The Fiji Government has a history of making poor decisions whenever there appeared to be a slight willingness in Australia or New Zealand to re-assess approaches to Fiji. The deportation of diplomats or Fiji Times publishers at inopportune moments made it impossible for foreign ministers in Canberra and Wellington to take decisions that appeared to reward Fiji for bad behaviour.
For the first time in some years, the stars may be aligning for a change in the relationship: Bob Carr's appointment as Australian Foreign Minister and a constructive and positive announcement from Commodore Bainimarama this morning on a constitutional consultations process create an opportunity.
Bainimarama outlined a comprehensive consultation process on the new constitution that appears to be open and inclusive. He indicated that he has taken the advice of international constitutional experts, referring in his announcement to the well regarded handbook, Constitution-making and Reform: Options for the Process, authored by internationally renowned constitutional expert Yash Ghai, the ANU's Anthony Regan and others.
He also announced the establishment of a five-member Constitutional Commission, chaired by Yash Ghai, and an inclusive and democratic Constituent Assembly.
This announcement appears to put aside concerns that the population would be presented with a compromised draft constitution and that consultations would be limited. It may not be perfect – it would perhaps be better if a referendum was in the offing – but it has all the appearances of a credible process and the process itself might throw up better ideas.
The proof of Bainimarama's commitment to transparency and sound process is, as always, in the implementation. But for the moment, his words should be taken at face value. The start of a credible process should be welcomed.
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Julie Bishop said just this week that it was time for Australia to re-engage with Fiji and said a Coalition government would pursue such an approach. Carr has signaled he is committed to bipartisanship in foreign policy.
Trans-Tasman cooperation in foreign policy is important to both Canberra and Wellington when it comes to the Pacific Islands region. Bob Carr's first working visit is to New Zealand. New Zealand Foreign Minister McCully has welcomed Bainimarama's announcement as a 'real step in the right direction.' He will likely be keen to cooperate with Carr on using Australian and New Zealand policy to incentivise further reform in Fiji.
The timing of Bainimarama's announcement presents Carr with an ideal opportunity to signal a shift in Australian policy that fortuitously does not involve reneging on core Australian principles about democratic process. The alignment of the stars here is too rare to be missed.
Photo by Flickr user vapourtrails.