By Graeme Dobell
Australia doesn't get everything it wants in dealing with the arc of islands in the neighbourhood, a reality many Australians seem to miss. Count the new Prime Minister among those subject to the odd regional reality check.
East Timor has just given Julia Gillard a quick and painful demonstration of the limits facing the regional superpower.
This column, however, is about the other side of equation: how Australia often gets much of what it wants in the region. I'm going to desert the commentariat consensus and seek regional coherence and purpose in the way Australia is grappling with Fiji. The key to this perspective is to think about the South Pacific, not just Fiji.
By again expelling Australia's top diplomat in Suva, Frank Bainimarama is lashing out at the rest of the South Pacific, not just at Canberra. The bombast from Fiji's Supremo suggests that Suva is feeling some pressure. And that weight is coming from the region.
This is the decisive point: the region is siding with Australia. Bainimarama berates Australia, but his deeper anger is that the rest of the region agrees with Canberra and distrusts the Supremo.
The diplomatic tug of war is not merely between Suva and Canberra. It is about visions of the region and the definition of regional norms. The ultimate prize in this contest is the ownership and direction of regional instruments. In this fight, Australia and the Pacific Islands Forum have just had a significant win. Granted, such wins are wounding and debilitating for the region: a few more wins like this and we'll all be ruined!
It suits Bainimarama to claim that he is being insulted and assaulted by Australia and New Zealand. The constant narrative from Suva is that Australia is bullying the rest of the Islands to make them stand against Fiji.
But the Melanesian Spearhead Group has blown a giant raspberry at the Bainimarama version of regional reality. The MSG has stripped Fiji of its right to hold a summit in Nadi. The decision was announced by Vanuatu as chair of the MSG, but described as 'a collective decision of the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, the FLNKS and Vanuatu'.
The statement from Vanuatu’s Prime Minister, Edward Natapei, said the group had acted to resolve an 'impasse' over Fiji's chairmanship:
The potential long-term ramifications of allowing Fiji to chair the MSG this time cannot be ignored. There are basic, fundamental principles and values of democracy and good governance that our organisation is built on, and we must continue to uphold them.
Australia could not have said it better: 'basic, fundamental principles and values of democracy’. As the Fiji-born academic Professor Brij Lal dryly comments, Fiji's military regime 'will be taken aback by the robust language used in the communique'. Taken aback? Gobsmacked! Not only has Fiji been kicked out of the Pacific Islands Forum. Suva cannot even bend the MSG to its will.
Bainimarama sought to create a new regional power base for Fiji, inviting all members of the Forum apart from Australia and New Zealand to attend his Nadi summit. The MSG has refused to play.
Understand what this says about the erosion of Fiji's standing in the South Pacific under the Supremo. After the two coups in Fiji in 1987, the rest of the Islands lined up with Fiji against Australia and New Zealand. Back then, the Forum expressed more than understanding for Fiji. The region supported the Fiji military and the regime it installed after throwing out an elected government. No thought then of expelling Fiji from the Forum.
Bainimarama has managed to shred Fiji's role as the heart of regionalism in the South Pacific. This is an amazing bit of serial blundering.
Australia and New Zealand are not alone in mistrusting Bainimarama and what he has done. Canberra and Wellington are just more explicit than the rest of the Forum in expressing their distaste. Australia has played its hand with restraint: not cutting diplomatic links with Fiji, not imposing economic sanctions on Fiji, not cutting aid directed at average Fijians.
The nasties have been aimed at Fiji's elite – travel bans on the regime's cronies and the ejection of Fiji from the regional club which has its secretariat in Suva.
It may not amount to masterful diplomacy, but it gives proper attention to the views of the rest of the South Pacific. Australia has not sought to crush Fiji's economy (Bainimarama is doing that by himself). Such diplomacy means that Australia and New Zealand can stand with the rest of the South Pacific in shunning the Supremo.
Too many Australians see this as weakness by Canberra or – the Gillard mistake again – a failure of Australia to properly assert its regional power. You can detect such assumptions in this comment by the chairman of News Ltd, John Hartigan, responding to the Supremo's move to strip the Fiji Times from News' ownership:
The Australian government has brought little pressure to bear on the military government to hold elections, restore democracy or re-establish the depleted power of Fiji's judiciary, apart from imposing travel bans on regime leaders.
It's easy enough to argue that Australia has been 'confused and contradictory' in dealing with Fiji. Let's not, though, confuse cause and effect. There has been a lot of strange, even bloody-minded behaviour on display, but most of it emanates from the Supremo. Whatever the limits of its power (or diplomacy), Australia can point to mounting evidence that it is closer to the rest of the South Pacific than Fiji. No wonder Bainimarama is angry.
The region agonises, but continues to insist that Fiji, one day, will have to confront its Army curse. Many countries have armies. A few unfortunate places are afflicted by armies which possess the country. Fiji is living that nightmare.