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Debate: The Lowy Institute's Fiji Poll

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The Lowy Institute launches its first ever Fiji Poll, Fiji at Home and in the World, today in Auckland, New Zealand. We commissioned the poll to give a voice to the Fiji people, whose thinking about their own government and their relations with the world are not properly understood by either the Fiji Government or the international community.

The poll's results present some complex challenges for countries and non-government organisations seeking to influence change in Fiji. While some of the results provide comfort to the Fiji Government, they also indicate that Bainimarama has not really convinced the people that he is managing Fiji's international relationships well, or that he has done enough work to demonstrate he is serious about the transition to democracy in 2014.

Bainimarama should be pleased with 66% approval ratings and the 65% of people who think things in Fiji are going in the right direction. But he should be concerned that 53% or less think the government is doing a good job with their preparations for a return to democracy and that 98% think the right to vote in national elections and have freedom of expression is important to them. If he has these levels of support, why not seek a proper mandate through an election?

The Australian Government can take heart from the Fiji people recording very warm feelings about Australia and very strong support for a good official relationship between the Australian and Fiji governments. But should it worry that 63% of Fiji people disagree with the Australian approach to Fiji and that 81% think the Australian Government should lift its travel sanctions and re-establish normal relations with Fiji.

At the risk of sounding like a Treasurer promoting the government's budget, there is something in this poll for everyone. The Fiji Government and the international community alike need to listen to what the Fiji people want. The data from this poll gives them valuable insights into how the people of Fiji are feeling and thinking about their situation today. There is a danger that policy will become entrenched and not reflect the changing circumstances in Fiji that this poll demonstrates.

Some of the most interesting findings were*:

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  • The Fiji people recorded warm feelings towards Australia (74°) and New Zealand (72°) but relatively cool feelings towards their Pacific Island neighbours (50° to 55°).
  • China attracted fairly warm feelings (64°) from the Fiji people and 60% of people strongly agreed with the importance of a good official relationship between Fiji and China.
  • 79% disagreed with Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum and 76% disagreed with Fiji's suspension from the Commonwealth.
  • 83% thought foreign countries should let Fiji sort out its return to democracy on its own.
  • Despite Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, 77% believed Fiji's leadership role in the Pacific was either the same or stronger than it was five years ago.
  • 51% said the Pacific Islands Forum was more important to Fiji than the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), while only 16% said the MSG was more important.
  • 61% thought the Government was doing a good job of listening to the people.
  • The Fiji Government's delivery of basic services attracted strong support (for example, 82% thought the Fiji Government was doing a good job delivering education).
  • 67% said the Fiji Government was doing a good job ending racial divisions.
  • A slight majority (53%) said democracy was the preferred form of government but:
    • 98% said the right to freely vote in national elections, the right to freely express yourself and the right to a fair trial was important to them.
    • 96% said the right to a media free from censorship was important to them.
  • The poll coincided with Bainimarama's recent bans on Methodist Church activities but 66% said the Church should not be involved at all in politics.
  • 68% approved of the Fiji military's role in politics at the moment but approval for a permanent role for the military slipped back to 53%.

* The figures with ° indicate where participants were asked to nominate their feeling, with 100 meaning a very warm, favourable feeling and 0 meaning a very cold, unfavourable feeling. 

Photo by Flickr user yuko_ppp2501.

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Politicians and political parties the world over dismiss opinion polls when the results are inconvenient and embrace them when the results show support for their policies. So I wasn't surprised to see some of the reactions to the results of the Lowy Institute's Fiji Poll.

I was personally dismayed to see so many Fiji people support the performance of Commodore Bainimarama and the direction Fiji is on. Before the results came in, I was hoping the Fiji people would record overwhelming dissatisfaction with Bainimarama. But that was not the reality. 

Faced with these results, the Lowy Institute had two choices – publish or decline to publish. 

We are an independent international policy think tank so we did not have a vested interest either way. If we declined to publish and thereby reveal the opinions of the Fiji people, would we be any better than the Fiji Government, which denies the Fiji people the right to express their opinions or to have their opinions aired in the public domain?

When the Lowy Institute launched the Fiji Poll in Auckland last Wednesday, the first reaction from the assembled audience was that the methodology was flawed. The methodology of the poll is set out on p.23 of the Fiji Poll and I provide more information below. Tebbutt Research, the company we commissioned to conduct the poll, has been polling for almost twenty years in Fiji and the methodology used for this poll was consistent with their previous polling.

