A New Page

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

Note: This week marks the beginning of my second year holding forth on the editorial page of the Daily Post. Thanks to all of you who offered kind words and wise counsel over the last 52 weeks. Thanks especially to the editors and staff of this paper. Your patience, tolerance and assistance have been invaluable.

There’s been a lot of concern of late over the apparent impatience shown by Australia and New Zealand to engage with their Pacific Island neighbours on the PACER Plus round of trade talks. Local commentators have had little good to say about the prospects, and speculation has been rife over what’s really at stake.

The strongest fear expressed by commentators throughout the Pacific is that New Zealand and Australia will use their foreign aid to the region as a stick to bring the small island states into line. Having witnessed the drubbing that Fiji and PNG took in their Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to see their economic health similarly threatened.

This week, Pablo Kang, Australia’s new High Commissioner to Vanuatu, published a surprisingly intemperate letter to the Editor in this newspaper. He was rightly chastised for the distinctly un-Melanesian tone he took in confronting nay-sayers. Vanuatu has spent years assiduously cultivating a cordial, solidly two-way engagement with its development partners that allows it to assert its own priorities. This week’s pronouncements reminded some of a repeat from the Howard/Downer show.

But, lest the baby exit with the bath water, it needs to be said that one key observation that High Commissioner Kang shared with us in undoubtedly true: As things stand right now, PACER Plus is still a blank page.

It’s ours to write on as much as theirs. Maybe more so, if we play our cards right.

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Means and Ends

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

Note for online readers: For more detailed analysis and reporting of the situation in Fiji, I’d recommend the perceptive and well-sourced Coup Four and a Half blog. In its own words:

This blog has been created to allow stories and information that have been supressed or banned by the administration of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, as a result of the decision by the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to impose Public Emergency Regulations, which has led to heavy handed censoring of the media.

Recently, numerous commentators in Vanuatu and other Pacific countries have complained loud and long that Commodore Frank Bainimarama is being treated unfairly by the media. The real bad guys, they say, were the ones who so abused the shambles of Fijian democracy that the army leader was left no choice but to intervene.

Furthermore, they argue, the problems of governance in Fiji are significant enough that holding elections before 2014 (the date recently suggested by the ruling junta) would only result in a return to the same sorry state the nation was in before. In short: Fiji can have its coup now or later, but by having it now, we can rest assured that it’s happening for the right reasons, guided by the right man.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to this argument. It’s true that some reports, especially those appearing in Australian popular media, tend to miss the point that Fijian democracy was deplorably weak when Bainimarama took over. Furthermore, the hard rhetorical line taken by the governments of Australia and New Zealand hasn’t done much to improve the situation for anyone.

Frank Bainimarama is without a doubt a patriot who cares deeply about the welfare of his nation. But the question is whether any single patriot should rule Fiji.

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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.

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