Making Some Sense of Recent Developments
It's supposed to be a holiday period when people relax, and New Year when the more idealistic make new resolutions. But you wouldn't have thought so on the Fiji political scene.
First we have a new Catholic Bishop and a congratulatory message from the Methodist church that they expect to work well with him with a a hint that all was not hunky dory with the retired Bishop. A little earlier Amnesty International and a group of international trade unions sprung to arms with claims of torture by the military for an event that occurred months before (and which the police are investigating) but with no mention of background information that may have convinced others all was not as they saw it. Then came the hardship and damage caused by Cyclone Evan, Fiji's third natural disaster in less than one year. And then, the Constitution Commission presented its draft constitution to the President; the PM sought expressions of interest in joining the Constituent Assembly that that will consider the draft —and all hell broke loose.
Hell let loose
Readers will be aware of the main events: Prof Ghai's attempt to collect and presumably distribute the draft from the printers; the confiscation of the draft copies and the temper tantrum shown by an unnamed senior policeman in burning the galley proofs; Victor Lal's internet distribution of an earlier copy of the draft; the sudden approval of this draft by the old political parties (of which more below); my insistence that whatever we may think of the draft and Prof Ghai's attempt at distribution, he was acting illegally according to the amended decree that governed the constitution dialogue process; Prof Ghai's denial of illegality and his internet publication of the final draft; the failure of the Fiji media to report anything on the unfolding events other that Col. Mosese Tikoitoga's statements denouncing some provisions in the draft (that the public had not seen) and that Ghai should be arrested for breaking the law.
Much of the discussion on the draft was misinformed, inconsequential or irrelevant. I thought government handled the whole affair poorly but however it was handled, anti-government people were sure to take advantage of this "bonus" development, and take advantage they did. The limited NZ coverage had one of my golfing friends yesterday asking if I'd seen that the Bainimarama government had burnt the decree, and he's an educated person, so goodness knows what less educated New Zealanders think. And, more importantly, less educated Fijians.
Information only on the net
It must be difficult for Fiji citizens to consider Col. Mosese Tikoitoga's assessment of proposals with which he does not agree in the draft constitution, as published in the Fiji Sun, when the draft, the Constitution Commission's reasons for the proposals and Prof Yash Ghai's subsequent statements to the media are not available to them because they have not been published in the Fiji media. Unless they have a computer and have been following the foreign media and the anti-Government blogs.
And even then they may get it all wrong because the anti-blogs —and the old political parties (the FLP, SDL, UPP) that have suddenly become enthusiastic supporters of the Commission— are obviously taking advantage of the much over inflated "burning" of the draft printers' proofs and government's refusal to release copies of the draft.
I wonder whether Government anticipated the response of the old political parties and whether this was its reason for the amendment decree and its insistence the draft be not circulated. As matters have unfolded, it may have been better to have released the draft.
Prof Ghai's explanation is now on the anti-blogs. I am undecided whether to sympathise with the dilemma he must have been facing with government clearly not going to release the draft for discussion until it was presented by the President to the Constitution Assembly, or question whether he is also
motivated by self-interest in preserving his international reputation, and employability, as someone who is not pushed around by dictators. But either or both ways, I cannot see how his attempt to release the draft, and subsequent actions, have been helpful to Fiji.
When all looked so promising and with the Constituent Assembly to meet in only two week's time, Fiji now seems to be back to where it was before with the battle lines drawn: a Government, and a military, that will certainly oppose some of the draft commendations, and a revitalised coalition of the old political parties that will do anything to restore Fiji to how it was before the 2006 coup.
Loss of neutrality?
One final word. It seems likely that the reason government amended the Constitution Process (Constitution Commission) Decree was because it had lost confidence in the neutrality of the Commission, a provision that was central to the original decree. There were so many stories of Yash Ghai socialising with known Government opponents, and then later there was the appointment of Ratu Joni Madrawiwi as a consultant. I have no deep problem with these events, though I think them unwise, but I can well understand why government was concerned: a commission whose key member was no longer neutral was also no longer independent. Government had begun to think the Commission was unlikely to produce a document that would fully address the concerns that had led to its creation.
The ultimate plotter?
I am also disposed to think that Mahendra Chaudhry at least had early information on the first draft of the constitution or some of its provisions.
Why else the shifting position of the Fiji Labour Party as reported on their website? In May, they berated delays in the appointment of the Commission and accused government of using the Commission to advance its own Roadmap. In May, they insisted the Commission be independent. In August, they wanted the immediate appointment of a caretaker government. In September, they questioned the credibility and legality of the whole process. In mid-October they made their own submission, and it is from this time on, that the only postings on their website concern the need for transparency and accountability.The Commission's "credibility and legality" is no longer challenged. Then, in early November, they said people were being shut out of the process (despite massive nation-wide consultations) and said the Commission was being intimidated. Finally, on 21 December —the same day Prof Ghai presented the draft to the President— they "slammed the secrecy surrounding the draft decree", and within a week they had forged some sort of alliance with the SDL and UPP and approved the draft released by Victor Lal.
A complete turn around whose cause "cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt", but which provides circumstantial evidence that at least one member of the Commission or its staff had indeed compromised the "neutrality" provision in their appointment by providing advance information to Chaudhry, and possibly others.
And the good news?
The only good recent news is that the Methodist Church now wants to work with government and put the confrontational days behind it. The sad news is that Chaudhry, Jone Kubuabola and Beddoes seem intent on forming a new FLP-SDL-UPP party coalition that without any doubt will oppose each and every move in the Constituent Assembly to reach an acceptable consensus. The coalition will not last, of course. The three race-based parties share more policy differences than similarities but it may last long enough to derail or delay the dialogue process, and upset the work of the Constituent Assembly.
Ultimately all will depend on how much support there is out there among the silent majority. The old political parties should not assume the support they had in 2006 remains intact, and new political parties will emerge before the elections in 2014. But neither should the government assume that the traditional apologies it has received from iTaukei groups represents a real shift in thinking.
And then there is urban, educated "middle Fiji". I suspect government has lost some of their support in recent years (and more recently over the secrecy and "burning" incident), not because it does not share government's vision of a more racially tolerant and just Fiji, but because it has been excluded from most decision-making and because of government's clumsiness in handling its critics and opponents.
The Chaudhry's will take advantage of every opportunity to cast doubt about government's intentions. They have to if they want to return Fiji to the way they liked it. Middle Fiji should not forget how it was then.
-- Crosbie Walsh