But an important question occurred to me afterwards: if the opinions of the Fiji people were different, if they had recorded 66% disapproval of Bainimarama instead of 66% approval, would we have been questioned about the methodology? If this had indeed been the result, I suspect the Fiji Government would have dismissed it but the Australian and New Zealand governments and other opponents of Bainimarama would have lauded it. 

A few other important aspects about this poll have been missed in the initial reaction. 

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This is the first opinion poll conducted in Fiji since 2008 and the first to canvas the views of the Fiji people about Fiji's international relations. Rather than dismissing it, as opponents of Bainimarama have done, why not seize on it as evidence that the Fiji people are interested in expressing their opinions, an opportunity denied them by their own government?

Some of the results are inconvenient to opponents of the Bainimarama regime, but not all are. As Michael O'Keefe pointed out in an opinion piece in The Australian, there is some positive news in the poll that cannot be ignored. What about the 98% of people who say they think it is important to have the right to freely vote in national elections, the right to freely express yourself and the right to a fair trial? What about the 96% of people who say it is important to have a media free from censorship? 

Should we be dismissing these opinions as those of a fearful and intimidated people whose views cannot be trusted or should the international community try to assist them? As Prime Minister Gillard said, this is a question about values and whether you believe in democracy. Our poll presents clear evidence that the Fiji people do believe in democratic values; they do not deserve to be summarily dismissed.

From Australia's point of view, should we write off the 76% of people who want Fiji to have a good relationship with Australia or should the Australian Government try to capitalise on this strong support for Australia?

It has been suggested by no less than Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa that the Fiji people were too afraid to speak against Bainimarama. I have to admit that I thought exactly the same thing when I saw the results. It perplexed me that, despite Fiji's economic malaise, increasing poverty and the Public Emergency Regulation which suppresses people's rights, the Fiji people were still willing to say Bainimarama was doing a good job. I thought fear must be the explanation. 

But if this was the case, why did only 1% of respondents refuse to answer and only 1% say they did not know? Furthermore, the people who participated in this survey were not advised that it had been commissioned by the Lowy Institute so they did not necessarily know the results would be published. And lastly, while an approval rating of 66% seems high, it is still lower than the 73% approval rating (in a poll conducted by Tebbutt Research using the same methodology used for the Lowy Institute Fiji Poll) that Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase achieved in June 2006. Bainimarama is less popular after five years in power than Qarase was after a similar period, a result which Fiji's SDL party can celebrate.

Rather than attack the methodology or the motivations of the Lowy Institute and Tebbutt Research, it would be more constructive for Bainimarama's opponents (of which I am one) to debate why the Fiji people hold the opinions they hold. Do these results reflect the lack of information available to the Fiji people? Do they reflect the media censorship which controls the flow and quality of information and the lack of freedom of speech imposed by the Public Emergency Regulation, which means opposing voices are not heard in the public domain? Do they reflect lower public expectations of government brought about by a series of coups?

There is surely a case for greater civic education efforts in Fiji – by non-government organisations and by the international community. The poll shows that the Fiji people are less willing to approve of the military playing a permanent role in politics than they are of the military's current role, and they are not entirely convinced the Fiji Government is making progress in moving the country back to democracy. This shows a people thinking about their situation and what is in their best interests. To ignore them would be a missed opportunity.

Poll methodology

The methodology of the Poll is explained on p.23 of the publication but a summary and further information is provided here:

The poll was conducted by Tebbutt Research, a Suva-based company which has conducted polling in Fiji since 1992, published annually in conjunction with the Fiji Times. The Lowy Institute reported the results of the poll. The results are the views of the people of Fiji, not the opinions of any member of staff of the Lowy Institute, nor any member of staff of Tebbutt Research.

The Lowy Institute has a strong reputation for high quality opinion polling, having conducted 7 annual opinion polls on foreign policy in Australia and an opinion poll in China on foreign policy.

As with all opinion polls commissioned and published by the Lowy Institute and opinion polling conducted by Tebbutt Research in Fiji, participants in the survey were not paid a fee. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in the major urban and peri-urban centres of Viti Levu, consistent with previous polls conducted by Tebbutt Research. Fieldwork was conducted by the Tebbutt Research field team in accordance with global best practice, specifically the ESOMAR standard.

1,032 people were interviewed on a face-to-face, door-to-door basis, with one respondent aged 18+ per household. Start points were selected at random. Respondents were selected at random and respondents were selected at random from within the household, to quota. Data was post-weighted to the Fiji Bureau of Statistics population estimates. 

