Fiji is getting a strong dose of khaki democracy as its de facto military rulers shift from “go slow” to “go fast” on the road to elections they’ve promised next year. It’s a shift that could create big problems forNew Zealand.

This week, Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama is coming home to a stormy political scene in the country he’s ruled for six years after Fiji’s fourth and latest coup. He’s been in New York, for Fiji’s installation in the chair of the G77 group of 119 developing nations plus China– a move that marks his country’s growing international influence as the world moves into the Age of the Pacific. That’s worry number one.

Most New Zealanders know something about the event that’s stoked the storm – a showdown at the Government Printers on 22 December between Fiji police and the chair of the Fiji Constitution Commission, Professor Yash Ghai.

Chairman Ghai had just finished overseeing the printing of 600 copies of the draft Constitution he’d presented to Fiji’s President the previous day. The police seized the copies, burnt some before Ghai’s incredulous eyes, and then left. That’s worry number two.

Ghai was left to air his complaints to the media, including an accusation that the Fiji Government had imposed “an illegal ban on the publication of the draft constitution and the Commission’s explanatory statements. He countered the police action by releasing both for publication in full on the London-based FijiLeaks website.

This development leaves the governments of New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the United States in an awkward position. After all, they’d jointly contributed around $1.7 million to support the work of the Ghai Commission - only to see its reports seized by the police. The Christmas confrontation was a jarring contradiction of the dove-cooing diplomacy that was going on between them for most of 2012.

Last July, two months after the Fiji Constitution Commission started its work, Foreign Minister Murray McCully, his Australian counterpart Senator Bob Carr and Fiji’s Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola met in Sydney. There’d been enough progress for the three Ministers to agree to exchange High Commissioners and to review the travel sanctions on Fijians linked to the Bainimarama administration. In October, the three met again in New York and reaffirmed their intention to continue working together to supportFiji’s return to democracy.

Now, McCully describes the “trashing of the work of the Commission” as a “backward step” and “a very disappointing development”. He’s talking with Kubuabola to get an “understanding of what was happening”. Since that guarded response, the New Zealand Government has maintained a diplomatic silence on the issue. And so have our mainstream media.

It should have come as no surprise. Anyone who cares to look closely enough could have seen the prospect of a train wreck since last May.

On 14 May, former director of development studies at the University of the South Pacific Crosbie Walsh signaled that Kenyan-born constitutional authority Ghai was “no pushover”. Ghai had resigned from his home country’s Constitution Review Commission in 2004 over government heel-dragging, resigned from a UN posting in Cambodia in 2008 after bitter arguments with the Cambodian government, and last year called for the impeachment of Kenya’s president for lobbying against International Criminal Court trials of associates charged with genocide.

On 18 July, the Bainimarama government issued two decrees – one governing the process of the Ghai Commission and the other authorizing the Prime Minister to appoint a Constituent Assembly to process the Ghai Commission’s recommendations into a final Constitution for the country. The second decree also requires the Constituent Assembly to preserve immunities from prosecution for a list of coup-makers and supporters (including the Commodore and members of the military, police force, corrections service, Cabinet Ministers and other individuals in State Services) granted by decrees issued in 1990, 1996, and 2010.

The next day, members of the Ghai Commission hit the roof. Their joint public statement said the decrees ignored essential principles of democracy by determining issues on which there had been no public consultation and negated the independence of the Commission. Ghai also said that “since members of the government may wish to compete in the forthcoming election, it is important that they should not control the process that will set out the rules for the elections.”

It was subsequently revealed by FijiLeaks that the Commission had developed a long list of other noxious government decrees that would require attention during the country’s return to democracy.

Relations between Bainimarama and Ghai finally rose to toxic level last October when the Commodore discovered that Ghai had employed a former Vice President of Fiji, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, as a consultant. Madraiwiwi had been forcibly removed from his office and official residence during the Commodore’s coup. He had also appeared before the Ghai Commission to make a submission arguing against some of the fundamental principles decreed to guide the development of the Constitution.

Bainimarama claimed Madraiwiwi’s involvement with the Commission as a consultant as well as a submitting party breached the rule that the Commission’s consultants had to be “politically neutral”. Ghai argued the toss. The Commodore was obviously in no mood for drawn-out academic debate. On 31 October, he had another decree issued to bring the Constitution Commission under tighter control.

The new decree required the Commission to present monthly reports, listing all staff and consultants and a record of all its financial transactions. On top of that, the original decrees governing the Commission and the Constituent Assembly were amended to remove requirements for any further public hearings by either of these bodies. That removed Ghai’s excuse for publishing and distributing copies of the Commission’s draft recommendations before Ghai went to the printery in December.

Bainimarama has also undermined Ghai’s claim that he was banning the publication of draft constitution. He says it is to be presented to the Constituent Assembly when he calls it together next month, together with an “improved” draft currently being prepared by his Justice Ministry for consideration by the Assembly. But we’ve yet to see it happen.

This week, the Commodore’s government issued yet another decree, tightening the screws on Fijians and political parties preparing to contest the promised elections next year. This decree requires parties to have a minimum of 5,000 members, with membership and offices spread across the four divisions ofFiji. The parties must complete their registration within 28 days starting next Friday.

Members of statutory boards, the judiciary, military, police force, corrections service, other public service organisations, trade unions and the Employers Federation are not permitted to be officials or in the initial 5,000 members of political parties seeking registration. That’s a sizeable chunk ofFiji’s population being forced to quit their jobs, their parliamentary ambitions, or their politics.

The decree also limits political party funding to sums of no more than $10,000 from the same source. Contributions from companies, foreign government, inter-government and non-government organizations are prohibited.

The Commodore looks like he’s taking his country on a fast, rough ride to deliver “Democracy – My Way” and in one colour: khaki.

Comments (2)

by David Beatson on January 17, 2013
David Beatson

UPDATE: While New Zealand maintains diplomatic silence,  Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr has been more forthcoming. He told Radio Australia he can understand why Fiji’s interim government would reject aspects of the Ghai draft constitution.

"The notion, for example, of a largely unelected national people's assembly comprised principally of non-government organisations sitting alongside the parliament is something I can't think of enjoying precedence anywhere else in the constitution of a democratic country," he says.."The re-creation of an unelected Great Council of Chiefs would seem to give rise to the suggestion that ethnic divisions in the country were going to be exaggerated by new constitutional arrangements… I can find it understandable that the interim government has objected to both these features of the draft constitution presented to it."

by David Beatson on January 21, 2013
David Beatson

UPDATE 2:  Since the news broke about theFiji government’s ban on participation in political parties by trade union officials, employers federation members, the judiciary, the military, the police, and public servants,Australia’s line has hardened

Senator Bob Carr now says the latest decree is unacceptable. He says “the government joins with Australian trade unions in raising serious concerns with these proposals. This restriction on the nature of political parties… cannot be justified. Vibrant political parties are a vital part of a democracy.”

The New Zealand government has maintained its public silence on the situation.

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