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%).

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.