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Fiji, Tonga in Pacific 'Democratisation' Forum

Fiji, Tonga Featured in Pacific 'Democratisation' Forum

By Dr Evangelia Papoutsaki

MELBOURNE (Pacific Media Centre/Pacific Media Watch): The Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies (AAAPS) conference “Oceanic Transformations” closed on Sunday, April 10, in Melbourne with a plenary session on “Experiences of democratisation in the Pacific”.

The speakers, Alisi Taumoepeau (former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice in Tonga) and Mosmi Bhim (Communications and Advocacy Officer at the Citizens’ Constitutional Focrun) gave two very distinctive and emotive accounts of how their respective countries deal with issues of democratisation.

Alisi Taumoepeau gave an update of the constitutional reform in Tonga and a touching personal account of her experiences in Tonga’s most recent turbulent events that left her deeply concerned about her country’s ability to deal with the democratisation process.

While the promised election of November 10 is still likely to take place, the details relating to voting and amendments to the electoral law have not yet been done, Taumoepeau said.

She argued that “during the uncertainties of this transition period in Tonga, it is important to those who lead and those being led, that the rule of law exists regardless of political structure, content of law or human rights assertion”.

The rule of law, Taumoepeau said, requires that government is accountable and transparent, ensures the independence of judiciary and implements due diligence and good governance, all very essential for a successful constitutional reform.

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Mosni Bhim argued that Fiji’s democracy was "disabled due to uninformed citizenry". Fiji was noticeably little discussed in this conference; however this closing presentation added a new interpretation to Fiji’s coup culture and sparked some debate.

Democracy in Fiji, Bhim said, had been top down, with its values and merits understood and advocated by the middle class and the rich but largely ignored by the grassroots whose preoccupation was primarily making ends meet. Results in past elections in Fiji showed votes were cast in response to emotional appeals by politicians as opposed to criteria of better infrastructure and services and accountability of government.

The lack of widespread protest against coups is seen by Bhim in the “context of the need for basic services at the grassroots level and its contribution to the mal-functioning of democratic processes in Fiji through a citizenry that is inadequately informed by media or research”.

She also added that the lack of good leaders had contributed to this problem, as had the discomfort ordinary citizens had with demanding accountability and transparency from their leaders. If poverty was not resolved, democracy could not come in Fiji.

Perhaps we need to look more closely at the links between governance and development as a way of breaking the pattern of coups in Fiji.

The conference, hosted by Victoria University in Melbourne, was largely a successful event. It not only engaged for three days a very diverse audience, ranging from academics to NGO, arts, churches and media representatives but also a noticeably high number of presenters and attendees from the Pacific Islands who brought their unique perspectives to the various debates.

Panel presenters touched issues of governance, advocacy, civil society, media, environment, health, regional organisations and arts.

The role of this association, which was founded in 2005, is an important one as it seeks to address the lack of understanding about the Pacific by Australians who seem to learn less and less form their educational institutions and media about Oceania.

Dr Evangelia Papoutsaki is an associate professor in communication studies at Unitec in New Zealand and a research associate of the Pacific Media Centre.

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