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By R. Vrati

SYDNEY, Australia (September 1, 2002)---At the mid-August Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit in Suva the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, announced a series of tough new measures. In the future, Australian aid to Pacific island countries would be conditional upon improved governance, law and order.

"You can't attract foreign investment, you can't even attract domestic investment, if you don't have proper standards of law and order and governance," said Mr. Howard.

Pacific island nations are today in turmoil. Before the coups of 1987, the nations of the Pacific looked to Fiji as a leader and role model in matters of governance and external affairs. Under the strong leadership of the Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Prime Minister of Fiji from 1970 to 1987, Fiji was admired as nation not only in the Pacific region but also in the world, for its political stability, economic progress and racial tolerance. By 1987 Fiji was heading along the same path as the fast growing developing nations of Southeast Asia. Many Pacific island nations tried to use the Fiji model for their own economic development.

Fiji's progress could be partly attributed to the policies of its large Pacific neighbor - Australia. In the early 1980s, Australia opened its markets on a non-reciprocal basis to Pacific island products and Fiji quickly took advantage of this opportunity. Almost overnight Fiji created a flourishing garment industry. It uncovered latent skills when opportunity knocked, and, by the late 1980's, Fiji garment exports exceeded $200 million. Other island nations, keen to emulate Fiji's success, began training workers in the garment industry.

However, the enthusiasm that swept Fiji was short lived. In 1987 a third ranking officer in the Fiji army staged a coup in the name of his people. His people, the indigenous Fijians, were the greatest beneficiaries of the rapid economic progress of post-independent Fiji.

Fiji today is politically unstable. Other Pacific island countries have similar problems. No legitimately elected government is sure of its durability. Good governance and the respect for law and order are things of the past in the once peaceful Pacific islands. If the current trend continues, Fiji will join the ranks of its neighbors with zero economic growth and empty national coffers.

Fiji's sugar industry is in difficulties, due to the jealousy the extreme indigenous Fijians feel towards the Indo Fijians, and due to the lack of reforms. The sugar industry has a top-heavy administrative structure, has never given clear thought to its future, and relies on existing markets and the outdated arrangements between the growers and the landholders. The industry has not diversified into new fields, expanded production for new markets, or introduced mechanization. Many developing countries are moving their sugar industry to marginal lands, making fertile lands available for intensive farming. Fiji still grows its sugarcane in fertile fields despite the abundance of alternative land. In his recent assessment of the Australian Sugar Industry, Mr. Clive Hilderbrand pointed out that cane growers and their families may well be pillars of their communities, but by delaying reform for so long they have left the sugar industry in Australia in a parlous state.

Fiji has the largest mahogany plantation in the world, which is reaching maturity for logging, processing and export. The lucrative markets of the U.S. and Europe are clamoring for legitimately harvested mahogany timber. But instead of seizing this opportunity our government has made no progress due to the infighting amongst the landowners. While they squabble over their slice of the cake the value of the over-matured mahogany resource will decline, and the threat of destruction from introduced pests will increase. Instead of fighting over millions of dollars these landowners, who seem to have forgotten that they ceded plantation rights in law to the government, may end up fighting over nothing.

Fiji is blessed with abundant sea resources. Here too there is constant a squabble over ownership rights. Genuine investors, who are willing to put millions of dollars in aquatic projects, invariably leave the country in frustration. To them, Fiji is a poor country determined to remain poor.

The newly elected government of Fiji led by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase is trying hard to settle into governing the country but has been unable to find a footing. Its policies are lopsided and not generally accepted. Mr. Qarase is trying very hard, but he has not sufficiently distanced himself from the perpetrators of George Speight's coup. He has yet to demonstrate that his policies are designed to benefit all, and not just the extreme nationalists that paved his way to power. His government is busy trying to prove its legitimacy both locally and overseas. Once the court challenge to his government's legitimacy is over it is hoped that the Prime Minister will expand his horizons. He has always been regarded as a moderate and reasonable person.

Mr. Qarase said recently that never before in Fiji's history have the two major races drifted so far apart. Seeds of hatred were sown when George Speight sacked Parliament in May 2000. When asked by reporters to explain the reason for his overthrow of a democratically elected government, George Speight was at first stunned. Later, when reminded by others of the Rabuka coups of 1987, he suggested that he had staged the coup for the welfare of the indigenous people of Fiji. Instead of explaining what he meant he launched into a long diatribe against the Indo Fijian population of Fiji. George Speight is now in jail, but many have taken up his popular slogan for the supremacy of the indigenous race at the expense of all other races of the country, including progressive indigenous Fijians.

