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By GRAHAM DAVIS
(Fiji born and educated, Mr Davis is an international award winning Australian journalist. He blogs at grubsheet.com.au)
For a country that’s always prided itself on its Pacific ties and its knowledge of the region, New Zealand badly misread the situation in Fiji. In common with Australia, it clearly thought it could bring the Bainimarama regime to heel with its hard-line policy of diplomatic isolation and so-called smart sanctions.
Yet it’s now having to come to terms with the failure of that policy and the humiliating realisation of NZ impotence on its doorstep.
Certainly, none of it looks especially smart in retrospect when NZ is obliged to sit on the sidelines as Fiji formulates a new constitution and begins registering ordinary voters for its promised election in 2014.
Some tentative re-engagement is taking place in terms of assistance with voter registration but the substantive sanctions – such as travel bans on anyone associated with the regime – remain in place.
Worse, Wellington and Canberra continue to exclude Fiji from regional forums such as the Pacific Forum and global forums like the Commonwealth. That’s irked their ANZUS partner – the United States -which counted on them to protect their joint stake in the region.
The heightened American presence in Fiji and its closer ties with the government reflect genuine concern that Australian and NZ disengagement has greatly boosted the interests of China – Washington’s global rival.
Rather than fulfill its duty to critically examine government policy and lay out alternatives for the electorate, the NZ media has been the principal cheerleader for the government’s tough stance.
Chief among the hardliners have been the New Zealand Herald and Fairfax Media, whose main writer on Fiji, – Michael Field – has been one of the Government’s harshest critics.
Dissenters have been ruthlessly sidelined, notably the academic commentators Crosbie Walsh and Professor David Robie, who’ve found their more conciliatory views ignored, even suppressed, by mainstream media outlets.
Yet mercifully, cracks are finally appearing in the “group-think” and “group-speak” of NZ Inc. Last Thursday, Nevil Gibson, the editor of NZ’s hugely influential National Business Review, broke with the pack with this piece -Fiji says “Bula” to renaissance- that extolled the economic virtues of the Bainimarama regime.
“Since seizing power, the Bainimarama government has run a tight ship that has promoted the benefits of investment and an open economy.
“This has meant while the regime has faced opposition from Australia and New Zealand – driven by old-school diplomats – the local and foreign business community have remained confident.”
Given the unrelenting negativity of the NZ media for the past five years, Grubsheet couldn’t believe its eyes. Could this guy really be suggesting that contrary to the dire predictions of his government of imminent economic collapse in Fiji, the country is actually doing pretty well? Wow, he is!
But within days comes another surprise from another Kiwi exposed to the reality in Fiji – this offering from Stephen Franks, the former ACT Party MP and principal of specialist Wellington law firm Franks and Ogilvie.
“I met no one who wanted the undemocratic chiefly rule back or the demagogic Indian Labour Party. Unprompted, different people told me of their respect for Bainimarama, including an Indian tourist operator, two taxi drivers, two long term expat business people from Europe, several indigenous Fijians, and some Tuvalan Fijians…
They like Bainimarama’s even-handedness among the races, his hostility to corruption, and the relative efficiency of the military governors in their districts. They respect the obstacles he’s faced. Of course they’d prefer freedom and functioning democracy, but they cannot see a way to it. So in the meantime they are grateful that their dictator is benign. All this raises some questions. Why are accounts like these so glaringly absent from the mainstream NZ media – from Television NZ, from Radio NZ and the country’s opinion forming newspapers?
Why is the coverage of Fiji so one dimensional, the constant bleat about an immediate return to democracy “because we say so” and with no apparent attempt to understand or explain the reform process that will lead to a fairer democracy?
It’s surely only a matter of time when ordinary New Zealanders wake up to the fact that they’ve been deprived of both the real story and the full story on Fiji. When the lights in what Kiwis like to think of as God’s Own Country finally come on.