Fiji country brief

Overview

The Republic of Fiji is a group of over 300 islands covering 18,376 sq. km. It has a total population of 898,760 (World Bank estimate, 2016). Fiji's capital is Suva. Its major languages are English, Fijian and Hindi and its major religions are Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

Political overview

Fiji is governed by a single chamber, 50-member Parliament. Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party won a landslide victory in Fiji’s last election in September 2014. FijiFirst secured 59.2 per cent of the vote and 32 of the 50 seats in Parliament. Fiji’s next election is due to be held in 2018.

Opposition parties that currently hold seats in Parliament include the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA – 15 seats) and the National Federation Party (NFP – three seats).  SODELPA is led by Sitiveni Rabuka and NFP is led by Professor Biman Prasad.

Political history

Fiji became independent in 1970 after nearly a century as a British colony. On independence, Fiji adopted a constitutional democratic form of government based on the Westminster system.

Democratic rule was interrupted by two military coups in 1987 led by then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Lieutenant Colonel Rabuka abrogated the 1970 Constitution and declared Fiji a republic. A short period of military government and two subsequent interim administrations followed, with elections not held until May 1992. Subsequently, after extensive consultations, a new constitution was adopted in 1997.

Fiji suffered another period of political, social and economic instability beginning on 19 May 2000, when a group led by George Speight seized control of the Parliament and took hostage then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and members of his government, holding them for 56 days. In the following months, the 1997 Constitution was abrogated, the President stepped down and three successive unelected interim administrations took control of Fiji’s government.

In 2001, the Fiji High Court and Court of Appeal ruled that the 1997 Constitution remained valid. General elections were held in August 2001 and Fiji returned to parliamentary democracy under Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, who was returned as Prime Minister at subsequent elections held in May 2006.

Prime Minister Qarase was ousted in a military coup on 5 December 2006, led by then Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

Commodore Bainimarama, as leader of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces and ‘executive authority’ in Fiji, dismissed then President Ratu Josefa Iloilo.  He reinstated President Iloilo in January 2007, who then formally appointed Commodore Bainimarama interim Prime Minister.

On 9 April 2009, the Fiji High Court found that Prime Minister Qarase's dismissal and Commodore Bainimarama's appointment as interim Prime Minister had been illegal. In response, on 10 April 2009 President Iloilo announced that he had abrogated Fiji's 1997 Constitution. All judicial appointments were revoked and Public Emergency Regulations were imposed. President Iloilo subsequently reappointed Commodore Bainimarama as interim Prime Minister.

The Australian Government, in concert with other countries, the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, strongly condemned the military's unconstitutional removal of Fiji's elected government.

Australia also imposed travel restrictions on senior members of the interim Fiji Government, including ministers, military personnel and their family members, government appointees and the judiciary. The Australian Government implemented these travel sanctions flexibly, granting exceptions on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Bilateral defence cooperation was suspended in 2006. However, the Australian Government maintained a substantial development assistance program for Fiji.

Pacific Islands Forum Leaders decided on 2 May 2009 to suspend Fiji from the Forum. Fiji was also suspended from the Commonwealth in September 2009.

On 10 January 2013, interim Prime Minister Bainimarama and then President Nailatikau (appointed in November 2009) announced that the interim Fiji Government would prepare a new draft constitution. Following a period of public consultation, President Nailatikau promulgated the new constitution on 6 September 2013.

Key features of the new constitution include:

  • a single chamber, 50-member Parliament elected on the basis of one person, one vote using a proportional representation system;
  • a Prime Minister, who commands the party with the most seats in Parliament, as head of the elected Government;
  • a President appointed by Parliament as the Head of State and ceremonial Commander in Chief of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces; and
  • elections for Parliament be held by September 2014 and then every four years.

Following Fiji’s significant progress towards elections, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced on 31 March 2014 that Australia’s travel restrictions would be lifted.

Fiji held a national election on 17 September 2014. The election marked a critical step in Fiji’s transition to democracy and was welcomed by the international community. As noted above, interim Prime Minister Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party won a majority with 32 of the 50 seats.

A Multinational Observer Group (MOG), co-led by Australia, Indonesia and India, found the outcome of the election broadly represented the will of the Fiji people.  It also made 38 recommendations for improving the process of future elections, a number of which have been implemented by the Fiji Government.

Following the 2014 election, the Australian Government lifted all remaining restrictions on engagement with Fiji and resumed its Defence Cooperation Program.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group lifted Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth on 26 September 2014. The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat lifted Fiji’s suspension from the Forum on 22 October 2014.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Fiji share a strong and enduring bilateral relationship. As outlined above, Australia’s engagement with Fiji was restricted following the 2006 coup. However, since early 2014 these restrictions have been progressively lifted and significant progress been made in improving the relationship.

