TOUGH LOVE WASTED ON THE ILLEGAL REGIME

Finding our way around Fiji

  • From: The Australian
  • July 14, 2010

Australia’s ‘tough love’ stance is the only option

MORE than three years after the coup that destroyed Fiji’s democracy, Australia remains determined to keep some semblance of diplomatic relations with the Bainimarama regime. Not that Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has many options in dealing with a country that has virtually torn up its constitution, curtailed speech and media freedom, sacked the judiciary, ordered foreigners to sell down media interests to 10 per cent, and makes a habit of ejecting our senior diplomats. Trade sanctions would hurt ordinary people and tit-for-tat diplomacy would end any chance of dialogue, given Fiji has only one representative left in Canberra. Since the December 2006 coup, Australia’s approach has been to stay calm and paddle below the surface.

Commodore Bainimarama says he will hold elections in 2014, but as he lobbies for a $594 million loan from the International Monetary Fund, he may come under pressure to bring them forward, although yesterday he was signalling they could be even later. Since the coup, he has had trouble selling Fiji’s attractions: Moody’s downgraded Fiji two notches from BA2 to B1, unimpressed with its “coup culture” and a 6.6 per cent drop in GDP in 2007. In May this year, Moody’s estimated GDP would fall 2.4 per cent in 2009 before rising by 1.9 per cent in 2010. And while Fiji devalued its dollar by 20 per cent last year, sugar and tourism revenues are under pressure, even with heavily discounted holiday packages. The country’s debt-to-export ratio has almost doubled in the past six years and is estimated by Moody’s to rise to 31 per cent this year.

Fiji is paying a high economic and diplomatic price, but there is little evidence it will back down from martial law. And even as Australia tries to keep the door open, it is difficult, as Mr Smith says, to have a one-way dialogue.

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