The breakdown of respondents was:

  • Ethnicity: 48% indigenous Fijian, 44% Indo-Fijian, 8% other.
  • Gender: 51% males, 49% females.
  • Location: 23% Suva, 25% Nasinu, 5% Lami, 15% Nausori, 12% Nadi, 15% Lautoka, 5% Ba.
  • Age: 18-20 (12%), 21-29 (23%), 30-44 (33%), 45+ (33%).
  • Education levels: no formal education 2%, primary school 11%, middle high (10-11 years) 13%, upper high (12-13 years) 32%, technical or trade school 21%, some university 14%, university degree 7%.

The Lowy Institute has presented the results of an opinion poll of the Fiji people and has not manipulated them in any way. 

Photo by Flickr user Henry Work.

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Commodore Frank Bainimarama once famously told an Australian journalist that he did not trust the Fiji people. Apparently the Australian government doesn't trust them either.

The Fiji people currently have no forum in which to have their voice heard, but on the one occasion they have been given an opportunity to express themselves, they are ridiculed for it by the very government apparently committed to fighting for their freedom.

Opinion polling is a common feature of political life in Western democracies. In Australia, political parties and journalists live for the results of fortnightly opinion polls. It also used to be a common feature of Fiji's political life. Conducted by Tebbutt Research and published by the Fiji Times, opinion polls continued through stable and unstable times in Fiji, under democratic leaders and during coups, under the rule of Colonel Rabuka and even under Bainimarama himself.

Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles spoke at the Lowy Institute last week on Why the Pacific matters (audiotranscript). He said 'Australia's disagreement is with the interim government of Fiji, not its people.'  But if you read his comments about our Fiji Poll, conducted by Tebbutt Research using international polling standards and methodology and surveying the views of a significant portion of the Fiji people about a range of international and domestic issues, he suggests that Australia's disagreement is really with the Fiji people. 

Marles said the 'notion' that their opinions could be credible was 'ridiculous', and in a comment repeated in an interview with Radio Australia, he said that doing a poll in Fiji now was 'absurd'. Marles also said:

...if you are sitting at home, in a country where a repressive regime has stripped you of human rights and where people do get taken off to the barracks, and you get a knock on the door and a stranger asks you what you think of the government, what do you think you'd say? 

Well, for a start, you could refuse to take part in the survey. Yet the refusal rate was less than 5%. Secondly, you could refuse to answer certain questions. Yet the refusal rate per question was 3% or less for every question except that on the direction the country was going in (for which the refusal rate was 13%).

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Conducting opinion polls in countries without democracy and freedom of speech is hardly new or controversial. The highly respected US-based Pew Research Center has conducted opinion polls as part of its Global Attitudes Project in 57 countries since 2002, including in China, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Russia, none of which has a proud reputation for encouraging freedom of expression and a free media.

Rather than labeling these polls as ridiculous, the US State Department uses the data to inform its public diplomacy. The Lowy Institute itself conducted an opinion poll in China in 2009. Reporters Without Borders recently labeled China the 'world's biggest prison for journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents', and ranked it 168 out of 178 countries in a 2011 index for press freedom. Despite the far more serious restrictions on freedom of speech that prevail in China than those in Fiji, there was no Australian government criticism of our China Poll. 

The refusal rate on the question that is bothering the Australian government – that relating to the performance of Commodore Bainimarama as Prime Minister — was only 2%. The poll did not 'purport' to show strong support for the Bainimarama government – the poll simply reported the results of the survey and 66% of the Fiji people said Bainimarama was doing either a very good or good job as Prime Minister, 25% said he was doing an average job and 8% said he was doing either a fairly poor or very poor job. We did not invent these figures.

Just because the people polled expressed views that conflicted with what the Australian government believes the Fiji people think does not make the poll ridiculous. Thanks in large part to the Fiji regime's restrictions on free speech, the Australian government has relied on the views largely of elites – academics, NGO leaders, Fijians with chiefly status, former politicians, some businesspeople, blogs written largely by Fiji citizens residing in Australia and New Zealand – to inform its views of what the Fiji people think. 

With the exception of the occasional taxi driver, the people diplomats rely on for information and opinions tend not to be gardeners, textile workers, nurses, teachers, shop staff or unemployed people. Such people probably don't come to the attention of the regime in Fiji, and they may not feel as fearful as outspoken critics of the regime about the consequences of expressing an opinion.

Unless there is clear evidence (not just an assumption) that the 1036 1032 people surveyed felt intimidated and lied about their true feelings, there is no reason to dismiss the poll. It wouldn't be the first time diplomats were confounded that public opinion did not equate with the views of the people they speak with. I have a feeling the occasional foreign diplomat serving in Canberra, whose contacts are public servants, ANU academics and press gallery correspondents, might raise their eyebrows at the results of Newspoll and Nielson from time to time.

