Smith stands by Australian Fiji approach

Australia is standing by its approach to the Fiji administration issue as the island nation’s non-elected government triumphs over its ability to attract Pacific nations to a summit that began on Thursday.

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Australia and Fiji became embroiled in a bitter spat over whether a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group should proceed in Fiji.

Fiji believed the meeting would lend some credibility to its regime, while Australia thought the meeting would undermine efforts to pressure Fiji to return to democracy.

The argument saw Australia’s acting high commissioner to Fiji expelled.

Now the meeting has gone ahead under a new name – Engaging Fiji – and is being attended by countries including Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and Kiribati.

Fiji’s military ruler Frank Bainimarama said Australia had “egg on its face” and had been embarrassed because so many nations were there.

But Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith stood by his actions.

He said he “rejects absolutely” that Australia had tried to interfere in the workings of MSG or Fiji, but it had objected to the meeting being held in Fiji.

“Our rationale for that, which we made clear throughout the region was that we believe this was an attempt by Commodore Bainimarama to undermine the standing, authority and unanimity of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF),” Mr Smith told reporters in Perth.

“I make no apology whatsoever for this representation.”

Fiji was expelled from the PIF in a bid to coax it back to democracy. Elections have not been held since Commodore Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup. They are now due in 2014.

Mr Smith said Commodore Bainimarama’s motivation was obvious as the Australian government had been publicly critical of his military regime.

“Since he assumed power, Fiji’s economic and social circumstance have deteriorated. That’s a matter of objective fact,” he said.

Commodore Bainimarama told the opening session of Engaging Fiji in Nadi that the meeting should contribute to “actual and true democracy”.

He said his interim government had updated laws, embraced new technology, boosted the economy and made more land available for farming and investment in an effort to establish a “fair, just and modern Fiji”.

The state-controlled Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reported that at a closed session, Fiji presented its timeline for holding elections in 2014.

Consultation on drafting a new constitution would begin in September 2012, and would not be limited to political parties.