a re-alignment cannot be overstated. It certainly underlines a fundamental truth about life in the global village for small nations like Fiji. They may not have the ability to project the same power and influence as their bigger neighbours. But in the UN system, it’s numbers, not brawn, that really counts, except for the five permanent members of the Security Council, who enjoy powers of veto. Every other nation gets just one vote. And that is certainly exercising the minds of the Australians right now as they mount a global campaign to get a temporary Security Council seat. Given Canberra’s present hostility towards Fiji, it certainly cannot expect to get Fiji’s support.

An effective foreign minister: Ratu Inoke Kubuabola ( Photo:UN)
Peter Thomson, of course, is a cog in the wheel of Fiji’s international relationships, albeit a big one. His ultimate boss, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola  has been a successful foreign minister and the two enjoy a close relationship as they work with other ambassadors and diplomatic staff to further Fiji’s international ties. And they, in turn, have the confidence of the Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, who’s become an effective advocate himself both for Fiji and the region in global forums – most recently at the environment summit in Brazil. However much the regime’s critics might decry Commodore Bainimarama’s penchant for globe-trotting, a small country’s loudest voice will always come from its leader and lower-level representation rarely has the same impact. It’s simply a fact of life that for Fiji to be heard, the Prime Minister needs to travel widely to properly put its case.
His Excellency in his previous incarnation as an author (Photo: Peter Thomson)

It was Bainimarama who hand picked Peter Thomson for the UN job. Their fathers had known each other in the 1960s when Thomson Senior was Commissioner Western and Bainimarama Senior was the region’s Supervisor of Prisons. Almost half a century on, Grubsheet is pleased to have played a minor part in re-establishing the connection when – after an interview with the Prime Minister- we talked about the old days in the West and I mentioned that Peter and I got together regularly in Sydney to talanoa about Fiji. Bainimarama’s eyes lit up and while he didn’t say so at the time, he evidently began mulling over the possibility of using Peter in some senior role.

Soon afterwards, Peter began a private mission – financed by veteran Fiji businessmen Mark Johnson and Dick Smith – to try to bridge the gap between Fiji and its Australian and NZ critics. He went to Port Moresby to enlist the support of the PNG leader, Sir Michael Somare, and the initiative produced the first meeting of the respective parties for some time.

That was in 2009. Three years on and Ambassador Thomson is chairing the United Nations General Assembly. It’s a triumphant personal story, the Kai Valagi (European) civil servant removed at gunpoint and forced to leave Fiji now sitting as moderator and adjudicator at the pinnacle of global affairs. But it’s also one of the triumphs of Bainimarama’s determination to use the best people- irrespective of race – to present Fiji’s face to the world. To see my old mate sitting there on the UN podium – Fiji Water bottle by his side – fills me with pride, as it surely must others who hope that Fiji’s best days as a united, prosperous, multiracial nation lie ahead.

Club Em Designs

Saturday, May 19, 2012


The typical Australian stereotype of Fiji (Photo: Tourism Fiji)

As argument rages over Japan bowing to Australian pressure to exclude Frank Bainimarama from the forthcoming PALM summit of Pacific leaders, we’re newly reminded of the striking disconnect between the attitude of the Labor Government and ordinary Australians towards Fiji. Pick up any newspaper and the tough rhetoric of its politicians in the news pages about Fiji’s “draconian” regime gives way to glowing articles in the travel pages extolling the country’s charms.

Among the locals (photo: Tourism Fiji)

It’s worth reading the latest – this offering in the Fairfax Media listing “Twenty reasons to visit Fiji”. Why is it worth reading? Well for a start, most locals wouldn’t be able to give you 20 reasons off the top of their own heads so it’s worth reminding ourselves of the attractions all around us that are sometimes taken for granted. But it also explains why Australians keep coming in large numbers even as their government imposes sanctions on the country and Australian trade unions leaders urge them to stay away.

Of the 631,000 visitor arrivals in 2010 – the latest figures available – more than half – 318,000 – were Australians. Why do they come? Well, cheaper air fares, a four hour daylight flight and the strong Aussie dollar are undoubtedly part of the answer. But the relationship goes far beyond that.

