New Zealand PM: Time Is Right To Visit Fiji

PM John Key

Key’s trip first since coup in 2006

By Benedict Collins, Political Reporter

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio New Zealand International, June 8, 2016) – Prime Minister John Key believes the time is right for his visit to Fiji this week, despite ongoing issues over democracy on the islands.

Mr Key's official visit will be the first by a New Zealand Prime Minister since Frank Bainimarama overthrew the Fijian government in a military coup in 2006.

Two years ago, Mr Bainimarama became Fiji's democratically elected prime minster but his government's treatment of opposition politicians and the press remains an issue.

Mr Key told reporters recently that Prime Bainimarama's military coup was ancient history, and that he was going to Fiji because it returned to democracy when it held elections in 2014.

He said the time was right for the highest-level diplomatic relations to resume.

"Actually Frank Bainimarama's been quite popular and doing quite well there, I'm not saying it's absolutely perfect, but there are probably quite a few countries in the world that have a form of democracy that we wouldn't say is perfect.

"The advice that we got at the time was that the elections were free and fair insomuch as people could actually vote, and we're at the point now where we have accepted that first move," Mr Key said.

Fiji has blacklisted some New Zealand journalists for their reporting and Mr Key said he may raise the issue with his counterpart.

"We believe absolutely passionately in the freedom of the press, and the press should be free to travel."

Labour leader Andrew Little had no qualms about Mr Key's visit, as long as human rights were at the forefront.

"Part of John Key's dialogue has to be to take up those human rights issues - if we want to engage with Fiji or we want genuine improvement in the relationship it's got to be on our values, which are the values of freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right of citizens to do as they wish."

In the Fijian election in 2014 voters were presented with a voting paper that looked like a Sudoku puzzle with a grid of three-digit numbers - the numbers matched candidates but voters were not allowed to take the numbers into the booths when they voted.

New Zealand First leader and former foreign minister Winston Peters said that was proof the Fijian election in 2014 was not free and was demonstrably unfair.

"Well, lets be honest - if you have an election where the people vote for a number, and not a name, that's almost unique."

"Now, Mr Key might think that is an adequate recovery of democracy - I personally don't, and no serious person would."

In February this year Fiji was pummelled by the category-five Cyclone Winston.

Mr Key will visit Naiyala village which was hard hit and that the Defence Force helped to rebuild.

In the cyclone's wake, 500 New Zealand Defence Force personnel spent seven weeks in Fiji, initially helping assess the damage from the air before engineers helped make areas safe and assisted with the rebuild.

Major General Tim Gall said it was one of the Defence Force's largest peace-time deployments.

"So after the initial response which was very much about food, water and medical support it then became about trying to restore some sort of state of normality.

So it was really important for instance, for the Fijians to get the kids back to school so that the parents could be freed up to actually deal with their crops and fix their houses and do things like that," he said.

Last week, an opposition MP in Fiji was banned until after Fiji's 2018 election after she was found guilty of name-calling by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee, which consists of four government MPs.

Amnesty International said it reflected the Fijian government's stranglehold on the freedom of expression.

Radio New Zealand International
Copyright © 2016 RNZI. All Rights Reserved

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