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Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, is facing his first elections since seizing power in 2006. The strongman’s campaign road trip of expat communities found him in Sydney’s battler belt. By Hamish McDonald.

Bainimarama campaigning on the road

Frank Bainimarama meeting supporters in Auckland during his tour this month of Fijian expat populations.
Credit: AFP

The upper reaches of the Cooks River, an unlovely stream that winds through the industrial suburbs of Sydney towards Botany Bay, have not seen many visits by admirals, though hopeful developers are starting to build apartments along it with “water views”.

But a politician has to go where the votes are, so last Saturday Rear Admiral (Ret.) Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, the Fijian prime minister, arrived at a hall next to its murky waters and mud flats. For a few hours, the arguments of Fijian politics flew over the road rage of Canterbury Road.

Former Commodore Bainimarama, 60, is completing a pilgrimage that started nearly eight years ago when, as a commodore in command of the Fijian defence forces, he overthrew the elected government and had the country’s senile president appoint him interim prime minister. He vowed to end the “divisive, adversarial, inward-looking, race-based politics” that had prevailed since independence from Britain in 1970.

No one, no institution, has been allowed to stand in his way.

The great council of chiefs, the body that appointed the president: abolished. The judiciary: sacked en masse in 2009 after the top court ruled the 2006 coup illegal. The constitution: abrogated. The Methodist church, ministering to two-thirds of indigenous Fijians: not allowed to hold conferences for many years. Trade unions: collective bargaining abolished and strikes banned. The media: subjected to a decree imposing heavy fines and jail terms up to two years for reports against the “national interest”.

Now Bainimarama is running for election on September 17 under a new constitution proclaimed a year ago, which takes the previous sharing of power with traditional chiefs and a parliamentary quota for indigenous Fijians and replaces it with a single electorate for a unicameral parliament.

Recently cleared of travel sanctions by the Abbott government, Bainimarama’s first visit to Sydney in six years started at the Kiwi Curry House, Liverpool, to meet local organisers of his party, FijiFirst, followed by calls at a mosque and a Hindu temple favoured by migrants from Fiji’s Indian-origin community.

Australian tour

On Saturday it was the clubhouse of the Mytilenian Brotherhood, a society of settlers from the Greek island of Lesbos, for a FijiFirst rally aimed at the 4000 or so registered voters in Australia’s 65,000-strong Fijian diaspora, concentrated in this battler-belt sector of Sydney.

It was not the warmest bula (hello) when your reporter arrived. Security guards bulging with tattooed muscles manned the doors. Police stood around, talking into mics. Just before, the more obvious followers of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement had been evicted. They stood in a park across the road, holding up signs such as “Fiji: Paradise Lost, A Tale of Ongoing Human Rights Violations” and “Your Power is the Barrel of the Gun: Return Our Law”. 

The gatekeepers were apologetic: “The PM says no media coverage.” But the Pacific way is full of sympathetic exceptions, and The Saturday Paper soon found itself hustled inside while the more obvious media with cameras − the ABC, SBS, al-Jazeera − stood out on the pavement.

The hall filled with some 300 people, perhaps half iTaukei (indigenous Fijians), half Indo-Fijians. Bright shirts and blouses peeped out of winter clothes. One or two female heads sported a hibiscus flower.

Bainimarama arrived from backstage, wearing a turquoise and white floral shirt under a dark sports coat, and sat behind a table draped with brown-and-white tapa cloth. His long ramble touched familiar themes: how the “little blue book” (the new constitution) was designed to take Fiji forward from the postcolonial era of racialism, corruption and selfish office-seeking politics.

He still visibly seethes recalling the crisis in 2000 when the dodgy part-Australian businessman George Speight and iTaukei nationalists seized then prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry and dozens of other politicians and staff at Parliament House in a 56-day drama.

“The reason why we [the military] could not talk to George Speight and his group, to release the people that were in as hostages, was because of the two groups that interfered in the work of the military. And that was the great council of chiefs and the few tala-tala [churchmen] that went in and out of parliament supporting the events of 2000, which we know were one of the darkest days in Fiji,” Bainimarama said.

“Which, at the end of the day, as you know, cost the deaths of soldiers. And that was what motivated me and the military into making sure that Fiji does not go through those dark days again. And that is why we came up with this.”

However, he denies the little blue book is his own guarantee of continuing power. “There has been widespread rumour that this book was written by this government for this government, and this is incorrect,” he insisted.

The lively social media sites on Fiji, and those across the street outside, would disagree. It gives legal immunity to Bainimarama and other coup-makers; allows suspension of certain freedoms to preserve public order and safety; and an election decree bars non-government organisations that receive any form of overseas funding – that is, most of them – from election activity.

Still, opposition parties have been able to register, and the main ones represent the old political groups Bainimarama hopes to leave in the past, notably the ethnic-Fijian based Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) and the National Federation Party, traditionally the Indo-Fijian vehicle.

Infrastructure priorities

Bainimarama hopes his economic development mantra will drown out appeals to racial fears, of losing identity and land among the iTaukei, and of second-class citizenship among the Indians.

Helped by soft loans from China, India and Malaysia, he was able to boost infrastructure spending and welfare over the past 18 months, lifting economic growth to 3.6 per cent last year. Bainimarama has been constantly making appearances to turn on new electricity and water supplies in villages, open new sealed roads and wharves, and announce the abolition of school fees and the reduction of bus fares.

Nothing to do with campaigning, of course – just the business of a good government. It may not be sustainable − public debt is 48 per cent of gross domestic product, and contingent liabilities another 30 per cent, according to the Asian Development Bank − but it may do the election trick.

It got a spontaneous burst of applause inside the hall, and the answers to questions about human rights and rule-of-law quickly morphed to “rights” of clean water, transport and jobs.

The most tense moments came when iTaukei got up to ask about the national Land Bank set up by the interim government, which takes over “unutilised” indigenous land and leases it for productive use by investors, with the full rent going back to the traditional owners. In Melanesian societies, this is the most explosive of all issues.

Could the land issue, the treatment of the chiefs, and the muzzling of the Methodists and the media come back to bite Bainimarama at the polls?

After he left the hall and drove off, ignoring the chants from across the road, some of the opposition walked up Canterbury Road to a plain brick Wesleyan chapel now home to the Fiji Uniting Church. In the hall at the back, the men sat cross-legged on woven palm mats to confer over a kava bowl; the women made curried-egg and tuna sandwiches and big pots of milky tea, and sat on chairs around the edges.

When Usaia Waqatairewa, a young man who leads the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement in Australia, got up from the mats, I asked him whether Bainimarama’s message of development and welfare was working as well as it seemed.

“He’s ruled Fiji for the last eight years with an iron fist,” replied Waqatairewa, a former government accountant in Suva. “His rule has repressed freedom of speech, expression, freedom of the media. Anyone who’s been speaking up against him, they’ve been taken up to the barracks and beaten by soldiers. That’s why people are afraid to speak out. That’s the stability he wants. But it’s a very superficial stability, because the people who disagree with him, the dissention, is just lurking under the surface.”

“If he is returned to government, all I can say – it’s a nightmare,” says another Sydney-based oppositionist, Joseph Raga, a former staffer to the prime minister ousted in the 2006 coup, Laisenia Qarase. “He will not change. Dictatorship will continue.”

Back in the hall, Bainimarama had been asked if he would accept an election defeat. He was less than forthright in his response: “I have 14 grandchildren to look after.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Road testing the old Commodore". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.