Mr. Qarase seems to have been forced by his colleagues to jump on the bandwagon of George Speight's rhetoric. The archaic policy of affirmative action program, which is funded by the whole nation for the benefit of only the native population, is one example. One of the architects of the affirmative action program is Dr. Mahathir of Malaysia. Today he has stated that the policy favoring one race over another has been a failure in Malaysia because it has created a lazy class of bhumiputras, who wait for handouts and special favors, while the rest of the community has forged ahead in the competitive world. Fijians need opportunity through education, training and skills -- not handouts. To many indigenous Fijians affirmative action is a slap in the face, suggesting that they be of a lesser caliber, lacking the skills, intelligence and ability of the rest of the community. This is far from the truth. Fijians have proven that they are neither inferior nor superior to any other race when given an equal opportunity for participation.

The former Prime Minister of Fiji, Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, is not providing an effective opposition. It is difficult to understand why he is determined to join Mr. Qarase's government when he and his party could be highlighting the government's defects while in opposition. Mr. Chaudhry claims that the Constitution allows him to sit in the Qarase Cabinet and Mr. Qarase cannot reject him because of the different policies of the two parties. However, Mr. Chaudhry used similar reasons to prevent Vakavulewa ni Taikei (SVT) members joining his government when he won election in 1999.

Mr. Chaudhry is aggrieved that the perpetrators who overthrew his government have not been properly dealt with. In this regard he should allow the judicial process to take its course. He is not the first person in a democracy who has had to confront such an unpleasant situation. By refusing to move on from the unfortunate events of May 2000, Mr. Chaudhry is harming himself and his cause. One is reminded of Mr. Gough Whitlam, the former Prime Minister of Australia, who was dismissed by his Governor General. It took years for Mr. Whitlam to come to terms with his treatment. In the end he resigned his seat, because his obsession was prejudicial to himself, his party and his country.

In the world's strongest democracy, the United States of America, Mr. Al Gore, the presidential candidate, thought that he had rightfully won the last presidential election. After a brief a court battle he decided it was preferable to have a stable nation rather then a squabbling leadership battle. In India, the world's largest democracy, Mr. Attal Bihari Bajpai only took the reigns of power when he was ready to govern, ignoring his previous opportunity. And most recently, in Papua New Guinea, the Prime Minister, Mekere Morauta, although aggrieved because elections were not properly conducted, reluctantly stepped aside to allow Michael Somare to form a government. To win back power, Mr. Chaudhry and his party will have to convince the electorate that they have suitable policies and programs. At present there is a perception that policies and programs are not on his agenda. While Mr. Chaudhry nurses his grievances, self-seeking individuals and optimistic hangers on are benefiting from disunity.

In other island countries of the Pacific political instability has led to economic backwardness. Agencies established to promote trade and investment have failed. Foreign investors hate instability - their dollars go to projects where their dollars are safe.

Political instability has hampered the efforts of international aid agencies and compounded their inherent inefficiencies. It was very timely for Mr. Howard to tell the island countries that they need to pull up their socks if they are going to get more handouts from the taxpayers of Australia. The island countries, he said, must provide better governance, law and order, and an environment of stability to encourage locals and foreigners to invest. Without law and order the island countries will depend on handouts and will not be motivated to develop their own economies.

The island leaders should not be offended by Mr Howard's remarks. Instead, they should prove that they have the ability to provide leadership for the development of their nations. Peter Urban, former Chief economist with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, recently called for the Pacific Islands Forum's free ride to end. He said, "While the South Pacific is critical to our security interest, governments in PNG and across the South Pacific now have to fix their own economies and their own societies. It is because of this critical importance that we have to take a seemingly tough stand. If we don't do this now, we will face far larger problems down the track." For far too long the people of PNG and of many other countries across the South Pacific have suffered terribly at the hands of their political leaders, while Australia has stood impotently aside and wasted taxpayer funds on handouts.

The people of the Pacific who have lived in poverty and ill health for too long are asking for more fundamental change. They are asking if their leaders will ever be ready to govern. They see the wasting of their natural resources, the decline of their national coffers, the increase in unemployment and inflation. They have witnessed political turmoil, and they understand the economic and political links. In the future, some island nations may have to ask their developed partners to take over a number of their governmental responsibilities, such as policing, foreign affairs and defense. This form of neo-colonialism may be needed to allow these nations to concentrate all their resources on the problems of economic development.

In light of the political chaos in the Pacific, it would be timely if the Forum member countries at their next meeting could place on the agenda plans for political stability. This would be far more fruitful than long diatribes concerning the environment, terrorism and globalism. While these topics are important, their discussion brings no immediate benefit to the people of the Pacific. The island countries possess vast agricultural, fishing, mining and forestry resources. Sustainable development through the sensible exploitation of these resources, combined with selfless leadership and political stability, is the only way to pull the nations of the Pacific back from the brink of poverty and anarchy.

R. Vrati Former Fiji Public Servant Liverpool Sydney Email: 

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