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By ROWAN CALLICK (Rowan Callick is the Asia-Pacific editor of the national newspaper The Australian. He accompanied Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on her two-day visit to Fiji. This is
16 Feb 2014 10:24
Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, and Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop exchange gifts during their meeting last Friday at the Prime Minister’s office in Suva. Photo: MINFO NEWS

Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, and Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop exchange gifts during their meeting last Friday at the Prime Minister’s office in Suva. Photo: MINFO NEWS

By ROWAN CALLICK

(Rowan Callick is the Asia-Pacific editor of the national newspaper The Australian. He accompanied Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on her two-day visit to Fiji. This is an abridged and edited version of his report in the Weekend Australian)
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop flew to Suva for a historic meeting with Voreqe Bainimarama that has triggered the repair of relations between Australia and Fiji after seven years of mutual hostility.
In the Australian Coalition Government’s most decisive step away from the foreign policy position of the Rudd-Gillard years, it is restoring links with Fiji across the whole of government, including, crucially, defence ties.
Ms Bishop’s meeting with Commodore Bainimarama went for an hour, running overtime.
“The atmospherics were warm,” she said. “He was engaged. He laughed a lot.”
She presented him with a jersey of the West Coast Eagles AFL team for which she barracks, signed by its Fijian star ruckman Nic Naitanui.
At the meeting, Commodore Bainimarama discussed the election process, and indicated he was prepared for whatever role resulted, even if he were to lose the prime ministership. “He talked about a range of post-election scenarios,” Ms Bishop said.
“I have long wanted to take a different approach to Fiji, and normalise relations,” she said. “We had to take the lead.”

SANCTIONS
Key among the priorities in normalising relations will be Australian travel sanctions, which ban anyone associated with the Government from visiting Australia. Ms Bishop said the bans had been ineffective and the policy was under review.
Australians have been voting with their feet, holidaying in Fiji in greater numbers than ever.
During the meeting in the Prime Minister’s office, Ms Bishop outlined to Commodore Bainimarama Canberra’s extensive new policy programme towards Fiji.
When he raised the travel sanctions issue, she said the past 56 requests for exemptions had been granted, with just one rejected, on technical grounds.
Ms Bishop said: “Recently, we have been providing a significant number of exemptions on compassionate, humanitarian and national interest grounds.”
Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, has come to Australia often, and the government’s second most powerful figure, the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, was allowed to travel to Australia over Christmas.
Commodore Bainimarama said he was gratified his son had been allowed to visit Australia to play in a school rugby competition, but he remained unhappy with the principle of sanctions.
Ms Bishop said a review of the policy was almost complete, and the next opportunity to take it to cabinet would be very soon when he steps down as military chief.
The last meeting between Commodore Bainimarama and an Australian foreign minister, Labor’s Stephen Smith, degenerated into recriminations. The most recent meeting with New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully was also difficult.
Ms Bishop told Commodore Bainimarama that the new deal she brought to Fiji was not conditional, even on its accepting the return of an Australian high commissioner to the mission in Suva which it has so far refused.

PARTNER
Ms Bishop told The Weekend Australian: “I want us to normalise relations ahead of an election. I want Australia to be the partner of choice in the Pacific. And there is an opportunity with our new government to start afresh.”
She has held meetings with Ratu Inoke, including in Brisbane, to discuss this normalisation, “on the basis that free and fair elections will proceed”.
She considered it vital to have “met Mr Bainimarama face to face to make sure we were on the same page. We have invested a lot of time and effort in this.”

TWINNING
Besides support for the election process, the new Australian package will include a twinning arrangement in areas including foreign policy, finance and the Public Service Commission, with Fiji officials working in Canberra, and Australians in Suva.

DEFENCE
Australia has invited Fiji to send a defence representative to Canberra, and hopes to reinstate its own defence attaché in Suva.
Fiji will be invited to participate again in Australia’s Pacific patrol boat programme, through which its present three boats might be renovated, or it might receive two further vessels.
A defence co-operation programme will be re-established to include joint exercises and staff college training. Australia’s seasonal workers’ programme that brings Pacific Islanders to Australia is set to be expanded to include Fiji.

 

In warm meeting Julie Bishop told our PM, Australia:
n Restoring relations across whole government, including defence
n Reviewing ‘failed’ travel sanctions, near complete, going to Cabinet
n Expanding seasonal worker programme to include Fijians
n Changing policy unconditionally, not dependent our accepting envoy




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