The democratic divided: Our military could be the big winners

Republic of Fiji Military Forces Commander Major General Ro Jone Kallouniwai Picture: File

RFMF Commander Kalouniwai’s “most important speech” on December 5 has been received with cautious approval not just in Fiji, but also in our important neighbours Australia and New Zealand, promising windfall benefits for all three countries.

The “windfall benefits” are obvious for Fiji, if the election result produces a government that is democratic, respects the rule of law and practices sound governance, leading to good economic growth and improved standards of living.

But there are possible windfall benefits for the RFMF itself, originating from Australia and New Zealand that few in Fiji are thinking about currently and of which Commander Kalouniwai needs to inform his RFMF personnel.

These benefits will not only accrue to the RFMF personnel themselves and their families, but also to Fiji through remittances and greater integration into the Australian economy, and to the region in terms of greater security.

I say “cautious approval” because sensible analysts know that globally and in Fiji coups that have removed democratically elected governments have originated not always from Commanders of the military, but officers and soldiers lower down in the ranks, with ulterior motives and allegiances to powerful people.

The Commander pleaded with his troops in Fiji and abroad to cast their votes “prayerfully and consciously”.

He bluntly reminded them that “bad choices may result in unjust laws, needless conflicts and violence and calamitous economic policies”.

He urged the soldiers to vote in order to strengthen democracy, as a duty to avoid complicity with injustice over the most vulnerable of our people.

 The windfall benefits for Fiji

I have explained in previous articles how the Bainimarama/Sayed-Khaiyum Government over the past 16 years has resulted in poor economic growth, the severe erosion of the rule of law, stifling of the freedom of the media, wasteful public expenditure on poor quality infrastructure such as roads and water, broken health systems, and calamitous growth in public debt which will stifle government budgets for years to come.

These articles make clear that there are opposition parties whose stated policies will probably lead to Fiji’s recovery, if they are elected to Government.

Fiji’s opposition parties and voters have not specifically dwelt on the possible consequences of Fiji’s 2022 election for relations with Australia and New Zealand and the resulting benefits for Fiji citizens.

However, sitting here in Melbourne for the past five years and watching the changing foreign policies of successive governments led by Turnbull, Morrison and now Albanese, it is abundantly clear that the Pacific has become far more important than five years ago.

What I write about Australia also applies to New Zealand, though perhaps to a slightly lesser extent.

Largely as a result of China’s greater presence in the South Pacific and its signing of a treaty with the Solomon Islands, Australian geostrategic foreign policy has refocused on the Pacific countries, and especially the most important for them, Fiji.

This is abundantly clear from greater aid to Fiji and increased frequency of visits to Fiji by Australian Government Ministers, including Prime Minister Albanese, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

It is clear that the Australian Government is going out of its way to foster better relationships with solid economic benefits for Fiji: such as through the temporary labour schemes, and higher rates of emigration to fill skilled labour shortages in Australia as in nursing and aged care.

 Military co-operation benefits

There is one area of military co-operation which is not in the eye of the public or the opposition parties, and ought to be following Commander Kalouniwai’s “important speech”. This is the potential Australian use of Fiji’s military forces (both Army and Navy) in its regional peace-keeping activities, and training in Australia.

When the 1987 coup took place, Australia and New Zealand imposed sanctions on Fiji, with the negative result that Fiji look to other super-powers in the region, including China and Indonesia.

But when the 2006 coup took place, the two governments took a more targeted approach for geostrategic reasons, including with “smart sanctions” and influencing the disapproval of organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth, which isolated Fiji.

Inevitably that 2006 coup reduced the professional image of RFMF with Australia and New Zealand and worsened the diplomatic relations.

In the last few years, that diplomatic relationship has improved, with Fiji preferring Australian investment in the joint military training at the Black Rock facilities in Fiji’s West, rather than China’s bid.

I believe that the Fiji military is on the edge of some important opportunities. I suggest that Australia and New Zealand’s governments will be extremely keen to co-opt RFMF personnel (both Army and Navy) into military exercises with their defence forces.

These could lead to the stationing of signifi cant numbers of Fijian military personnel on Australian territory, with Australia paying for their upkeep at or close to Australian rates of remuneration.

There will clearly be far greater foreign policy stability for Australia in the Pacific, making interventions like the Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) more feasible and politically acceptable, if there are Fijian military personnel involved.

Of course, there can even be Navy personnel drawn from Tuvalu and Kiribati, and soldiers from other Pacific countries who are willing to participate.

Long term benefits

The immediate financial result for Fiji will be the saving of their salaries from the Fiji budget, a significant improvement in the incomes of the Fiji personnel and increase in remittances back to Fiji. But there will be more which all RFMF personnel can think about.

It is well known in Fiji that there are thousands of Fijian families who have benefi ted fi nancially for decades through the thousands of Fijian soldiers who served in the British army, some still there today, and many now with British citizenships.

That pattern is also likely to occur with Australia.

People in Fiji also may not be aware of the significant revolution in Australian attitudes towards Fijians from that prevailing even 20 years ago. Every Australian household is now aware of the Fijian rugby union stars (men and women), star rugby league players (mostly men so far), and even Fijian singers in Australian Idol (you can name them all).

Australians are not likely to forget the Fijian fruit pickers who not only saved their fruit crops when COVID hit their normal supplies of overseas workers, but also helped out with the bushfires.

Australians will not forget the Fijian fruit pickers who helped out in the recent disastrous floods in Lismore NSW, especially with TV images of burly Fijians helping in the evacuation of flooded age care homes by carrying elderly people in their arms, through the raging waters.

Just this week an ABC TV program had a segment on two very popular Fiji women working in an Australian aged care home as part of an Australian Government initiative. With such national exposure, you can be certain that demand for Fiji aged care workers can only go up, given the massive shortages throughout Australia.

I am positive that if Australia develops these stronger links with the RFMF, there will be greater use of Fijian personnel in Australian disasters, which all climatologists are expecting to worsen.

What Fijians living in Australia can see is that the Australian Government, especially the new Albanese one, is keen to expand co-operation with Fiji on all economic and social fronts, with higher immigration quotas set for the Pacific (including Fiji), and SBS even showing regular segments of Fiji TV.

Fiji should expect more such initiatives from the Australian Government, including the revitalisation of the PACER Agreement I have previously written about that can lead to genuine economic and social integration with Australia and NZ.

All depends on RFMF

The benefits I describe above would all be jeopardised by any unconstitutional action from anyone within the Fiji military.

It is no secret that many people in Fiji and elsewhere are worried about whether, and in what circumstances, there might be military intervention after Fiji’s election results.

Commander Kalouniwai’s speech has set the standard, welcomed by all law-abiding people in Fiji. It has endorsed the democratic norm of a military which is bound to serve a civilian government elected by the free will of the people.

If Fiji is able to navigate the next few weeks successfully and emerge as a country showing respect for democratic principles, there is a “democracy dividend” in store. Broadly that will stretch across the entire Fiji economy in terms of investor confidence, increased activity resulting in more jobs and better incomes, and better economic and social relations with Australia and New Zealand. But for the military there are benefits too. Perhaps these benefits are not lost on our country’s military commander, as his “most important speech” indicates.

  • PROF WADAN NARSEY is one of the region’s senior economists and a regular commentator on political and economic issues in Fiji. The views expressed in this articles are not necessarily the views of The Fiji Times.

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