The recent floods threw up countless examples of the strong bonds forged between Australian visitors and the ordinary people they meet in Fiji. It wasn’t just the gratitude expressed by individual visitors in the media for the assistance they’d received, sometimes from people who’d lost everything in the disaster. Many people back in Australia who’d holidayed in Fiji dug deep to support the various flood appeals in ways that were sometimes deeply moving for the expatriate Fijians involved. One of the organisers of the Sydney appeal, Joweli Ravualala, tells of bursting into tears when an elderly Sydney woman gave him two weeks of her pension.
One Australian's story: Ken Lamb ( Photo: Mining "Our story" campaign)

There are countless stories of  friendships forged during Australian holidays to Fiji. Grubsheet made one of the mining ads currently screening on Australian television that features a man called Ken Lamb, a real life Crocodile Dundee who supplies heavy equipment to the mining industry in the South Australian outback. Every year, Ken and his wife, Val, like to get away from the dust and heat to unwind at a resort on Viti Levu’s Coral Coast. And over the years, they’ve formed close friendships with some of the resort workers and their families.

 A couple of years back, Ken took over a box full of those instant prescription glasses you can buy at any chemist in Australia to distribute to the surrounding villages. I’ll never forget the look of delight on his face as he told of the looks of delight on the faces of many of the elderly Fijians who’d benefited from this simple gesture. They were able to read again for the first time in years.

Still doesn't get it: Bob Carr with his Fijian counterpart, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola ( Photo: Australian Govt)

This is the real glue of the Fiji-Australian relationship, not some here-today-gone-tomorrow politician like the miserable Bob Carr,  Australia’s verbose and ultra-nerdy foreign minister. Like his super-arrogant, Napoleonic predecessor, Kevin Rudd,  Carr displays a disturbing ignorance about the factors that brought about the 2006 coup in Fiji.  It’s perhaps understandable that an Australian politician who owes his very existence to the trade union movement should be so obsessed with the fate of one or two Fijian union leaders who’ve fallen foul of the regime. Yet it beggars belief that while he acknowledges that Fiji is taking “credible steps” to return to democracy, Carr wants to maintain sanctions and keep up the pressure because Fiji “hasn’t done enough”.

Blissful ignorance: The Australian way ( Photo: Tourism Fiji)

Done enough of what, Mr Carr? For the first time in more than a decade, Fiji has a government committed to multiracialism and – for the first time ever – creating a level electoral playing field for all its citizens. It is providing basic services to areas of the country sorely neglected by previous administrations. It is fighting corruption and instituting a raft of measures to ensure proper standards of governance. It is maintaining its regional obligations and providing troops to the UN to maintain order in places like Iraq. It is formulating a new constitution to provide Fiji with real democracy – one person, one vote – for the very first time. Yet it “hasn’t done enough” because it hasn’t bowed to Australian demands for an immediate election that would alter nothing because none of the reforms the country so badly needs will have been instituted.

How ironic that a nation that prides itself on its own multiracial and multicultural success can have so strongly supported the previous Qarase Government, with its corruption and blatantly racist agenda to disadvantage 40 per cent of the population. How lamentable that the Australian Labor Government does everything it can to weaken the Bainimarama regime in its quest for racial equality and good governance in Fiji. How out of step is Labor on this with the sentiments of a great many ordinary Australians, just as it is on so many other issues. Fortunately for Fiji, all the opinion polls tell us they can’t wait to turf Labor out.

FURTHER READING : Here’s a link to a devastating critique of Bob Carr’s “underwhelming” performance as foreign minister by academic commentator Peter van Onselen, writing in The Weekend Australia.

Club Em Designs

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

X-Post from Grubsheet: The Politics of Hate

 Most countries have laws that prevent religious and racial vilification. Most responsible media outlets – including those on the internet – excise comments designed to inflame religious and racial hatred.  Read more - THE POLITICS OF HATE