By Michael Field
Fiji's military dictator Voreqe Bainimarama says he is "seriously thinking" about cancelling long delayed elections for 2014, because of what he says is constant interference by Australia and New Zealand.
His comment came as he again ejected an Australian diplomat from Suva in the wake of a cancellation of a Melanesian summit next week in Fiji.
Bainimarama told Auckland-based Indian Radio Tarana that he blamed Australia for persuading Vanuatu to cancel the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) meeting.
Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup in 2006, has reneged on earlier promises to restore democracy and last year, when he abrogated the constitution, said there would be no elections before 2014.
Now he is thinking of changing his mind again.
"In fact, I am all of a sudden thinking we might not be ready for 2014 for election if we don't get any assistance from Australia and New Zealand for instance," he told Tarana.
"If we reach 2014 and we are not ready because of constant interfering, we are not going to give up our government to political parties...
"I am seriously thinking about the date of the elections, the interference by these people, but I can tell you nothing is going to stop us from doing what needs to be done continuing on this pathway we need reforms.
"That is going to happen, whether Australia likes or not, whether New Zealand likes it or not, they don't live in Fiji, they don't know what is happening in Fiji."
After last night's cancellation of the MSG Bainimarama ordered the expulsion today of the Acting Australian High Commissioner to Fiji, Sarah Roberts.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully in a statement described the action against Roberts as "completely unjustified and very disappointing".
The expulsion was "counterproductive on almost every level", and rejected any suggestion that Australian and New Zealand pressure was the reason for the collapse of the MSG summit.
Current MSG chair and Vanuatu Prime Minister called off the summit last night with a statement saying the group needed to uphold democratic values.
"It is deeply insulting to ... Natapei to suggest that his decision to defer the MSG meeting was made because of pressure from New Zealand and Australia," Mr McCully said.
"Prime Minister Natapei needed no help from New Zealand or Australia to work out that democratic principles should prevail within the region.
Today's move will further diminish Fiji's standing in the eyes of the region and the international community, and further delay any recovery in the Fijian economy, he added.
"It is also a sign that, despite our best efforts, Fiji still does not place much value on the maintenance of diplomatic relations and dialogue as a means of resolving differences," Mr McCully said.
Fiji, which has been under military coup rule since 2006, had organised the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) summit for next week, bringing together the Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the Melanesian political party in the French territory of New Caledonia. He had also invited small Polynesian nations.
The meeting was trumpeted as recognition of Fiji, particularly after its suspension from the bigger Pacific Forum,
But last night MSG chairman and Vanuatu's Prime Minister, Edward Natapei said they were 'deferring' the summit.
"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," he said.
Bainimarama told the Fiji Sun - a pro-regime daily - that Australia and New Zealand were behind the cancellation.
He said the MSG WAS the only major regional group from which Australia and New Zealand are excluded.
"I'm disappointed," he told the newspaper.
He said Mr Natapei has been listening to Australia and New Zealand who were on a mission to dissolve the MSG.
"Australia and New Zealand are trying to embarrass Fiji by dissolving the MSG. If there is no MSG then MSG leaders will be reluctant to come forward and discuss their issues and problems."
He said Mr Natapei had been the only MSG member opposing the chairmanship of the summit, despite several proposals by Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
"This is because they understand Fiji's role in the summit."
Fiji's military-appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Inoke Kubuabola said the expulsion of the Australian High Commissioner was regrettable, but a direct result of Roberts' interference with the internal affairs of Fiji.
Kubuabola said Fiji had repeatedly relayed concerns to Canberra.
He said the practice of quiet diplomacy was given every chance to prevail by Fiji authorities in their efforts to seek understanding and co-operation, and Roberts had been advised to stop interfering in Fiji's domestic affairs.
"These actions ultimately resulted in undermining the growth prospects of the Fiji economy and the good rapport between Pacific Island countries," he said.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said the decision to expel the Australian high commissioner was both unjustified and disappointing, but Australia would not retaliate.
"I'm not proposing to respond in kind," Smith said.
Fiji is a member of the sub-regional group and Bainimarama has been trying to build his support base with other Melanesian countries in the Pacific.
"We made it quite clear it was inappropriate," Smith said.
"That's the proper reason from Fiji for the expulsion."
Mr Smith said he had spoken to his New Zealand counterpart, Murray McCully, and advised him of the "disappointing, surprising and a regrettably backward step".-Stuff.co.nz