Fiji-Australia meeting “a successful first date”: academic
Originally aired on Dateline Pacific, Tuesday 18 February 2014
An international relations specialist following Fiji-Australia relations has likened last week’s meeting between the two sides to a Valentine’s Day love-in.
Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, held talks with Fiji’s prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, in Suva last week during a visit by the Ministerial Contact Group of the Pacific Islands Forum.
The group was there to check on Fiji’s progress towards elections, but Dr Richard Herr – who holds posts at the University of Tasmania and the University of Fiji – says for Australia there was a more important agenda.
Dr Richard Herr: I think the reality is that the meeting was a bilateral meeting in essence for Australia to use the opportunity to seek some sort of rapprochement with Fiji.
Sally Round: It’s been variously described as warm, positive, and, by Commodore Bainimarama, fruitful. Does it represent a real rapprochement given that there was apparently no discussion of an exchange of ambassadors and no outright lifting of travel sanctions?
RH: Yes, I think both sides went to considerable lengths to avoid raising issues that were going to make it disruptive. They took the view it was an initial meeting. It needed to establish what the nature of the relationship was going to be in terms of the personalities involved and from all accounts including the people that were there privately after the cameras left, they said the warmth was real and continued.
SR: Yet the Attorney-General afterwards said travel sanctions still being in place was economic sabotage.
RH: Yes, I think this is one of the points, as you say they didn’t discuss the really difficult issues. They put them on the table and Ms Bishop made the point she would be reviewing the travel sanctions, she’d be looking at a variety of issues and taking some of these back to cabinet. Now the interesting thing about taking them back to cabinet is that it actually means that the decision on some of these issues won’t be made until after the Commodore hangs up his military uniform which he is due to do in less than a fortnight. Indeed at the end of February he says he will surrender his command, he will simply be a civilian – Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
SR: Will Commodore Bainimarama be seeing this meeting with Julie Bishop as helping his campaign to be elected as prime minister perhaps?
RH: No. Again I think it’s the wrong end of the stick to try and interpret it as Fiji grasping the last attempt to repair relations with Australia. They were perfectly prepared to go the election under the old circumstances if necessary and indeed some of the sceptics thought that was precisely what was going to happen but what it does do is give a chance for Australia and Fiji to make sure the election isn’t the only purpose for restoring relationships – we can start before the election, we can start looking at areas where the relationship has become mutually toxic and unhelpful and try and produce a more balanced relationship, so it doesn’t all depend on whether we like the outcome of the election.