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My dinner with Gillard

Most reporters asked about Australia-centric issues, but Fiji’s future was our main course of discussion
Last modified: 5 Apr 2013 11:23

On Thursday, I had lunch – Pacific salmon – with Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

It's not an occasion that happens every day, so, no matter how beleaguered she is politically at the moment, it was still a lunch worth remarking on, a name worth dropping. 

I was seated two seats along from her, and we got talking. 

The purpose of the lunch was for Gillard to give a speech to mark her imminent trip to China, and boast about the state of the Australian economy. The audience was a selection of foreign correspondents in Sydney.

In the question and answer session that followed the speech, most reporters asked about the regular, Australian-centric issues.

I asked about Fiji.

I had just returned from Suva, the Fijian capital, where I was making a report about the country's road back to democracy. In short, that road had been a bumpy one and has now reached a critical junction.

Last month, the country's unelected military ruler scrapped a constitution, written by a respected independent expert, in favour of one drawn up by his government.

Many in Fiji and elsewhere fear the government-sanctioned charter will merely provide cover for ongoing autocratic rule.

Fiji's so-far unelected prime minister, of course, denies this.  When I met Commodore Frank Bainimarama last Thursday (making it two PMs in one week!) he told me he was committed to holding free and fair elections late next year.

On their own, though, elections don't mean democracy. There has to be a level playing field going into them; the dice can't be weighted in one candidate's favour.

That's what good constitutions ensure.  They level playing fields and make sure the dice aren't dodgy.

At the Sydney lunch, Gillard gave the stock response about Fiji, without referring directly to concerns over the latest incarnation of the constitution.

She said, "Commodore Bainimarama needs to be held to his promises and accountabilities about having those elections, and they need to be held on time and properly done."

Few now doubt Bainimarama is indeed committed to the first part, that elections are held "on time". But, without the second part as well, elections “properly done”, Fiji may be a democracy in name only. 

Constitutional clauses can sometimes be dry, but they can also be crucial.