The Australian Government has deepened engagement with Fijian ministers and officials, including through regular two-way ministerial and senior officials’ visits. Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, visited Fiji in March 2016 following Tropical Cyclone Winston and in August 2016 to attend the first regular Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.  Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, visited Fiji in August and September 2016. She also visited Fiji in February 2017 to attend a service commemorating the one-year anniversary of Tropical Cyclone Winston, and again in July 2017 to represent Australia at the Climate Action Pacific Partnership Meeting. Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, the Hon Keith Pitt MP, visited Fiji in January 2017 and again in March 2017 to represent Australia at the Pacific Regional Platform for Partnerships and Action on Sustainable Development Goal 14 (oceans).

Fiji ministers and officials also visit Australia regularly. For example, Prime Minister Bainimarama visited in October 2014 to celebrate Fiji’s National Day with members of Australia’s Fijian community in Sydney, in April and May 2017 to meet Prime Minister Turnbull in Sydney and participate in the Australasian Emissions Reduction Summit Melbourne, and again in July 2017 to chair a Fiji trade and investment symposium in Brisbane.

People-to-people links

Australia and Fiji have extensive people-to-people links, with around 3,000 Australians resident in Fiji and 71,800 Fiji-born people living in Australia (according to the 2016 Australian Census). Over 360,370 Australians visited Fiji in 2016.

There are regular two-way exchanges between Australia and Fiji, including under Australian Government programs such as Australia Awards, the New Colombo Plan, Australian Volunteers for International Development and the Seasonal Worker Programme.

Trade and investment ties

Australia is one of Fiji’s largest trade and investment partners. Two-way goods and services trade has been steadily increasing year-on-year, totalling $1.86 billion in 2016.

Major Australian merchandise exports to Fiji include wheat, liquefied propane and butane, meat and paper. Major Australian merchandise imports from Fiji include gold and textile clothing.

Major Australian services exports to Fiji, and exports from Fiji, include personal travel and transport.

Australia is a major source of foreign investment for Fiji, valued at approximately $1.33 billion in 2016. Australian investment in Fiji is focused on tourism, the financial sector and manufacturing. Fiji’s investment in Australia was valued at $502 million in 2016.

For more information on the bilateral trade and investment relationship, please see the Fiji country fact sheet.

International cooperation

Australia and Fiji work closely together in multilateral forums as fellow members of the UN, World Trade Organization, Commonwealth and Pacific Islands Forum. Fiji is incoming President of the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP 23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Australia has provided $6 million to support Fiji’s Presidency.

Economic overview

The foundations of Fiji’s economy are broadly sound, and perceptions of increased transparency and accountability following Fiji’s return to democracy have boosted business confidence.

Expansionary fiscal policies, particularly large infrastructure and social expenditure programs, as well as accommodative monetary policy, have supported seven years of economic growth since 2010.

Fiji’s 2017-18 Budget, passed by Parliament on 13 July 2017, continues the Government’s focus on poverty alleviation, social empowerment and rural development.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji estimates that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by two per cent in 2016, down from an initial forecast of 3.5 per cent. The decrease has been attributed to the impact of Tropical Cyclone Winston, which caused approximately $1.2 billion worth of damage. GDP is forecasted to grow 3.8 per cent in 2017, 3 per cent in 2018 and 2.9 per cent in 2019.  

Service sectors continue to grow strongly (largely driven by the tourism industry), and along with construction, manufacturing and retail activity, are the main drivers of growth. Tourism remains Fiji’s main source of foreign exchange and visitor numbers grow steadily each year, reaching over 785,500 in 2016 – a new record. Australia remains Fiji’s largest tourism market, accounting for over 45 per cent of visitor arrivals in 2016, followed by New Zealand (21 per cent) and the US (9 per cent).

Water, gold, garments, sugar and fish continue to be Fiji’s strongest merchandise exports. Agriculture is a source of (mostly informal sector) income for the bulk of the population and continues to make a moderate but far below potential contribution to growth.

Forecast public expenditure for 2017-18 is FJD4.4 billion (approximately AUD2.77 billion), with a revenue of FJD3.9 billion (approximately AUD2.46 billion).  This is expected to result in a budget deficit equivalent in size to 4.5 per cent of GDP.

Development assistance

For information on Australia’s development assistance to Fiji, please see the overview of Australia’s aid program to Fiji and the Fiji aid fact sheet.

Tropical Cyclone Winston

Tropical Cyclone Winston caused widespread damage across Fiji in February 2016. Working closely with the Fiji Government, Australia provided $35 million in assistance to support the Government’s immediate response and long-term recovery activities. The Australian Defence Force provided extensive support, deploying substantial assets and personnel. Non-government organisations, the private sector and the general public also played important roles in delivering assistance and supporting Fiji’s communities.

For further information on Australia’s response to Tropical Cyclone Winston, please see the Tropical Cyclone Winston page.

Last Updated: 10 August 2017