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Abbott must bring Fiji in from cold

By Anthony Bergin

THE Coalition's foreign policy statement, released just prior to the election, promised to work with Fiji to normalise relations as soon as possible.

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has indicated he would welcome the Coalition's making good on this promise.

Of course, it takes two to tango; both sides will have to agree to get on the dance floor.

Bainimarama has long bristled at the "interim PM" label Australia has put on him. He associates the open mocking of him and his government by our media with the Australian government's support for such reporting.

As much as some in Suva would like Bainimarama to be invited to Canberra for talks on re-engagement, the Fiji government recognises this would court disaster if the meeting failed to live up to expectations. The October 10 Fiji Day celebrations could be used to mark some symbolic reconciliation, if the Abbott government has the will to help mark the occasion appropriately.

A visit by soon-to-be foreign minister Julie Bishop would be welcomed in Suva. (As she'd be in Brunei for the East Asia Summit on Fiji Day, she could send her parliamentary secretary.)

Getting the atmospherics right is critical for building trust in the longer term. But the immediate need is to address some irritants in the relations.

The sine qua non of keeping the Coalition's promise to normalise relations will depend on lifting the travel bans.

The sanctions regime of the past 6 1/2 years has failed to achieve any useful outcome. Worse, some have worked against the early return to democracy. Preventing qualified civilians from taking up positions with the Fiji government has only intensified the need to rely on able military officers to staff upper levels of the public service.

Lifting of some sanctions, especially the travel bans, is a necessary early gesture from Fiji's perspective. That's the least the Bainimarama administration expects from the new Australian government. Fiji's new constitution came into force on the Saturday the Coalition was elected to power. The constitution has generally received positive reviews despite some criticism on the process and its content.

Setting aside the travel bans could be a gesture of good faith pending further talks. Indeed, it's difficult to see how meaningful engagement on normalising relations could be pursed without lifting travel bans.

There can be no objection to an immediate and unconditional lifting of sanctions against the family members of sanctioned officials on grounds of natural justice and fairness. The same applies to any civilian taking a position with the Bainimarama government working for a return to parliamentary democracy.

This should also include public service positions, whether related to elections or not. It would help restore civilian authority in the public service.

The Abbott government will have to come to terms with the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. The RFMF will remain part of the Fijian political scene, even after next year's elections in Fiji.

Our defence engagement with Fiji will be an important part of our bilateral relationship. Sanctions on the repair of the three patrol boats we donated to Fiji some years ago have been dysfunctional for both Fiji and for regional security.

The restoration of defence attaches and other aspects of normalised relations, such as assistance to Fiji's military officer training school and the participation of Fiji officers in our military colleges, will need to be included in the Coalition's approach.

The Abbott government will have to do something significant to redeem its pre-election promise or Fiji will assume the election was simply a continuation of business as usual in Canberra.

Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin are co-authors of Our Near Abroad: Australia and Pacific islands regionalism, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.


Originally published by: The Australian on 13 Sep 2013