Fiji country brief

Overview

The Republic of Fiji 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.

Political overview

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 (Frank) Voreqe Bainimarama.

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. All judicial appointments were revoked and Public Emergency Regulations were imposed. President Iloilo subsequently reappointed Frank Bainimarama to Prime Minister.

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

In response, Australia imposed travel restrictions on the senior members of the Fiji Government, 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. 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 suspended from the Commonwealth in September 2009.

On 10 January 2013, Prime Minister Bainimarama and President Nailatikau said the Fiji Government would prepare a new draft constitution and, following a period of public consultation, President Nailatikau promulgated the new constitution on 6 September 2013. Key features of the new constitution are:

  • provision for a single chamber 50-member Parliament, which is selected 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 heads the elected Government
  • a President appointed by Parliament is the Head of State and performs the ceremonial function of Commander in Chief of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces
  • elections for Parliament be held by September 2014 and then every four years

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

Fiji held democratic elections on 17 September 2014. These elections marked a critical step in Fiji’s transition to democracy. Frank Bainimarama’s Fiji First party won a majority with 32 seats out of 50. A multinational elections observers group, co-led by Australia, Indonesia and India, found that the outcome of the elections broadly represented the will of the Fiji people. The elections were welcomed by the international community. Australia subsequently lifted all remaining restrictions on normal engagement with Fiji and resumed a Defence Cooperation program. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group fully lifted Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth on 26 September 2014 and the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat announced the lifting of Fiji’s suspension from the Pacific Island Forum on 22 October 2014.

Bilateral Relations

Australia and Fiji have long-standing trade, investment and people-to-people links. Up to 50,000 Fijians live and work in Australia and over 300,000 Australians visit Fiji each year. Australia is one of Fiji’s largest trade and investment partners, with Australian investment in Fiji worth $1.7 billion in 2013. Two-way trade is worth over $1.8 billion annually.

In late 2013, the Australian government announced a new policy of enhanced engagement with Fiji centered on increased cooperation and stronger political and economic relations. Since then, there has been growing momentum in the bilateral relationship. Both countries expanded high level contact over the course of 2014 and early 2015. In addition to Ms Bishop’s visit to Fiji from 31 October to 1 November 2014, Fiji’s Minister for Youth and Sports, Laisenia Tuitubou, visited Australia from 22 to 26 March 2015 and a parliamentary delegation, led by Dr Jiko Luveni, Speaker of the Fijian Parliament, visited Australia from 1 to 6 March 2015. Parliamentary Secretary Ciobo visited Fiji from 31 March to 2 April.

Development assistance

More information on development assistance to Fiji.

Fiji is making progress towards achieving a number of its Millennium Development Goals but faces challenges in achieving others:

  • It is on track to achieve universal primary education and ensure environmental sustainability.
  • Fiji has shown mixed results in eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; promoting gender equality and empowering women; as well as combating HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases.
  • The Fiji Ministry of Health has advised that Fiji is unlikely to meet its Millennium Development Goals to reduce child mortality or to improve maternal health by 2015.

World Bank analysis, funded by the Australian aid program, showed poverty fell nationally from 39.8 per cent in 2003 to around 35.2 per cent in 2009. While overall poverty rates may have dropped, a large proportion of the population remains just above the poverty line and highly vulnerable to income shocks. An estimated 49 per cent of Fiji's population lives in rural areas, where poverty rates remain markedly higher.

The Fiji program is guided by DFAT’s Fiji Country Strategy, which focuses on the country’s vulnerable and most disadvantaged communities. The Country strategy has three development objectives: improving access to quality education; strengthening primary health services; and building resilience and economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities. Australian aid has assisted Fiji’s transition to democracy by supporting elections and parliamentary administration. DFAT is developing a new aid investment plan to guide Australian development assistance to Fiji from 2015.

Major achievements from the aid program in 2013-2014 included:

  • Infrastructure upgrades in 20 schools, providing 4,073 students (1,923 girls and 2,150 boys) from poor and disadvantaged communities with a better place to study.
  • Assistance for the provision of immunisations contributed to an increase in the number of children immunised, from 93 per cent in 2008 to 95 per cent in 2013-14.
  • Support for the private sector helped leverage over $1.6 million in private sector investment to assist small businesses and improve incomes for the poor.
  • Australia responded to a major outbreak of dengue fever that claimed 16 lives and resulted in over 27,000 diagnosed cases, by funding vital medical consumables and helping raise public awareness of the outbreak through a communications campaign.
  • Technical exchanges in a range of public sector agencies between Australian and Fijian Government officials.
  • Australia supported elections preparations in Fiji by providing six Australian experts to fill positions in the Fijian Elections Office.
  • 127 volunteers were funded by the aid program, including 28 in Fiji government agencies. Australia also provided 80 Australia Awards Scholarships for Fijians to study in the Pacific and Australia.

Economic overview

Reserve Bank of Fiji estimates that Fiji’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 4.5 per cent in 2014, and projects growth in 2015 will be 4.3 per cent. This growth has been broad based with most productive sectors growing in 2014, and notable contributions coming from construction, transport, finance and tourism.

Tourism is Fiji’s strongest performing export sector, contributing around 40 per cent of GDP either directly or through related industries such as transport. Water, gold, garments, sugar and fish continue as Fiji’s strongest merchandise exports. Despite high rates of domestic consumption and a construction boom fuelling a persistent trade deficit, Fiji has ample foreign currency reserves, accounting for around 4.5 months of import cover at the end of 2014.

The foundations of Fiji’s economy are sound, and perceptions of increased transparency and accountability following Fiji’s return to democracy have already boosted business confidence. Expansionary fiscal policies, particularly through large infrastructure programs have kept Fiji on its growth path. Public debt is 49.7 per cent of GDP, and the projected fiscal deficit for 2015 is 2.5 per cent of GDP.

The government announced a macroeconomic reform agenda in its 2015 budget. Key elements are the sale of state assets; improving public sector performance; increasing revenue through improved tax compliance and public financial management measures; promoting a raft of business enabling measures such as online company registrations; and attracting greater foreign investment. Reengagement by Fiji’s major donors will support much of this structural reform agenda.

Last Updated: 5 September 2014