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Future of Australia-Fiji Relations:

A Post-Elections Analysis
Guest: Jenny Hayward-Jones
Published: October 9, 2014

In December 2007, you wrote of the importance
of Australia taking leadership in governance and
diplomacy, and the value of demonstrating
respect in relations with Melanesia. In that article,
you were particularly referencing progress in
relations between Australia-Solomon Islands and
Australia-Papua New Guinea. Therein, you
claimed there is a need for Australia to match
extensive investment in development assistance
and security in the region with a much deeper
understanding of Melanesian culture and society.
Yet, Australia and New Zealand continue to be
accused of putting Pacific Island Countries in the
too hard basket when it comes to genuine
engagement and policy-making. Your
recommendation in 2007 was for authentic
engagement with Melanesia beyond the realm of
the aid program. Seven years on, how successful
has Australia been in demonstrating a deeper
understanding of Melanesian culture and
society? Are the Pacific Island Countries still in
the too hard basket for Australia?
I think Australias recent governments and their
leaders; Prime Minister Rudd, Prime Minister Gillard,
the incumbent Prime Minister Abbott and the current
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have been trying to
expand the relationship between Australia and the
Pacific Islands beyond just aid and trade. The focus
has turned to building good relationships on a
personal level. Julie Bishop - Australias current
Foreign Minister is particularly good at building
personal relationships she understands the
importance of knowing the people not relying on
her officials to know Pacific Island officials and she
has a real love for PNG, having invested in building
relationships with womens groups and other local
organisations in PNG.
I dont agree that the Pacific is considered in the too
hard basket from Australias perspective. Pacific
cultures are perhaps not easily familiar or easily
comprehensible for the average Australian politician.
This doesnt mean it is too hard a task; there just
needs to be that time spent trying to understand. To
be fair, it is difficult at times for Australian officials to
allocate time to improve and deepen understanding
of the diverse Pacific due to the demands of the
domestic agenda. [That said,] I want to make the
point too that it is important to distinguish between
Australian officials, Australia organisations and
individuals who have long standing relationships
with those from the Pacific. Many Australians have a
deep understanding of the Pacific - have spent
much time there, many have lived there and are
personally invested in the region.
On September 17 2014, Fiji held its first free
election since the 2006 coup. Australia and New
Zealand were significantly invested in this
election. This speaks to an understanding of the
regional significance of Fiji. It seems Canberra
has learnt that it needs Fijian cooperation to
implement regional initiatives on issues from
security through to development. Researchers at
the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) claim
that since Australia and New Zealand moved to
isolate Fiji economically and diplomatically in
2006, Australia has lost significant influence in
the region. Further, ODI states that it is unlikely
that pre-coup relations - where Fiji was
considered Australia and New Zealands private
backyard - will ever return; positing that Australia
now has to share this space with China. Does
Chinas established presence in Fiji spell an end
not just to Australias dominance but any kind of
meaningful influence in the nations future? What
about the Pacific Island Region as a whole in the

Pacific Islands Society | Interviews | October 9, 2014
I do agree that Australia now shares the Pacific
space with China but of course this space is
not shared solely with China. There is New
Zealand, the United States, the United
Kingdom, the European Union there many
other countries that have an interest in the
Pacific. It is worth noting that there are many
who are investing in the Pacific for the purpose
of leveraging United Nation votes.

I dont believe this is a matter of competition
between China and Australia this is an era
where we are seeing a lot countries interested
in the Pacific and interested in investing aid in
the Pacific... some of it is from a place of
wanting to do good things for the region, others
hold a clear agenda for example when
countries like Luxembourg and Turkey offer aid
to Pacific Island countries while they are
campaigning for a temporary seat on the UN
Security Council, it is pretty clear why they are
suddenly interested in the Pacific.

Yes, China is increasingly interested in the
Pacific, but China is also increasingly interested
in Africa and the Caribbean and is relatively
much more heavily invested in Africa we must
be wary of considering the Pacific as being
particularly special for the government in

In terms of international interest and investment,
I believe that Pacific Island countries are
effectively taking advantage of this new interest
for example a few years back many Pacific
governments were using the tension between
Taiwan and China to leverage aid investment
through officially recognising either state.

The Pacific can be very smart in recognising
why different countries are interesting in
spending on them and have historically and still
are leveraging the interest of larger powers. We
should recognise the opportunity here for the

So Fiji now has this well-established relationship
with China on an economic plane, at least at face
value; do you think Chinas influence will have
any impact on the progress of Fiji back to full
democratic rule?

We have no evidence of China trying to
influence democratic processes, or who is in
government in its engagement with the Pacific.
An example is the Loans Agreement 2006
between Fiji and Australia it was pre-coup
with the elected government of the time. China
doesnt appear to have a preference to dealing
with democratic or autocratic governments in its
operations in the Pacific.

