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April 10, 2001

By Bruce Hill

New Zealand’s firm and self-confident diplomatic approach to Fiji in the wake of the recent ham-fisted racist coup attempt appears to have raised some hackles among supporters of Fijian nationalism.

Well it would, wouldn’t it?

Those in the region who are the first to decry what they see as ignorance by outsiders of cultural values in the islands cannot possibly expect to see principles of free speech, democracy and rule of law casually trampled upon and not get a strong reaction from a nation dedicated to upholding precisely those values.

And nor are these "western" or "foreign" implants, being forced on an unwilling population with their own indigenous way of doing things.

Increasingly this is what people all over the world want for themselves and their children, because it’s the best way to secure a prosperous and secure future.

And that goes for the Pacific as well, including Fiji.

And in a sense, that’s precisely what motivated Speight and his gang of thugs to stroll into parliament, wave some weapons around and announce that they would henceforth be in charge – they knew that the old power system which relied in part on ignorance, cronyism and inherited privilege no longer has the support of the people that it once did.

With a vigorous free press, neutral rule of law and a political system which vests power in the people, there is increasingly little place for the cozy cronyism of the past - for example the wholesale looting of the National Bank of Fiji by an entire class of politically-connected "Pajero Taukei".

It is hard to see how New Zealand could have taken any stand on the events of May 19th and subsequently other than to be completely appalled and insist that Fiji be returned to constitutionality as soon as possible.

That hardly constitutes insensitivity; unless you count insensitivity to the feelings of a political class which fears it will lose its wealth and power if the ordinary citizens of Fiji are permitted to express their wishes.

A friend is someone who will tell you the truth. New Zealand is Fiji’s friend, maybe the only real friend it has in the world.

Because the truth is that if Fiji cannot bring itself to enter the modern globalize world, with standards of accountability, transparency, rule of law and personal freedom, it will slip behind and be forgotten

Investors do not have to come to Fiji, and cannot be bullied into doing so.

If contracts cannot be enforced by a neutral court system, then the managers of global investment funds will simply keep their money in their pockets and move on to a more attractive country.

And Fiji will become a poor, unstable third-world hellhole with beggars on the streets, and its children will grow up with little hope of having a better life.

And no one else in the world will care if that happens.

No one will ride to the rescue.

Fiji just isn’t that important in the global scheme of things.

That is what New Zealand has been saying.

Perhaps it has been saying it louder than it has in the past, but only because the stakes are higher and more urgent than ever before.

New Zealand would be failing in its duty as a true friend of Fiji if it did not say these things.

Nationalism of any kind can be a highly addictive and dangerous drug, blinding the user to reality and helping him live in a dream world of his own construction.

If you had a friend doing drugs, you would not sit back and let him kill himself, would you?

Sure, he might lash out and accuse you of having bad manners and insensitivity, but that hardly matters in such a life or death crisis does it?

It’s also incorrect to label New Zealand as an outsider in the region.

By 2050, one third of the population will be of Maori or Pacific Islands descent.

Already there are four Pacific Island MPs in Parliament, one of them a cabinet minister.

The much maligned foreign minister, Phil Goff, has already shown he intends to maintain the tradition begun by Don McKinnon of taking a planeload of New Zealand MPs, officials and journalists to the region on a regular basis, precisely so decision makers can get first-hand experience of local conditions.

And his associate minister, Matt Robson, has long been a vocal critic of Tonga’s feudal monarchy, going back well to when he was a lowly opposition MP.

One of the reasons for his focus on Tonga, he says, is input from his Tongan constituents.

And this points up another factor - New Zealand is increasingly influential in internal politics in many island states precisely because of its growing Pacific population who are knowledgeable about conditions back in their countries of origin.

And this perspective is feeding back into New Zealand’s political system, as well as into local politics in the islands.

Tongan families in New Zealand have been sending back videotapes of a New Zealand television expose of the Minister of Police, which are now being played at faikavas all over the Kingdom.

The Times of Tonga is published in Auckland in part because publisher Kalafi Moala can be reasonably assured he won’t have his door kicked off its hinges at 3am and be dragged off to prison on a trumped up charge.

Samoa’s opposition SNDP election campaign this year was in part organized with the assistance of New Zealand-based Samoans, who brought a more professional approach and brought the party its best result in years.

New Zealand is also the home base now for the Niuean and Tokeleauan languages and cultures, as there are more Niueans and Tokelauans in New Zealand than in their home countries, and that is becoming true of the Cook Islands as well.

The Samoan language is now the third most widely spoken tongue in New Zealand, behind English.

Galumalemana Alfred Hunkin of Victoria University is working on a definitive Samoan dictionary, after getting Samoan adopted as an official School Certificate subject.

And Victoria University’s new Pacific Studies Degree is taught by Teresia Teaiwa, who wote the single most insightful article on the real reasons for the May 19th coup yet published.

I have been lucky enough to work for both Radio New Zealand International and Radio Australia, and in my nine years of covering Pacific affairs I have become more and more convinced that the future of New Zealand is inextricably linked to the islands.

Not as an outsider, lecturing and hectoring, but as a friend who sincerely wants to help.

Sometimes that friend will have to tell you harsh truths.

But do not write this off as insensitive or ignorant.

More and more, New Zealand’s approach to the region is that of an insider.

And as the university-educated, middle-class second and third generations of Pacific people continue to grow in influence and political savvy, that insider understanding is becoming more apparent in policy decisions.

Perhaps the real problem is not that Wellington doesn’t understand the Pacific, but that it understands only too well.


Bruce Hill [pacificreporter@hotmail.com] has reported on the Pacific for nearly nine years, first with Radio New Zealand International, and currently with Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat. He won the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs Radio Media Prize in 1997 for his coverage of New Zealand’s role in the Bougainville peace process, and was runner up the next year for his coverage of the Aitape tsunami disaster.

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