NEWS Frank Bainimarama is our Pacific Islander of the Year, as the person who had the most impact on our lives across the region in 2007.
His tough stand on corruption in the face of heavy pressure from Australia and New Zealand set an example that drew applause and warm welcome from his elected non-peers at the Pacific Islands Forum.
Yes, he is turning into something of a paranoid bully.
And the kidnapping, torture, even killing of suspects under his military regime is human rights abuse, no doubt.
But by now, casual observers of the two colonial powers will entertain serious doubt about their ability to deliver good governance at home, let alone develop it across the region.
As other observers have noted, at the very time Australia was being named among top ten cleanest nations by Transparency International, it’s officially approved suppliers of wheat to the starving millions in Iraq were bribing local officials to the tune of $300 million.
Enough said. Apart from Papua New Guinea and, in more recent years, Solomon Islands, Australia is perceived as focusing outside the region, on the so-called war on terror or, earlier, a supposed threat from Indonesia, a bogeyman justifying billions on armed forces instead of, say, Aborigines.
By comparative perception, New Zealand has a much closer and deeper understanding of the islands region, and its governance challenges.
A clean, green south Pacific paradise, ranked first equal least corruption by Transparency International.
New Zealand is home to the Winebox, an official inquiry during the 1990’s that stared down global corruption – and not just blinked, but coughed and spluttered its way through years of evidence before finally laying down, rolling over and poking its chicken legs in the air.
The current prime minister has made a career of admirable stands on social issues, and strong economic management. She has also sold her country’s potentially strategic clean, green image down cow poo rivers by agreeing to genetically engineered crops, against popular local opinion, in the interests of playing off another military regime against the world’s worst polluter, for a Free Trade Agreement with either.
China or the United States, doesn’t seem to matter.
BACK TO FRANK
Back to Frank. Relevant to Fiji, sure, but the region? A few points explain our choice.One, his warm acceptance at the Forum finally explodes the myth that New Zealand or Australia has much insight into a region long claimed as their “back yard.”
Two, that corruption remains the leading issue facing the region.
Three, signing of an economic partnership agreement between Fiji and the European Union.
Naming anyone as person of anything should not be a popularity contest.
As previously noted by this agency, Time magazine set the precedent during World War II, naming Adolph Hitler as it’s man of the year. Not because they admired him, or saw him as an encouraging example, but because, at that time, Hitler was having the most impact on the world. This is not to say Bainimarama is like Hitler, at all, much as some might feel different. Such a comparison is not obscene, just silly.
For both better and worse, at this time, Bainimarama is having the most impact on our region. Some imagine a person of the year should be someone who has had the most positive impact, to inspire and encourage similar sentiment and efforts.
Sorry, but that’s short sighted.
Seeking feel-good candidates for glorification, the media risks overlooking real problems facing our region, or confusing readers, or worse, becoming part of the problem by overlooking issues needing urgent address.
Islands Business, for one, appears to have wussed out this year, choosing Carol Kidu, just as Time did in 2001 when it named popular New York mayor Rudolph Guliani instead of a far more influential person, terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Islands Business rightly reports Dame Carol Kidu as an unusual example of leadership in the region; a woman, a widow, white. She has achieved much, promises much more as a new breed of island nourishment.
Most impact across the region? Sadly, no.
Whatever true motives for the Bainimarama coup in Fiji, the commander is squandering early public support with unnecessarily brutal tactics. Politics are far too complicated for for-us or against-us simplicities, Bush getting away with such nonsense for too long, thanks largely to a media hijacked by corporate correctness.
Speaking of press precedent, a micro-agency like Avaiki Nius might just be showing off, talking about the whole region when past focus has been on Cook Islanders and, more recently, the people of French Polynesia.
Others could challenge our criticism of the (much bigger) regional news organisation, Islands Business magazine, in naming Dame Kidu as their PIOTY, an awkward acronym, so we won’t use it anymore.
Criticism, debate of our choice is welcome.
