The Republic of the Fiji Islands is a group of 800 volcanic and coral islands covering 18,376 sq. km. It has a total population of 858,000 (UN estimate, 2012; the last census was 2007). Fiji's capital is Suva. Its major languages are English, Fijian and Hindi and its major religions are Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
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 model.
Democratic rule was interrupted by two military coups in 1987 led by then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka abrogated the 1970 Constitution and declared Fiji a republic. A short period of military government and two subsequent interim administrations followed, with elections held in 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 were in power.
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 Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. Bainimarama dismissed the democratically-elected Qarase government and declared a state of emergency. He subsequently claimed to have returned executive authority to the President, who then appointed Bainimarama 'interim Prime Minister'.
On 9 April 2009, the Fiji High Court found that Qarase's dismissal and Bainimarama's appointment had been illegal. In response, on 10 April 2009 Fiji President Ratu Josefa Iloilo announced that he had abrogated Fiji's 1997 Constitution. He declared himself Head of State and said that Fiji would be ruled under a New Legal Order. The 1997 constitution was abrogated, all judicial appointments were revoked and Public Emergency Regulations (PERs) were imposed. President Iloilo subsequently reappointed Prime Minister Bainimarama and all nine members of the previous Interim Cabinet.
The Australian Government, in concert with other countries, the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, strongly condemned the abrogation of Fiji's Constitution and the military's unconstitutional removal of Fiji's elected government.
In response to the coup, Australia imposed travel restrictions on the prime minister, 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 (for example, for medical treatment or to provide support to a family member for medical or other reasons), and in other circumstances on a case-by-case basis. Defence cooperation has been suspended since 2006.
Pacific Islands Forum Leaders decided on 2 May 2009 to suspend Fiji from the Forum. Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth in September 2009.
Progress towards elections
On 1 July 2009, the Fiji government announced that work on a new constitution for Fiji would begin in September 2012 and would be completed a year before elections in September 2014.
On 9 March 2012, the government announced that a Constitutional Commission would conduct public consultations before drafting a constitution. The Constitutional Commission, chaired by internationally respected expert Professor Yash Ghai, presented a draft constitution to Fiji President Nailatikau on 21 December 2012. The draft was not officially released to the public after police confiscated the printed copies on 22 December 2012.
On 10 January 2013, Prime Minister Bainimarama and President Nailatikau said the Fiji Government would prepare its own draft constitution and, following a period of public consultation, President Nailatikau promulgated a new constitution on 6 September 2013. Key features of the new constitution are:
- provision for a single chamber 50-member Parliament, which will be elected on the basis of one person, one vote using a proportional representation system
- elections are to be held every four years, with the first elections to be held before September 2014
- every Fijian over the age of 18 is entitled to vote
- individual regional constituencies are abolished. There will be one national constituency covering the whole of Fiji
- a Prime Minister who commands the party with the most seats in Parliament will head the elected Government and a President will be the Head of State and perform the ceremonial function of Commander in Chief of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces
Following the promulgation of the constitution, Fiji made significant progress towards holding elections, including:
- the announcement that elections will be held on 17 September 2014;
- the release of the Electoral Decree and appointment of a Supervisor of Elections on 28 March 2014;
- Prime Minister Bainimarama stepping down as Commander of Fiji’s military on 5 March 2014 to form a new political party; Fiji First
- the appointment of Fiji’s Electoral Commission on 9 January 2014;
- the registration of seven political parties to date; and
- the registration of over 540,000 voters.
From 14-15 February 2014, Ms Bishop visited Fiji as part of the Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group (MCG). The MCG recommended to PIF Leaders that in light of Fiji’s progress towards elections, Fiji be invited to participate in PACER Plus negotiations and PIF Trade Ministers’ Meetings at ministerial level.
On 14 February 2014, Ms Bishop held Australia’s first bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Bainimarama since 2008 and announced a review of Australia’s travel restrictions policy towards Fiji. On 31 March, Australia lifted all remaining travel restrictions applying to Fiji.
