At a business meeting in Sydney, former Fiji diplomat, Peter Thomson, condemned the Australia's approach as punitive and spiteful and told his audience it is damaging to business, the Fiji economy, the Fiji people and the region as a whole. Mr Thomson went on to call on the Australia-Fiji Business Council to back his views with a resolution and take the fight to overturn the current policy, to Canberra.
Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Jemima Garrett; Peter Thomson, former Fiji diplomat
GARRETT: Yes well certainly Mr Thomson was fairly angry and passionate. I think he started really saying that he came to the issue as a fifth generation Fiji person, someone's who's worked at the top levels of the Fiji government for 16 years, and also who was one of the founding fathers of the Australia Fiji Business Council. Essentially when he got to his argument he said that the Australian government policy is wrong and this is how he described it.
THOMSON: It is a spiteful policy conceived in a mood of punishment and sustained by a sense of pique. It is damaging not just to Fiji's business world, its national economy and the livelihoods of its long suffering people, it's damaging to the very fabric of the South Pacific region. One of the most cutting elements of Canberra's Fiji policy is its ongoing campaign in New York to choke off Fiji's role as an international peacekeeper. I'm including Wellington in this rebuke, for Canberra has a strong ally in former prime minister Helen Clark, now a senior UN official, and in the Wellington inheritors of her Fiji policy.
GARRETT: That's former Fiji diplomat Peter Thomson speaking at the Australia Fiji Business Council meeting in Sydney. Mr Thomson said that the campaign by Australia to have Fiji's UN peacekeepers replaced was a bitter betrayal, especially considering the Fiji military services in the defence of Australia during World War Two. He kept his argument going, he pointed out that pushing Fijians out of those roles would cut all important remittance income to Fiji at a time when the economy was in dire straits. And that criticism was just one of four major areas in which he wants to see changes to the Australian government's approach to the military government.
HILL: Well it sounds like he had plenty of other criticisms of Australian policy, not just the sanctions regime?
GARRETT: He did indeed and in fact he was very critical of the Pacific Islands Forum decision to exclude Fiji from the Pacer Plus negotiations. He said this was illegal and it would also force Fiji into the arms of the Asian giants, like China, who would undermine regional governance standards. He complained that Australia and New Zealand are mounting a campaign in international organisations, such as the UN and the World Bank to demonise and to white-ant Fiji. But I think he saved his strongest criticism for Australia and New Zealand's smart sanctions, and in particular the travel bans.
THOMSON: In my preparations for this address I canvassed opinion from around our South Pacific region by contacting a targeted list of prominent citizens. As a result it was made very clear to me that there are great numbers of good people in Fiji, apolitical people, who would like to be of public service but who cannot because of these travel bans. To say otherwise is nonsense. There are people here in this room who fall into that category. To agree to roles in public service would be to cut them off from friends, family and business ties in Australia and New Zealand. We're talking here about responsible, well qualified citizens being constrained from serving on public bodies that work to prevent such things as passenger planes flying into the sides of mountains, or ministries responsible for the health of little children, or developing agriculture and infrastructure, or from keeping convicted criminals in jail.
HILL: That was former Fiji diplomat Peter Thomson. Well Jemima how did the Australia-Fiji Business Council react to this pretty strong speech?
GARRETT: Well I think there was a lot of sympathy for the criticisms of the travel bans. There were also quite a few Fiji government representatives present and agreeing with pretty much everything Mr Thomson had to say. I think amongst Australian business there was not as much sympathy for the totality of his views. Really the whole aim of Mr Thomson's strategy is to open the door for real dialogue with the interim government, as we were just hearing from Paul Reeves, that's a difficult job. And I think the view amongst the Australian business community is that it doesn't look as if Commodore Bainimarama is prepared to talk. So really there's no point in lifting the pressure if it's not going to achieve the objective of getting the country back on a democratic footing. In terms of the formal resolution that Mr Thomson put before the Business Council, this meeting was not a decision making meeting, but the annual general meeting is set for later. At this stage I don't think it looks as if Mr Thomson will get his way. Frank Yourn, the Executive Director of the Australia-Fiji Business Council told me that as the resolution wasn't on the agenda it probably wouldn't be discussed. But he also went on to say that he felt that there was nothing in the resolution that the Australia-Fiji Business Council wasn't already doing. I don't know that Mr Thomson would agree with that, but that was his position.
HILL: Obviously this was a speech to the Australia-Fiji Business Council, this is the business community, and it would be in their own self interest to get business flowing as much as possible. But do you think that this speech will have any wider ramifications, are there any other interest groups in Australia that might be more receptive to this? Do you think that this will actually influence the Australian government in Canberra?
GARRETT: Well I think it indicates that there is a split, that there are people who feel that Australia is being too hard, and there are people who feel that Australia should go harder on Fiji. And I think they're all in the boat that there doesn't seem to be any progress with the current strategy. But really I don't think the Australian government position is going to change. Clearly it would be a major about face, and secondly they would have to have all the stakeholder groups - business, other community groups in Australia - onside. Richard Rowe, Australia's top diplomat for the Pacific was at the meeting and he spoke before Mr Thomson made his speech. But nevertheless he was firm that the real problem is interim prime minister Bainimarama's unwillingness to be involved in dialogue, and he pointed out the usual points that Australia makes that there've been numerous opportunities offered to him and he didn't turn up to the Forum, he didn't turn up to meetings in Port Moresby.
HILL: Well Jemima the main aim of the meeting was obviously to look at the Fiji economy and how business is faring. We heard earlier from Sir Paul Reeves that he's heard from people on the ground in Fiji and from his own observations that it's not doing very, very well at all - tourism has plenty of numbers but at discounted rates, sugar is doing badly, Qantas is looking at pulling out. What have we heard about how business is actually faring in Fiji at the meeting?
GARRETT: Well look I think business is really worried because this is turning into a protracted situation and it's not just economic indicators, it's things like the whole law court system is still not up and working and how do businesses enforce their contracts. So I think there's a great deal of worry that investment to Fiji is just going to fall in a black hole. There was some data too that showed just how much impact political problems are having. In 2007 for instance when the world was growing strongly the impact of the coup meant Fiji went backwards by six point-six per cent. In 2008 there was a small amount of growth, and then along came the global economic crisis and Fiji's continuing political problems and they're back now into negative growth. So I think it really is a difficult situation.