Especially because it seems to be missing where it is needed most – at senior political levels across the region. As biggest countries on the block, Australia and New Zealand have a natural duty to encourage that debate, not seek to shut it down as they failed to do at the Forum, and multifarious other fora.
What Bainimarama achieved for 2007 was to set regional debate back where it squarely belongs – on corruption.
Ironic, yes, that the Fiji commander-in-chief did so through a coup. Not so ironic, though, if we stare long and hard at what the coup spells out for the ‘natural’ leaders of the region – Helen Clark and ex-prime minister John Howard failing miserably at raising standards of good governance.
How on earth has Fiji suffered not one but five coups in the last 22 years, under the supposed stewardship of our supposed governance leaders?
It is not like either leader is a stranger to the region, note their long-term involvement in the
Secretariat of the Pacific Community, enjoying its 60th anniversary in 2007 and an enviable record of relentless regionalism.
TO BE FAIR
By comparison, the Forum has been hit-and-miss, raising arguments against attempts to amalgamate the two into some kind of super agency.
To be fair, however, we should not criticise Howard or Clark or even Australia or New Zealand and their respective track records too closely. Or expect too much from Howard’s worthy successor, Kevin Rudd.
After all, both countries are minor players on a world playground governed by some rather brutal bullies, face-planting weaker nations into the harsh bitumen of free market policies.
Witness the European Union and it’s jaw dropping signature this year on an economic partnership agreement with Fiji – currently governed, in case anyone forgot, by a military regime!
Critics of Bainimarama seem distracted by an abrasive personal style and stiff-arm tactics. They should rightly focus on this EPA signing with the deepest suspicion.
Conspiracy theorists may conjecture that Bainimara is lofting two larrikin fingers into the air only to distract attention from the other hand signing away his country’s sovereignty – splitting previous unity among Forum nations in the process.
Say what they like about conspiracy theories, an uncomfortable fact is some prove to be true.
Global trade is worth USD $60 trillion. The only thing standing in the way of siphoning ever more of this turnover into the splittingly large pockets of first world corporates is alarm among third world nations.
Let’s show off some more.
Delusions of ‘modern civilisation’ should be weighed with the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is less than a century old, against a background of millennia of global conflict. Recall Mahatma Gandhi and his famous answer to a question from an American reporter: what did he think about western civilisation?
“I think it would be a good idea.”
Or today’s news that another Eastern leader of democratic standing, Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated, courtesy of an anonymous suicide bomber, supposedly part of a radical Muslim group, mainstream media quoting equally anonymous ‘analysts.’
Strange then, that eyewitnesses report the bomber first placing two well aimed shots, one into her head, one into her chest, like a trained assassin, before detonating a bomb. No one laid claim to the bombing.
Raising questions of whom, really, was behind it. Regardless of who actually is, Bhutto is an extreme example of United Nations statistics showing women bear the brunt of brutality, in Fiji, as in Pakistan.
Blame across-the-board misogyny among world religions and their counting of women as somehow lesser to men, all evidence to the contrary. Men, after all, count bombs as “gross” domestic product, but not babies or the women who rear them.
Time to wrap this up, lavalava-like, for anyone still reading.
Much of this opinion piece falls outside of mainstream media coverage. Subjects raised here may seem extreme or ill-researched compared with hyper-local issues in daily headlines and in the nightly bulletins.
Centuries of scientific research, however, have not stopped this region and the world from shamelessly flirting with our own destruction. Like men refusing to wear condoms as they screw the planet.
Reason enough to remind people why it is not the role of the media to play at plough horses, tilling soils of society, but to maintain the traditional media role as a watchdog.
Barking noisily at potential threats, and, if need be, sinking in a nasty bite.
Francis Bainimarama is recognised here not because he offers dwindling hope of meaningful reform.
He is our Pacific Islander of the Year because he also offers a reminder: an urgency to identify causes, not symptoms, facing us all as globally warming citizens.
Need we say it again – corruption.