Claims international public relations firm 'calls all the shots' for Fijian Government

Claims international public relations firm 'calls all the shots' for Fijian Government

Claims international public relations firm 'calls all the shots' for Fijian Government

Updated 30 November 2017, 18:55 AEDT

Two former senior public servants claim a secretive public relations firm is exerting control in Fijian Government and diplomatic circles.

A global public relations firm has attempted to influence Fiji's diplomatic relationship with Australia and New Zealand on numerous occasions, according to two former Fijian public servants.

Ewan Perrin, a former permanent secretary in the Bainimarama administration, told Background Briefing the international public relations firm Qorvis "calls the shots" on all government communications.

Mr Perrin said he was sacked by the Fijian Government for his refusal to become a "lackey" for the firm, when he would not follow instructions to send a controversial email — the content of which had been drafted by a Qorvis consultant.

At one point, Mr Perrin said he was instructed to hand-deliver a letter to a Fijian newspaper, castigating the editor for his unfair treatment of the Prime Minister.

"I did not draft it, and was not involved in any discussion about the topic," Mr Perrin said.

"I was not expected to do anything except sign that letter and deliver it … I didn't agree ethically with the content and the tone of the letter."

Mr Perrin refused to deliver the letter.

"I made a decision at the time that it was more important that I maintain my standards," he said.

Government positions controlled by PR firm

The former public servant said this was part of a broader pattern of behaviour aimed at controlling the position of permanent secretary in Fiji's Information Department.

"The [position] was not being treated as a respected advisor to the minister … [it] was, 'Sign the document, make the statement, don't bother trying to think about anything,'" Mr Perrin said.

During his time as permanent secretary, Mr Perrin said the office of the solicitor-general asked him to sign a sworn affidavit in court without first reading it. He declined to do so, calling the request "extraordinary".

After Mr Perrin's departure from the Fijian public service in May 2016, his position was not publicly advertised.

Instead, an acting role was filled by Bernadette Bainimarama — the daughter of the Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama.

While Ms Bainimarama is no longer in that position, other key communications roles have been filled by relatives of top officials.

Mr Perrin does not call into question the talent of these appointees, but has issues with the lack of transparency.

"You can call it nepotism or cronyism or whatever you want to call it, but it's unhealthy," he said.

What is Qorvis?

Qorvis is a Washington DC-based international public relations firm.

In a promotional video on its website, Qorvis says its services include "preparing executives, ambassadors and even Nobel laureates for media appearances".

The company's past clients include Bahrain, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

When one insider left Qorvis, he was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying: "I just have trouble working with despotic dictators killing their own people."

Fijian budget papers show the country's Government paid Qorvis an fee of $FJD1 million ($623,000 AUD) in the 2016-17 financial year.

In a statement to Background Briefing, executive vice president Greg Lagana said Qorvis's work in Fiji is to help the Government deliver "clear, truthful and consistent information and messaging".

Over a two-month period, no government official agreed to be interviewed or provide any comment to Background Briefing.

Qorvis consultants influencing Pacific diplomatic

Robin Nair, a former senior public servant, has listed a number of occasions where he believes Qorvis has attempted to influence Fiji's diplomatic relationships with other countries, including Australia and NZ.

Mr Nair said a Qorvis consultant told Prime Minister Bainimarama that he had been insulted by a senior NZ diplomat.

In Mr Nair's account, the Qorvis consultant said the diplomat in question — NZ High Commissioner Mark Marsden — said Mr Bainimarama should be "behind bars".

In response, Mr Bainimarama is alleged to have told the High Commissioner that he could be expelled from Fiji. Mr Nair said he was a direct witness to this conversation.

According to Mr Nair, Mr Marsden later denied making any derogatory statements about Mr Bainimarama.

The NZ Department of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the incident, but said in a statement that NZ and Fiji enjoy a "productive and positive relationship".

Mr Nair said the breach of protocol is distressing.

"I find it outrageous … [the Qorvis consultant] was trying to continue this destabilisation of relations with our immediate neighbours," he said.

Leaked documents from April 2017 reveal the extent of confusion relating to Qorvis's role in Fijian diplomatic circles.

In one email, a Qorvis consultant requests a Fijian diplomat meet with a specific minister ahead of a climate change conference.

Citing approval from the Fijian Attorney-General, the email caused the diplomat — Fiji's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva — to ask her superior, "This may be a good time to clarify: who gives me instructions on matters of foreign affairs?"

Qorvis declined to respond to the specific allegations raised in this story.