Fiji rides the constitutional carousel… again (Part 2)

If the multicultural love-in and kerekere aspects of the Ghai draft constitution (see Part 1) felt a little unreal, enclosed in the same hazy optimism as those British sunbathers who take to the pebble beaches even before the first daffodil has pluckily sneaked its head above the gravelled parapet, then you can take heart in the forthright rationalism of the Fiji Government draft that followed.
In the Fiji Government (“FG” hereafter) draft you’ll find none of the continuity & consanguinity between indigenous past & multicultural future that Ghai valiantly sought to establish, and nothing either of the symbol of the gift that entwines the act of cession – when Britain conceded, after the second time of asking, to colonise Fiji – with subsequent narratives of indigenous Fijian paramountcy.
(By the way, I am well aware that a post-coup unelected ‘government’ brings the use of that word into serious contention, though I maintain that any leadership – no matter its provenance or route to power – ought to be evaluated on what it delivers to the people).
What you will find in the FG draft constitution is clear intent. And that intent is to institute Fiji as a civic nation.  Government must work towards providing access to basic amenities and resources, including clean water, education, and fair wages. It must fulfil this remit via a slimmed-down 45-member parliament and provide just cause when it fails in these responsibilities towards the people of Fiji.
So far, so uncontentious, you might think…. and in terms of pricking the over-inflated belly of Parliament, that seems true enough. But when we get on to talking about access to resources or the electoral system – moving to a strictly one-person one-vote format – the implications for Fiji’s embedded format of ethnic politics, and for those who have rallied around it, are enormous.
Whatever the theories regarding premoden migration flows to Fiji, and discarding this South Pacific archipelago’s distinction in straddling the Melanesian-Polynesian cultural fault-line, the modern Fijian ethnie begins and ends with being ‘Fijian’. Intra-group dissonance simmers along unendingly, and Fiji’s modern politics is littered with the debris of intra-Fijian power plays between the existing confederacy chiefs, but the defining feature of Fiji’s history since colonialism has been a narrative of ethnic conflict.
The phenomenon of ethnic conflict in Fiji is a difficult one to unpick. And a Rotuman friend of mine has challenged my interest in doing so – not because they consider me unequal to the task, thankfully, but because analysing history does not put food in the belly of a starving child. Once I’d decided not to take this attack on ‘academicism’ personally – admittedly not before I’d counted off my own acts of putting food in the bellies of babes and other lost, lonely, dispossessed and discarded people in society, I was left with this thought….
…. ethnicism in Fiji has impelled the country’s focus away from the basic humanity that my friend possesses in heaps; it has mythologised its constituent ethnic communities as the basic unit of kinship, all the while forgetting that the most basic unit of all is our shared humanity. And yet, we move in groups, we congregate with and around people who speak the same language, dress the same, eat the same, share religious beliefs, are intimately aware of and have a place in the same sociocultural structures… we cleave to that which most closely and constantly reminds us of our families. And consequently, the ‘othering’ of, well, others becomes a political necessity.
When ethnic politics gains such stature, such legitimacy, as it has in Fiji, then ‘Cultures without Borders’ as an idea, let alone a practice, must meet with laughable derision. Yet, without it we lose the humanity that enables us to work together to put food in the bellies of starving children. And if there’s anything that we can find to applaud in the FG draft constitution it is the avowal that government in Fiji must strive to provide a certain standard of care and opportunity to its citizens.
Pity, then, that Government’s duty of care is undermined in the FG draft constitution by a Bill of Rights allowing use of force, detainment and rescinding of civil liberties. And curious too that the greatest executive authority rests not merely with the PM but with the Attorney-General, and that the upper house of Parliament (the Senate) has been removed fully. This is where the FG draft opens itself up to critiques of autocratic despotism, having – for those of a civic-nation inclination – set out so exemplary a template regarding government’s duty of care to all citizens.
I won’t dwell on the immunity clauses in the FG draft – when you’ve conducted yourself outside and above the law then seeking protection from judgements of treason and the like seems a fairly understandable impulse. Though, I would argue, greater dignity comes from standing up and saying that you acted in a certain (extra-legal) manner for the betterment of your people, and therefore you are willing to accept the consequences contained therein.
If I were sitting on the fence, I’d say that it remains to be seen whether the FG draft constitution effects the wholesale transition from ethnic to civic state that it seems so focused on achieving. But if there’s one thing we know about Fiji it is that ethnic political entrepreneurship has too strong a heritage and too resilient a nature (,+Is+and+Can+Be)#!/2013/04/what-do-they-mean-by-democratic-fiji.html)  to make a return to ethnic politics in Fiji untenable. And though sidelined by the current FG, the Great Council of Chiefs cannot be considered a spent force in this respect – their silence since being disbanded may seem curious, but they haven’t exited stage left just yet.
In summary, you could say that I’m nervous about the potential for Fiji to become a post-ethnic state as envisaged by the FG constitutional draft; not least because of its effect on the indigenous Fijian sense of security, its ethnic sensibilities as an indigenous group fearing a Maori-like future. And yet, I know from my time in Fiji that via an inner light of imagination Fiji may approach interethnic connaturality (Pio Manoa 1979:185).
(In a future post, I’ll be considering the relevance of constitutionalism outside Europe)

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