Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

Hear Professor Brij Lal on the decision by Fiji’s military regime to discard the draft constitution

Go here for the audio and original article on the ABC website.


SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Australia’s Foreign Minister has responded sympathetically to Fiji’s rejection of a proposed constitution, despite a stinging response from other nations in the region.

Bob Carr says he can see why the military regime rejected elements of the draft.

He says the jury’s still out on whether the constitutional process it’s undertaking is enough to restore Fiji’s reputation in the eyes of the international community.

But an expert on Fiji says Senator Carr doesn’t fully understand what’s happening in the country, and Fijians’ confidence in the process has been shattered.

Lexi Metherell reports.

LEXI METHERELL: Last week Fiji’s military regime threw out the draft constitution created by an Australia and New Zealand-funded commission. The regime says it will re-write it then give it to a hand-picked constituent assembly to formulate a final version.

That move prompted a stinging response from Samoa and from New Zealand’s foreign minister Murray McCully.

MURRAY MCCULLY: The fact that they’ve trashed the work of the commission is pretty unhelpful.

LEXI METHERELL: But Australia’s Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, isn’t going that far.

He says he understands why the military rejected parts of the draft.

BOB CARR: The notion for example of a largely unelected national people’s assembly comprised principally of non-government organisations sitting alongside the parliament is something I can’t think of enjoying a precedence anywhere else in the constitution of a democratic country.

The recreation of an unelected great council of chiefs would seem to give rise to the suggestion that ethnic divisions in the country were going to be exaggerated by, and entrenched by new constitutional arrangements.

I can find it understandable that the interim government has objected to both these features of the draft constitution presented to it.

BRIJ LAL: Well I think that Mr Carr does not have a full understanding of the realities on the ground.

LEXI METHERELL: Under the draft written by the constitutional commission, the military would have no role in the country’s politics.

Professor of Pacific and Asian History at the ANU, Brij Lal says that’s not what the military wants.

BRIJ LAL: For anyone who understands the country, the outcome is very clear. The military will not have a constitution in which it does not have a visible presence, a voice in the government of the country. What has happened is that the regime in Fiji appointed a commission to draft a new constitution. That draft was supposed to go to a hand-picked constitution assembly which would then finally from that fashion a new constitution.

Now all that has been trashed. People’s trust in the process has been undermined if not shattered.

LEXI METHERELL: But the Foreign Minister Bob Carr is prepared to give the regime time to prove itself.

BOB CARR: I think there have been expressions from the interim government in Fiji that they want Fiji to move beyond the racial divisions that have held the country back in the past and that is something we would welcome. I think it is something the people of Fiji would welcome.

LEXI METHERELL: Do you think though that the process that’s now underway, the appointment of a constituent assembly to discuss a new draft, do you think that this is adequate for Fiji’s reputation to be rehabilitated in the international community’s eyes?

BOB CARR: Well, I think the jury is still out.

BRIJ LAL: Here was a draft constitution on which all the major political parties were united. This was a document that was pointing Fiji in the right direction. That is the jury. There, I think in the end is the most important – the people of Fiji.

LEXI METHERELL: Professor Brij Lal.

BRIJ LAL: If Mr Carr or anyone else thinks that out of this exercise that the regime is doing will come out a fair democratic constitution, then I think they will be in for a huge shock.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Professor Brij Lal, ending Lexi Metherell’s report.

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