Thursday, March 31, 2011

Australian Opposition calls for Fiji sanctions rethink

Fiji Village News - 31 March 2011 

 Australia's Opposition is once again urging the government to rethink its approach to the military regime in Fiji. Australia has maintained a tough stance with the interim government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama since it seized power after a coup in 2006. But in recent months the United States has moved to establish closer relations with the regime, and the Opposition foreign says Australia should do the same.
Julie Bishop - Australia's Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman
Presenter:Joanna McCarthy
Speaker: Julie Bishop, Australia's opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman

BISHOP: I believe it's time for the Australian government to review its stance on Fiji, particularly time to assess whether the sanctions imposed on Fiji are working or whether they are potentially counter-productive. We must consider the impact of the sanctions on the Fijian people. I am urging Foreign Minister Rudd to refocus his efforts in the Pacific, particularly on Fiji, to see if there's a better way to restore democracy and the rule of law in Fiji.

MCCARTHY: Do you think the current approach has been counter-productive, as you say?

BISHOP: We need to review the policy and it's time for us to particularly review the sanctions. I'm urging Mr. Rudd to follow the lead of the United States, and other European nations who are reviewing their policies towards Fiji. We need to work closely with New Zealand to see if we can influence Commodore Bainimarama to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible. Our concern must be for the peace, stability and welfare of the Fijian people.

MCCARTHY: Last year, you said a coalition government would open negotiations with Frank Bainimarama about electoral reform. Do you stand by that?

BISHOP: Absolutely. I think we need to be far more creative and flexible in our approach. Mr. Rudd's policy doesn't appear to be working. I will be attending a Australia-New Zealand leadership forum shortly and I intend to raise the issue of Fiji at that forum. I'm also meeting with the Australian-Fijian Business Council next week. I have been meeting with representatives from the Fijian government and former MPs to try and come up with ways to progress Fiji's road to democracy.The policies that Mr. Rudd is following do not appear to be working.

MCCARTHY: Why would engagement with Commodore Bainimarama work though? What about the risk that you would be simply be strung along without any real positive outcome?

BISHOP: I'm focusing only on electoral reform at this point. I think the ultimate outcome must be for there to be free and fair elections so that we can return to democracy in Fiji as soon as possible. At this stage, Commodore Bainimarama is talking about an election sometime in 2014, but he's not been held to that. I think much more pressure should be put on him to commit to a date and we should work towards that with our other friends and partners in the region.

MCCARTHY: Well US officials have recently said that they'd like Fiji to hold elections before 2014. That was seen as effectively endorsing the junta's timetable. What's your position on when elections should be held? Should they be (held) immediately or do you accept this 2014 time frame?

BISHOP: The 2014 time frame was set by Commodore Bainimarama. I have no confidence that he would maintain that timetable. I would like to see steps towards an election as soon as possible. The people of Fiji deserve the right to have their say and I believe we need to see a commitment to an election as soon as possible and a restoration of the rule of law, free speech, a free press. 

MCCARTHY: US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, met with Fiji's foreign affairs minister last September. Do you think Washington is undermining Australia's foreign policy in the region?

BISHOP: Washington has made it clear that they are reviewing their policy towards Fiji. When Kurt Campbell announced last year that they would rethink their approach to Fiji, I was very disappointed that the Labor government did not follow suit or made no response at all. So Washington has made it clear that they are reviewing their policies towards Fiji, I urge Mr. Rudd to do the same.

MCCARTHY: The attempt to isolate Fiji began under your government and the foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer. Are you now saying that that approach was wrong?

BISHOP: No, I supported the imposition of the sanctions at the time, but now many years have passed. It's time to reassess whether the sanctions imposed on Fiji are still having an effect or whether they are potentially counter-productive and damaging the economy to the detriment of the Fijian people.

MCCARTHY: And what about China's growing influence in the Pacific? Is that one of your reasons for suggesting we re-engage?

BISHOP: I am concerned that the Australian government appears to be losing influence in the Pacific. We have redirected aid away from our region. The Rudd, now Gillard government, has spread our aid budget very thinly. There have been calls for the Australian government to refocus its aid effort in the Pacific and I join with those criticisms. I believe we do need to focus on our region and that includes the Pacific Islands.

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