No News is Bad News

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

With headlines like ‘Man Gets On Bus’, and ‘Breakfast As Usual’, Fiji’s beleaguered fourth estate is reporting all the news it feels is still fit – or safe – to print. Such stories are a reaction to Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s extensive power grab this week, which included the abrogation of the national Constitution, removal of judges and senior financial figures, expulsion of Australian and New Zealand-born journalists and censorship of domestic media.

One particularly riveting feature, titled ‘Paint Dry’, recounts the couch painting adventure of a man named Max. The paint, he recounts, “went on wet, but after four hours it started to dry…. That was when I realised, paint dries.

I expect it ran with a four column headline.

In solidarity with my Fijian colleagues, I’ve decided to write about nothing as well. Happily, this is easily done. Even though Port Vila is home to the Melanesian Spearhead Group and PM Edward Nipake Natapei holds the chair this year, I am glad to say that I have nothing to report.

Despite being uniquely positioned to provide sober diplomatic counsel to the increasingly isolated Fijian dictator, despite what our PM describes as a fraternal relationship with one of our closest neighbours, one with whom we have a unique trading relationship, whose culture closely resembles our own, we and our Melanesian brethren have decided to do exactly nothing to prevent Fiji’s descent into constitutional, social and economic crisis.

So, in the space where I might otherwise have observed that, in throwing out the Constitution without so much as a ‘by your leave’, Commodore Bainimarama has left himself with little room to manoeuvre, let me instead tell you just how lovely my frangipani tree is this year. Its fragrant flowers, tinged in the softest rose and yellow hues, have a transient, fragile beauty.

Were this a column of any substance, I might remark on their similarity to Fiji’s tourism industry. Stunning beaches run for miles, uncluttered by tourists. Boutique resorts, once frequented by backpackers, lie picturesque and empty, their charm neglected, their staff sent home.

Instead, I can devote this space to the weather. The gloomy overcast, high winds and heavy rain that beset us this last week have at last cleared away. Were MSG members inclined to do more than bicker over the cost of renting an apartment in Port Vila, I might have been forced to draw an analogy to a ray of light shining across the region after a stormy political setback. Happily, no such comparison is necessary.

I have to admit that I’m glad. It’s so much easier to write about my family’s Easter celebration, which featured much laughter and too much pizza and chocolate, than to venture into the delicate and inordinately complex dynamics of a well-meaning commander who may truly believe himself the defender of his nation, but whose soldier’s philosophy prefers the rule of force to rule of law. I would much rather recount how my 3 year old niece shrieked with delight when she saw her photograph appear on my computer screen than try to explain to an uncomprehending world how this 54 year old self-styled protector of justice has allowed things to come to this pass.

Far better to dwell on the simple pleasures of a walk through Vila’s market house than to wander down memory lane, enumerating the countless failures in democracy and governance experienced by every Melanesian country. Totting up the list alone would take up half my word count. Explaining the many causes, the patchwork quilt of kastom, the tightly raveled web of filialism represented by the wantok system of patronage and support, would require volumes.

Layering on the cross-cultural tensions between ethnic Fijians and their Indo-Fijian neighbours would have been near-impossible. Explaining Bainimarama’s simplistic logic of using arbitrary measures to cast out these inequities and injustices – well, that seems to be beyond the ken of most international commentators. Thank heavens, then, that I can content myself with a pastiche on the variety of life and colour in my garden.

And Heaven help me if I had been left with no recourse but to prognosticate. How could I hope to properly characterise the patient, determined diplomatic dance that represents Fiji’s only hope of escaping economic, political and social collapse? If I had to describe the potential for outright destruction of the very things that the Commodore genuinely wants to defend, to lay out in simple terms just how far from the democratic fold he’s drawn his nation, I honestly don’t know if I’d be up to the task.

How to encapsulate a manageable framework to honestly and positively perform a stock-take on the state of democracy in Melanesia after its first generation of Independence? Engaging in the renewal of political and social engagement, shaped into a uniquely Melanesian form, is truly a place where even our brightest political angels fear to tread.

Small wonder the leadership of the Melanesian Spearhead group would rather issue non-statements, preferring a sincere tut-tutting to action.

Let’s go one better and join our silenced Fijian brethren watching paint dry.