Mr Marles also used his speech to lash critics of Australian policy towards Fiji. He argued there should be more criticism of the abhorrent Fiji regime and that those who criticise Australian policy need to ask themselves a fundamental question. Those who argue Australian policy needs reform should 'own their views', he said, and need to address the conduct of the Fiji government and ensure it is at the heart of the issue in anything they write about Australian policy. 

I'm a critic of Australian policy towards Fiji but only because I think it could be more effective in encouraging reform in Fiji and ultimately edging out the abhorrent regime, not because I support Bainimarama, whom I have criticised regularly. Questioning Australian policy does not equate to supporting a foreign dictatorship. This is not a matter of 'if you are not with us, you're against us.'

Mr Marles' comments were made in a speech to the Lowy Institute so we have to assume they are a true reflection of how the Australian government thinks about freedom of speech in Fiji. The lessons we have to draw are that the Fiji people should not be asked to express their views and that critics of Australian foreign policy towards Fiji are unreasonable. You have to wonder if Canberra really is committed to freedom of speech in Fiji or only to the kind of speech which confirms the views of the Australian government.

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My colleague Jenny Hayward-Jones has rightly called out Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, over his attempt to discredit an opinion poll we conducted in Fiji. But, for a different reason, I am glad he made the comments, because they highlight the fact polling in other countries is very rarely used by Australian foreign-policy-makers. By contrast, the US, Japan and others are longtime and clever users of these polls. 

As Jenny points out, it is a bit disingenuous of Marles to question our polling methodology. It is hard to believe that, as a politician, Marles is unable to tell a quality poll from a rubbish poll, and the methodology for the Fiji poll was independently reviewed by one of Australia's leading pollsters.

It is also, as Jenny points out, strange to claim polling cannot be undertaken in non-democratic states. Marles would no doubt be aware of the extensive and frequent polling conducted by a wide range of highly respected polling organisations in far more autocratic states than Fiji. 

So why question the poll? The obvious answer is politics. A few of the poll findings grate with current Australian policy towards Fiji, so why not try and undermine the credibility of the data that is calling it into question? It would certainly not be the first time attempts have been made to discredit a Lowy Poll with inconvenient findings.

For me, that strategy is a bit short sighted. Is Marles forgetting the poll was conducted completely independently of the Fiji government and that the findings represent the views of the very people he hopes will rise up, throw the Bainimarama dictatorship out and be the principal participants in any future democracy?

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What the poll reveals are the domestic constraints and opportunities faced by Bainimarama, and ultimately these will be important factors shaping Australian policy towards Fiji. If Marles chooses to ignore the views of the Fiji people in making Australian policy then it will be little wonder if the policy fails. Like Marles and Jenny, I don't support Bainimarama, and while some of the findings might be uncomfortable, many others provide some very handy feedback on Australian policy. Some follow-up polling by DFAT or AusAID could help to develop a better targeted approach to Fiji.  

At the moment, I'm based in Washington DC and one of the things I'm researching is the State Department's use of opinion polls conducted in foreign countries, many of them non-democratic. The US government takes polling in foreign countries seriously, as a means of better understanding the views of foreign populations when making foreign policy. Without that knowledge, how can you know how the people in country X will react to your country's approach or how opinion will shape and constrain domestic politics? That is especially so in autocratic states, where public opinion is harder to gauge. 

If Marles is serious about Fiji, he should take a leaf out of the US playbook and ask DFAT or AusAID to conduct a follow-up poll in Fiji to delve a little deeper behind some of the findings and test current and new Australian policy positions among the Fijian public. 

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Iris Wielders is a freelance conflict prevention and peace building specialist. She lived in Fiji in 2007 and 2008.

The Lowy Institute's work on Fiji has sparked some interesting debates in recent times.

Reactions to the policy brief by Jenny Hayward-Jones have been polarised. The results of Lowy's poll also confounded. Many dismissed its results, arguing that a poll held in a country where there is this much repression could not possibly yield a 66% approval rating for Bainimarama. Perhaps even more confusing, the poll also showed high support for some of the basic tenets of democracy. How can people support Bainimarama whilst simultaneously supporting democracy?

The polarised view, and the for/against dichotomy it sets up, obscures the complexity of the situation for many Fijians. A more nuanced view can both help explain the poll results, and point to a way forward in engagement with Fiji.

The December 2006 coup presented a complex picture for many Fijians across the different ethnic groups. There was support for the ultimate outcome held out by Bainimarama — introducing the type of changes in Fijian society that many agree are necessary. On the other hand, many rejected the process through which Bainimarama has been trying to bring about these changes — a coup followed by a military regime. Depending on the weight accorded to either outcome or process, some people support and others reject the regime.

