Last month I had an opportunity to sit in Fiji’s new Parliament for two days and observe the proceedings along with Speaker of New Zealand Parliament David Parker and Parliament Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairperson Mark Mitchell.
With only seven weeks sitting experience and considering that just four of Fiji’s 50 parliamentarians have any previous experience in Parliament, it is new in every respect.
After eight years of government, since the coup of 2006, during which there was no accountability by Ministers to the people of Fiji, both Government and Opposition are still finding their feet after last year’s election (held on September 17).
Parliamentary procedures, debates and question time are not as robust as in New Zealand. Unquestionably, however, there has been real progress. Last year’s elections were determined by the Multinational Observer Group to be largely free and fair.
The Fiji First Party won a clear majority and a mandate to govern, opening the opportunity for New Zealand to re-establish full relations with Fiji and for Fiji to participate once again in international groupings such as the Commonwealth and Pacific Islands Forum.
New Zealand, which rightly refused to condone the seizure of power by force in 2006 and the overturning of an elected government, now has the opportunity to fully re-establish its relationship with Fiji’s government.
We welcome this because despite ruptures caused by successive coups, people-to-people relationships between New Zealanders and Fijians have always remained strong.
We get on well together. New Zealand welcomes the big contribution made by Fijians who have come in large numbers to live and make their futures in New Zealand.
Kiwis travel in large numbers to holiday in Fiji. We enjoy a common language, similar institutions of governance and Kiwi and Fijian soldiers have served alongside each other in international deployments and peacekeeping.
Both countries share a love of rugby. Indeed, we can claim to have achieved a unique unifying effect on the Fijian Parliament last month as all Members joined in a resolution celebrating the victory of the Fijians over the All Blacks in the Rugby Sevens in Glasgow.
Fijian MPs clearly enjoyed this celebration even more because the New Zealand delegation was present in the Parliament to witness it.
Despite their inexperience, Fiji’s parliamentarians have performed well in the
Westminster-style institution that our two countries share.
The Opposition asked searching questions of Ministers and there was good debate.
Our purpose in being in Fiji was to support the re-establishment there of a strong parliamentary democracy. We talked with the government and the opposition about assisting in practical ways, alongside the United Nations Development Programme headed by (former Prime Minister of New Zealand) Helen Clark, to help provide resources to strengthen the way Parliament works.
Fiji is important to us and to the Pacific and we want the country and its new parliamentary democracy to succeed.
There is still a legacy of distrust and bitterness arising out of the coups and moving from habits of governance where contest and accountability were not part of the system will take some time.
A recent issue that has blown up, for example, was a Police call to the Opposition for advertising meetings with constituents without seeking a police permit. The requirement to have a permit dates back to 1969 so it may not be new but it is clearly out of place in a democracy and is the sort of outdated law that could and should be repealed.
Parliament still only sits for limited periods. Strict decrees impose limits on what we take for granted as democratic rights. For example, severe penalties for breaching controls on the media lead to self-censorship. Some 15 Bills were pushed through Parliament after the Budget under urgency with limited debate, of only ten minutes.
It is easy for us to criticise shortcomings in the system but it is better if we engage constructively to assist change and help build the conventions that make democracy strong and sustainable.
Fiji has made important economic and social progress and in ensuring that citizens enjoy equal rights regardless of their ethnicity.
As a friend and neighbour of Fiji, working with both sides of Parliament to help it develop a robust democracy seems to me to be the best path forward for New Zealand.
Phil Goff is former Foreign Affairs, Trade and Justice Minister and has been Member of Parliament for almost 35 years. Elected from Mt Roskill, he is today Labour Party’s Spokesperson for Ethnic Affairs and Auckland Issues.