By Bruce Hill - Pacific Beat, Radio Australia
Fiji faces a deadline of Friday next week to announce it’s holding free elections, or it’ll be kicked out of the South Pacific Forum.
It’s very clear that coup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama has no intention of meeting that deadline and so within a week the Pacific will be looking at a very different political set-up.
Nations and interest groups are responding to this in a variety of ways; some are vehemently against expelling Fiji because it’s bad for business, might hamper trade links with smaller states such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, or they want to express some sort of regional solidarity.
Australia and New Zealand are as always, being singled out for especially vehement criticism.
Both nations are being roundly condemned for supporting the Westminster parliamentary system, although so far in my 17 year career as a Pacific specialist reporter I’ve yet to meet a single person who has been able to come up with an alternative system, despite constant talk of indigenous Pacific cultures needing different methods of political expression.
Interestingly enough, some of this criticism is coming from within those countries, from academics whose very freedom to criticise their own countries policies is something that wouldn’t be tolerated if they actually lived in Fiji right now.
Blaming Australia and New Zealand for anything that goes wrong in the Pacific has become something of a reflex action lately.
But if you look behind the headlines, at some of the underlying demographic processes that drive the course of history, a very different picture emerges of the relationship between island states and the two major metropolitan countries.
For a pair of neo-colonial, ignorant, un-nuanced, non-indigenous bullies with a political system transplanted from the other side of the planet and imposed at musket-point, Australia and New Zealand are very popular places for Pacific islanders to live.
The only crowds you see outside their High Commissions and Embassies in Pacific countries are there to apply for visas, not to hurl rocks at the windows.
There are thriving Pacific island communities in both countries, which are doing so well financially that their remittances to family back home are helping prop up otherwise fragile island economies.
Pacific people have been voting with their feet for decades now, and the process is irreversible.
Recently, I had a very illuminating conversation with a High School principal in a Pacific island nation.
He told me that his job was to prepare his pupils for life in Australia or New Zealand, not the country they lived in.
He was blunt in his assessment that young Pacific Islanders face a bleak future if they stay at home, and that their future lies in Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane or Wellington.
In fact, it was the parents of the school pupils who were insisting on this, preferring ex-patriot native English speaking teachers over locals, so their children would get a better grounding in English for when they tried to get a job overseas.
While political elites argue about whether Fiji will alter its foriegn policy alignment away from Australia and New Zealand and towards the Chinese, there are very strong economic, educational, sporting, religious, linguistic and cultural forces at work beneath the surface, which are binding ordinary Pacific people even closer to those two countries.
It’s a process which has been going on for a hundred and fifty years or more, starting with the conversion of the Pacific to Christianity, and continuing ever since, so that now the region is Christian, largely English-speaking and with strong family ties to Australia and New Zealand.
In the case of some of the smaller nations, their diaspora populations overseas are as large - or even larger - than the entire home country.
When that sort of demographic fusion happens, talk about some sort of split between island states on one hand and Australia and New Zealand on the other becomes unrealistic.
Whether the ruling elites in some Pacific countries, which clearly resent the influence of Canberra and Wellington will succeed in altering their foreign policy away from it’s present western orientation, remains to be seen.
But if there’s one lesson to be drawn from the history of western nations, it’s that the desires and the power of ordinary people should not be discounted.