On 14 March 2014, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group lifted Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth to a suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth. The changes allowed Fiji to participate in the July 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
On 14 August 2014, following an invitation from Fiji, Australia announced that it will co-lead a Multinational Observer Group for the Fiji elections.
Australia and Fiji have long-standing trade, investment and people-to-people links. Up to 50,000 Fijians live and work in Australia and approximately 300,000 Australians visit Fiji each year. Australia is Fiji’s key trading and commercial partner in the region and is the largest foreign investor in Fiji. Two-way trade is worth over AUD1.8 billion annually and, in 2012, Australia was Fiji’s largest export destination and second largest source of imports.
In late 2013, the Australian government announced a new policy of enhanced enegagement with Fiji centred on increased cooperation in political and economic relations. Both countries expanded high-level contact over the course of 2014. In addition to Ms Bishop’s visit to Fiji in February, Senator Mason visited Fiji from 28-29 April, Fiji Foreign Minister Kubuabola visited Australia from 23-24 June and Prime Minister Bainimarama made a private visit to Australia from 22-25 August.
Australia is Fiji’s largest bilateral aid donor. Development assistance focuses on improving access to quality education; strengthening primary health services; building resilience and economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities; and supporting Fiji’s transition to democracy.
In 2014-15, Australia will invest in strengthening human development in Fiji by improving education, health and community development:
- improving maternal and child health and targeting the prevention and early treatment of non- communicable diseases by working closely with Fiji’s Ministry of Health
- improving access to quality education by rehabilitating another 61 primary schools and providing training and technical assistance
- offering up to 40 scholarships for studies in Australian and regional universities
- supporting civil society organisations to work with poor, remote and disadvantaged communities to access livelihood opportunities and basic services
- supporting gender equality by helping Fiji to address gender-based violence, increase women’s economic opportunities and exercise a greater role in decision-making
Australian aid will support effective governance and enhance Australia’s engagement with Fiji’s public sector through supporting:
- Fiji’s electoral process and re-establishment of parliamentary democracy
- technical exchanges between Australian government institutions and their Fijian counterparts; technical advisers in key ministries; dedicated Australia Awards scholarships and Australian volunteer placements in selected ministries; and policy training opportunities in Australia and the region
Australia’s aid investments will enhance international competitiveness and trade facilitation through:
- supporting Fiji to address external constraints to trade, such as quarantine requirements and tax arrangements to catalyse investment in key markets with high growth and trade potential
- encouraging Fiji’s reengagement with PACER Plus
- supporting private sector development in areas of potentially higher growth
Investing in the most disadvantaged groups such as those with disabilities, women and girls, and those living in the poorest regions of Fiji, will remain a focus. Australia will continue to provide timely and effective humanitarian and disaster assistance in Fiji, given its vulnerability to cyclones and floods.
Australia is assisting Fiji to return to democracy, providing $2.65 million in 2012 for voter registration (enabling over 530,000 of an estimated 600,000 voters to be registered) and civic education. Australia has provided support for six Australians to work in the Fijian Elections Office and is co-leading the Multinational Observer Group for Fiji’s elections.
Economic growth in Fiji has been subdued by persistent political instability, external shocks, and a poor enabling environment for business. Fiji faces constraints typical of other Pacific Island Economies such as exposure to natural disasters, high transport costs, a small domestic economy, and geographical isolation.
GDP growth from 2006-2011 averaged 0.45 per cent, with the 2006 coup severely damaging investor confidence. The economy has begun to recover, with GDP growth rising from 1.9 per cent in 2011 to a forecast 3.8 per cent for 2014. This trend is likely to moderate as the recent growth has largely been driven by government spending on infrastructure, and consumer activity following government stimulus. Beyond 2014, likely increases in donor lending and the potential of the Asian tourism market are likely to support continued growth between two and three per cent. For Fiji to achieve more consistent and sustainable economic growth, structural reforms, improvement to private sector confidence, and simplification of the business enabling environment are required.