What may be a potential risk, however this is a
global risk non-specific to the Pacific region, is
Chinas economic model heralded as largely
successful, which was achieved without the
provision of democratic freedoms for its people.
The danger is in the potential for the success of
this model to influence governments not
inclined towards democracy. Those
governments inclined towards authoritarian rule
might use this successful model as justification
for a non-democratic model of government.

Do you think Australia has missed the boat? Was
eight years without revision of sanctions of
isolation too long to leave Fiji figuratively
unattended? In your recent article, you offer
suggestions to progress Australias re-
engagement with Fiji to keep the momentum
going following the election. Will the Australian
Carrot you recommend to lure Fiji back i.e.
enhanced military relationships - be enough to
encourage commitment to parliament-to-
parliament partnerships and knowledge sector
partnerships or is it too little, too late? Do these
offerings speak clearly enough to Fijis
contextual development interests?

To that point, a recent article in the Fiji Times
outlines key developmental risks in Fiji including
a decline of key sectors, a vulnerable tourism
industry and rural poverty. Should economic
empowerment, trade and improved labour
mobility be of greater focus in future Australia-
Fiji partnerships such as the assured inclusion
in proposed expansion of the Seasonal Workers
Pacific Islands Society | Interviews | October 9, 2014
Program (SWP) was mentioned by Australian
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop earlier this year?

No, there is no guarantee the military carrot will
be enough however it seems to be the most
attractive offering to those currently in power in
Fiji. The value of interactions with a first class
military like Australias is something Fijian
military leaders place in high regard and is an
opportunity not easy to replicate for a military
the size of Fijis. I believe this is the most
attractive thing Australia can currently offer Fiji
that it doesnt already. Australia is already Fijis
most significant economic partner and largest
source of tourism.

In terms of inclusion in the SWP I agree with this
as a tactic. However, the SWP - as it currently
stands - is unfortunately not large enough yet to
make a real difference. Symbolically (though)
there is definitely value in Fijis inclusion in the
program. And, it will of course be of great value
to those directly employed. I would encourage
Australia to continue to seek to open its labour
market not only to Fijians but to all Pacific
Islanders. Improved labour mobility is
something with the potential to make a real
difference for the region as a whole.

Australia seems to be the most concerned about
Fijis capacity to self-manage its path back
towards democracy, out of all of the countries
save maybe Samoa. Fiji recently demonstrated
its capacity to hold a relatively free and fair
election; what do you think about the argument
that Australia should give Fiji the benefit of the
doubt for once and just step back a little from
Fijis path?

I think we are already in that phase Australia
effectively stepped back in revoking sanctions
in place since 2006 and re-engaging with Fiji in
February this year. There is a risk in Australia
stepping back too far the danger is someone
like Frank Bainimarama who has now been
elected but whose only experience as the
leader of Fiji is authoritarian in nature may not
adjust to governing as a democratic leader. He
may not be inclined to guarantee other
democratic freedoms if he feels he has a
mandate which vindicates his previous
approach to governing.
I believe that the people of Fiji deserve support
in their goals to achieve a return to democratic
governance. Australia therefore needs to
continue the discussion on the value of
democratic institutions and may be the only
country ready and willing to take on that
responsibility. Here is an opportunity for
Australia to take a nuanced approach, without
trying to impose the Australian way of
achieving that.

To that point - what of the optics then, of
Australia leveraging military-to-military
partnerships for the purpose of encouraging
further commitment to democratic institutions?
Could this seem paradoxical to utilise such a
method to encourage democracy? Does it
challenge your suggestion for a nuanced
approach to encouraging the Fiji governments
further commitment to democratic institutions
given the barriers that the military historically
represented to achieving democracy in Fiji?

I agree with the sentiment in your question,
however realistically, we cant ignore the
importance of the military in Fiji nor the very real
role the Fijian military has played in the
formation of the current elected government.
The Fijian military is a very well established
institution and I dont think we can assume
either that any interactions between the
Australian military and the Fijian military will
have any real impact in influencing either way
any future coup behaviour.

What I do think, is that military relationships can
be leveraged for good in other areas to build
personal relationships between those currently
in power in Fiji and Australia and use this to
build understanding, perhaps align
perspectives, and hopefully further enable the
ongoing progress of Fijian governance for the
good of the Fijian people.

Pacific Islands Society | Interviews | October 9, 2014


Jenny Hayward-Jones is the Director of the
Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute for
International Policy.


Lora Vaioleti is the Adjunct Fellow for Polynesian
Affairs at the Pacific Islands Society.


The views expressed respectively are those of
the interviewer and interviewee.