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But there are many that find themselves somewhere in the middle. Many people have been willing to temporarily accept a military government because they feel this is the only way real change will take place in Fiji. Of course, to what extent and how long people feel this way can change over time, and will depend on personal circumstances. Viewed in this way, it is perhaps more understandable that people in Fiji can be in support of Bainimarama's performance and at the same time support democracy.

This middle ground can also point to a way forward in engagement with the Fiji regime. Starting from the end goal, there could be some level of agreement on the kinds of changes people in Fiji would like to see for their country. A constructive dialogue process would start by exploring such commonalities to build rapport and some measure of trust, after which the process by which such changes are to be brought about could be discussed.

To be absolutely clear, arguments for re-engagement do not equal agreement with a military dictatorship. But what is more important: holding on to a moral stance which has had no effect, or finding ways to assist the people of Fiji in finding a non-violent way out of this situation? With repression increasing and the economy deteriorating, the stresses can only continue to build. Some measure of dialogue and re-engagement is the only way forward that can be of potential assistance.

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Rowan Barnsley responds to Iris Wielders' post arguing for engagement with Fiji:

I normally do not comment on such matters however I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with articles which appear to be attempting to legitimise a military junta. People like you may say that 'arguments for re-engagement do not equal agreement with a military dictatorship'. The reality is that they do. Even more disturbing is that the military dictatorship will leverage from such naivety. They did this with the Lowy survey, disappointingly undertaken by a known sympathiser of the military junta. Even more alarming in my view was how the survey was funded.

Before any engagement can take place in Fiji surely there must be a number of minimum pre-conditions. Firstly, the military must return to the barracks and a proper interim government put in place. Secondly, the engagement and dialogue must be with all parties and stakeholders, not just those benefiting from and supporting the military junta. Thirdly, the rule of law must be restored and all those involved in treasonous acts and human rights abuses since the illegal overthrow of the legitimate government in 2006 must be brought before an independent judiciary.

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I note that your article, like others pleading for recognition and dialogue with the military junta, says nothing about the alleged murder of unarmed CRW soldiers (the investigation of which was a key reason for Bainimarama's coup)  and other terrible human rights abuses and repression since Dec 5 2006. The people of Fiji deserve better than to be under a repressive military dictatorship, particularly one that demonstrates such little accountability that people cannot even find out how much the junta leaders and their appointees are paying themselves.

Finally, I would take a lot of convincing that change brought about by force and intimidation is either ethical, justifiable or sustainable. 

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Rowan Barnsley, in his Reader Riposte, claims the Lowy Institute's Fiji poll was 'undertaken by a known sympathiser of the military junta. Even more alarming in my view was how the survey was funded.'

The Lowy Institute first considered commissioning a public opinion poll in Fiji two years ago. We were disappointed that one consequence of the Fiji Government's imposition of media censorship was that the Fiji Times would no longer publish the results of opinion polls the newspaper had conducted in conjunction with Tebbutt Research for almost 20 years. We thought a valuable source of information about the Fiji people's thinking would be lost, and in an environment where debate was not only censored in Fiji but becoming highly polarised and led by elites, we were concerned at the decline in Fiji data available to researchers. 

The Institute has a proud record of publishing opinion polls on international policy issues. We thought we were well placed to commission and publish an opinion poll in Fiji, as we had this tradition of polling on international affairs, had conducted polls in other countries and would be regarded as an independent organisation. 

Tebbutt Research has an almost 20-year history of scientific, face-to-face polling in Fiji. It was a well-respected Australian company with a record on polling that no other company in the region could match, so it made sense for us to commission Tebbutt Research to conduct the poll. After many rounds of discussions and consultation on the questionnaire, the poll was conducted between 19 and 21 August 2011.

The Lowy Institute's Myer Foundation Melanesia Program seeks funds from a variety of sources — private and government — to assist it to convene events and fund research. The Program obtained a grant in 2009 from a foundation established by Mr Mark Johnson AO. This grant was given to the Program for research on Melanesia. The Institute advised Mr Johnson that we would use the grant for future research on Fiji.

Mr Johnson did not at any point seek to influence the Institute's expenditure of the grant and was not involved in any way in discussions on the poll, its questions or its methodology. The cost of the poll was funded in part by the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program and in part by the grant from Mr Johnson's foundation. We recognised this grant, just as we recognise the grants of other private and government sources in the work the Institute does.

The author of the Fiji Poll (me) has no financial, business or other personal interests in Fiji and is on public record as a critic, not a sympathiser of the regime in Fiji.

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