The ties that bind Australia and Fiji are clearly greater than the issues that sometimes divide us. Our people are genuinely fond of each other and nothing is more important to Fiji than continuing to welcome the hundreds of thousands of Australians who visit our shores every year.
As you all know, there are also tens of thousands of Fijians living in this country, adding the richness of their culture to the great multicultural melting pot that is modern Australia.
Certain Fijians are even enriching the life of Senator Thistlewaite, a keen supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the National Rugby League.
I think I can confidently say that without Apisai Koroisau, the Fijian hooker for the Rabbitohs and the other Pacific players at the Club, the Senator’s weekends would not be quite so enjoyable.
New Zealand Rugby
Of course, there are Fijian players throughout the New Zealand Rugby League (NRL), as well as in the Kangaroos and Wallabies. I am sometimes amused at the way in which your sports commentators mangle the pronunciation of their names but there is no doubting the affection in which they are held by the fans. Or the way in which Australia’s international sporting reputation so often depends on them.
The point is that our relationship runs very deep – certainly way beyond our business ties and, person-to-person, is overwhelmingly one of mutual affection.
As our Prime Minister (Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama) said in an interview to the New Zealand media on July 26, “Fijians love Australians. Always have, always will.” We are neighbours and we are friends; which also means that we have our differences from time to time and need to treat these with openness and candour.
As you would have gathered from his comments, the Fijian Government is decidedly less than happy about Australia’s plan to move asylum-seekers wanting to settle in Australia into Melanesia – into our neighbourhood.
For an Australian problem, you have proposed a Melanesian solution that threatens to destabilise the already delicate social and economic balances in our societies.
The Australian Government has used its economic muscle to persuade one of our Melanesian governments to accept thousands of people who are not Pacific Islanders, a great number of them permanently.
This was done to solve a domestic political problem and for short-term political gain, without proper consideration of the long-term consequences.
This was done without any consultation, a sudden and unilateral announcement, which is not the Pacific way. This has shocked a great many people in the region.
Why, you may ask, is this any of Fiji’s business? This was a deal with Papua New Guinea (PNG), a sovereign government surely entitled to make its own arrangements.
We regard it as our business because we see ourselves as part of a wider Melanesian community through the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).
We are striving for more cohesion, more integration in the MSG, including formation of a Melanesian Common Market with free flow of goods, services and labour.
This deal, and those mooted with Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, clearly threatens our interests by altering the fundamental social fabric of any member country that accepts a deal with Australia.
Recipe for instability
We are deeply troubled by the consequent threat to the stability of these countries, and the wider Melanesian community, by the scale of what is being envisaged.
Indeed, we are alarmed to read some of the accounts of what is evidently being canvassed in Australian policy circles.
In the words of Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian, “Imagine what the South Pacific would be like in five or six years’ time if there were 50,000 resettled refugees in PNG, and perhaps 10,000 in Vanuatu, 5000 in Solomon Islands and a few thousands elsewhere in the Pacific. These refugees would be Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Palestinians, perhaps some Sudanese and Somalis, and most of them getting some Australian financial support. This population would constitute a recipe for social instability and a significant security problem for the region.”
Very similar sentiments have been expressed by Indonesia, the Salvation Army and a growing number of Australian interest groups.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has warned that settling subsidised asylum-seekers in PNG under the deal could spark local resentment among a population already suffering significant disadvantage, thus leading to instability.
History has shown us that such instability will have far reaching ripple effects for not only PNG but also the rest of the region. As business people, you are well aware of the potential for the negative spillover effect of this Australian Government policy throughout the region, given that our Pacific economies are inextricably connected.
It is therefore our business and before this goes any further, we want thorough regional consultation. We want – no, we demand – to have our voices heard.
It is not our concern who wins the coming Australian election. That is a matter for the Australian people. But we are deeply concerned about the impact of Australian politics on our own affairs.
We are deeply concerned about the impact of Australian politics on the welfare of future generations of Pacific People. As Pacific Islanders, we share the horror of many in the international community at the deaths of more than 1000 asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia.
It is a terrible human tragedy and our hearts go out to the families of those involved.
But we cannot remain silent when the current Australian Government dumps this problem, which is arguably of its own making, on our doorstep.
Regrettably, from Fiji’s perspective, this deal continues a pattern of behaviour on the part of the Australian Government that is inconsiderate, prescriptive, highhanded and arrogant. Instead of treating the Pacific nations as equals, your decision-makers too often ignore our interests and concerns and take it for granted that we will accede to their wishes and demands.
Australia is a vast landmass with vast resources and is thus much better placed than the small and vulnerable nations of the Pacific to address this problem. The question must be asked as to why Australia did not engage with the other Forum members before it embarked on its latest Pacific Solution for unwanted asylum seekers?
From where we sit, we suspect the answer is that the Australian Government does not particularly care what we think. Fiji therefore appeals to the current Australian Government to face up to the responsibilities to your neighbours.
Inoke Kubuabola is Fiji’s Minister for Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation. The above is an edited version of a speech that he delivered at the 20th Australia Fiji Forum held at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, Australia on July 29, 2013. Among those present at the Forum were Matt Thistlethwaite, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, President of the Australia-Fiji Business Council Greg Pawson, Members of the Australia-Fiji and Fiji-Australia Business Councils and others.
Inoke Kubuabola (centre) with Matt Thistlethwaite (left) and Fiji Australia Business Council President Kalpesh Solanki at the Fiji Australia Forum held in Brisbane on July 29, 2013 (Picture courtesy: Croz Walsh’s Blog