Australians can cautiously welcome resumed defence ties with Fiji. Australia quite rightly severed ties and co-operation with Fiji after the 1987 coup by then Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Mr Rabuka is now a retired general and the elected Prime Minister of Fiji. After five years of military dictatorship, Fiji returned to constitutional rule last month, albeit a flawed one. Thus is was appropriate for Australia to consider resuming defence contacts and other co-operation with Fiji. As part of this process the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, invited Mr Rabuka to visit Australia in September.

In 1987 Mr Rabuka overthrew the elected Government of Dr Timoci Bavadra. Dr Bavadra headed an Indian-dominated coalition of the Fiji Labour Party and the National Federation Party. Ethnic Fijians had long expressed concern about ethnic Indians outnumbering them and taking more than just the economic power they had achieved in business and the professions, but taking political power which would inevitably lead to greater Indian land ownership, something that had been denied them by Governments led by Ratu Kamisese Mara since independence in 1970. In 1987 ethnic Fijians feared being dispossessed in their own land by Indians who had been brought to islands when a British colony to cut the sugar cane.

The return to constitutional rule has been a difficult one. Fiji is still not a full democracy. The Constitution provides that the Prime Minister must be an ethnic Fijian and that seats in both Houses are ethnically based and weighted in favour of ethnic Fijians who have 37 seats in the 70-seat lower house and 24 out of 34 in the upper house even though they comprise less than half the population.

Some people have likened Fiji to South Africa and said Australia should have nothing to do with it until full democracy is restored. This absolutist approach is flawed. For a start there is far greater equality between the races in Fiji both as a legal and economic fact. Ethnic Indians are discriminated against in land ownership and their votes are not worth as much and ethnic Fijians’ votes, but it is a far cry from the situation in South Africa. Moreover, the position in Fiji is likely to improve. The other flaw with the absolutist approach is that Australia would not find it impossible to have close relations with all but a handful of nations if it insisted on pure democracy as a pre-condition.

Australia would become isolationist. It is not in Australia’s best interests, nor in the best interests of our Pacific neighbours to retreat to an isolationist moral high ground. There are many benefits to having defence ties and close co-operation with our Pacific neighbours. For a start it is better to have friends than enemies. All the Pacific nations have large economic zones in their surrounding waters. Australia should take an active part in helping those nations exploit those resources responsibly. Australia has important interests in maintaining air and sea routes over the through those economic zones. That can best be done while maintaining close defence and other ties with them, including Fiji.

That said, there are also dangers. Australia has no role in internal policing or internal civil disputes in the Pacific. The alleged misuse of Australian-supplied Iroquios helicopters in Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville crisis is a classic example. Australia must not be a party directly or indirectly to internal conflict or repression in the Pacific. Thus the breaking off of military aid to Fiji in 1987 was the only responsible course.

Now things are different. The present constitution is a clear improvement on military dictatorship, though it is racist and unsatisfactory. Ethnic Fijians and ethnic Indians should both be equal Fijian citizens. Mr Rabuka has acknowledged this. He said after the election that ethnic Indians should not fear being treated as second-class citizens. Ironically, Mr Rabuka owes his position to the support of Mahendra Chaudhry, leader of the Fiji Labour Party. Mr Chaudhry, a minister in the Bavadra Government, was removed by gunpoint from Parliament by Mr Rabuka’s troops. Mr Chaudhry extracted several promises from Mr Rabuka for his support: constitutional reform, land reform to give Indians a better chance to own land and the removal of the value-added tax. Whether Mr Rabuka lives up the promise is another matter. These events show that it is better for Australia to have closer ties with Fiji so it can help the reform process than to stand aloof.

At the end of the day demographics is likely to have a great influence on the constitutional process. Ethnic Fijian fear of ethnic Indian domination was greatest in 1986 and 1987 when the ethnic Indian population was 349,000 and the ethnic Fijian population 329,000. Many ethnic Indians fled after the coup, and birth rates are different. Now there are 348,000 ethnic Indians and 366,000 ethnic Fijians. The projection for 2010 is 400,000 ethnic Indians and 550,000 ethnic Fijians. This fact alone will ease some of the fears ethnic Fijians have against constitutional equality.

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