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Fiji PM wouldn’t catch the diplomatic ball

Monday 13 June 2016 | Published in Regional

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OPINION Daily Editorial Otago Daily Times

While the visit to Fiji by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is a milestone and needed to happen, there are legitimate misgivings.

Key and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama met formally for the first time in September last year in New York.

Now, Key has travelled to meet Bainimarama on his home turf, the first visit since the 2006 coup.

This is symbolically important and is seen as an attempt by Key to reset the relationship.

Unfortunately for Key, Bainimarama has not fully played ball.

First, he publicly criticised New Zealand’s actions and words after the coup as well as its ongoing criticism.

He also said “redefining’’ the relationship and rebuilding the long friendship would not happen unless Fiji was to be treated as an equal.

The condition for returning to the Pacific Islands Forum was New Zealand and Australia stepping back so smaller states were more influential, and excluded New Zealand journalists would stay banned.

Bainimarama led the 2006 coup and took his time before elections were allowed, in September 2014.

Although it was difficult for opposition political parties to function properly, international observers called the elections credible.

Bainimarama had widespread support around Fiji when he overthrew an elected prime minister, and he still appears to be popular.

Sanctions on Fiji were eventually lifted, the nation was readmitted to the Commonwealth and diplomatic relations reestablished.

Against that background, it was up to New Zealand to extend its hand of friendship.

It certainly did so in its strong aid response to February’s Cyclone Winston, when more than 40 people were killed, and Key has gone a step fur-ther.

Labour leader Andrew Little was not opposed to the visit, but says human rights needed to be at the forefront.

Despite Key’s comment about the coup being ancient history, democracy in Fiji remains seriously flawed.

An opposition MP last week was banned from parliament until after 2018 after Fiji’s Parliamentary Privileges Committee, dominated by the gov-ernment, found her guilty after calling a minister a fool.

Amnesty International has said the Government has a stranglehold on freedom of expression.

Bainimarama’s attitude to the media is typical of those in power who believe any substantive criticism represents bias, inaccuracy and trouble-making.

In his words, “certain journalists in New Zealand and Australia and certain journalists in Fiji think nothing of dispensing with the facts if they get in the way of the politically motivated narrative they want to tell’’.

There might be sympathy with such sentiments from politicians, local government leaders and others of influence in the public eye in this country because they often feel set upon by the media.

That, however, is the way it should be.

Prime ministers, mayors, and public body chief executives need to be held to account, to be questioned and to be criticised.

This is expected in New Zealand, but is not usually possible in Fiji.

Despite the concerns, New Zealand has to deal with Fiji as it is.

Just because New Zealand is more powerful does not give it the right to cajole and boss.

Similarly, this country would not want the United States dictating to it.

The defensiveness of Fiji when it feels it is being bullied is understandable.

It would also be hypocritical of New Zealand to have one standard for Fiji and another in the face of, say, the gigantic might of China, a primary trading partner.

Its human rights record and democratic credentials hardly bare scrutiny.

Realism in the world of international relations and trade often trumps ideals.

Nevertheless, New Zealand can raise concerns about democracy and rights with its near neighbours in the Pacific.

These are ideals to keep supporting and aiming for, not just here but also abroad. - ODT