The official relationship between Fiji and Australia is troublesome when we remember how it used to be. At least talking is better than silence and mulling over disagreements from a distance.
From the ABC Radio
MARK COLVIN: Australia has waived its travel ban against a senior member of Fiji's military-led Government. Fiji's Foreign Minister will now be able to travel to Canberra for talks tonight aimed at restoring frayed diplomatic ties.
Tit-for-tat expulsions late last year marked a low point in relations with the regime of Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Now, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola is in Canberra for what are billed as private talks with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and their New Zealand counterpart, Murray McCully.
From Canberra, Radio Australia's Linda Mottram reports.
LINDA MOTTRAM: The downward spiral in relations between Australia and New Zealand on the one hand and Fiji on the other, hit a new low last November. That's when Fiji expelled the two countries' high commissioners, over allegations of interference in Fiji's appointment of judges, and Australia and New Zealand reciprocated, denying the claims.
It left particularly New Zealand with its strong ties to Fiji, but normally small diplomatic presence there, virtually unable to carry out vital consular tasks. Now, there's an attempt to get diplomatic ties back on track.
STEPHEN SMITH: Interim Fiji Foreign Minister Kubuabola will meet in Canberra with Minister McCully and I to discuss these diplomatic issues.
LINDA MOTTRAM: Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announcing the planned private meeting in Canberra, after he'd held a round of regular bilateral talks with New Zealand's Murray McCully. To make the private meeting happen, Mr Smith waived Australia's travel ban that applies to members of the Bainimarama regime as part of the sanctions imposed over the December 2006 coup, and continuing suspension of democracy in Fiji.
And both Murray McCully and Stephen Smith are emphatic the meeting in no way represents a change in their hardline views on Fijian coup politics.
STEPHEN SMITH: We are not proposing to discuss those matters which go to the Pacific Islands Forum's decisions in respect of Fiji, nor indeed the Commonwealth's decisions in respect of Fiji but to see if it is possible to put the formal diplomatic relationship between Australia and Fiji and New Zealand and Fiji onto a better footing.
LINDA MOTTRAM: Having had now a total of three heads of mission sent home by Fiji, New Zealand is particularly anxious. And just before Christmas Mr McCully flew to Nadi to meet Foreign Minister Kubuabola to try to make some headway.
They agreed to reinstate a consular position in their respective high commissions. But the nominee from Fiji was provocative some say, in key Bainimarama offsider Colonel Neumi Leweni, who's also on the Australian and New Zealand travel bans list. Murray McCully refers to him simply as an alleged nomination.
MURRAY MCCULLY: We don't discuss proposed diplomatic appointments.
LINDA MOTTRAM: As to what might be achieved by the meeting with Foreign minister Kubuabola in Canberra, Mr McCully spelled out a quite fundamental obstacle.
MURRAY MCCULLY: We need to get to a point with Fiji where we can maintain missions regardless of serious disagreements we have about matters of strongly held principle. And that is not something that is accepted yet. We are going to have to spend some time trying to get to that point.
LINDA MOTTRAM: Stephen Smith was also keeping expectations low. The significance of the meeting was that there was to be a meeting. A decision to have another meeting would be regarded as progress. So he saw no quick prospect of restoring full diplomatic ties.
STEPHEN SMITH: I think a lot of water will need to go under the bridge before those respective high commissioners can be reinstated.
LINDA MOTTRAM: Fergus Hanson from the Sydney think tank the Lowy Institute for International Policy met with Foreign Minister Kubuabola two weeks ago in Suva.
FERGUS HANSON: The sense that I got was that they were interested in restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries and that an approach of conflict wasn't in either side's interest. And I think also obviously they were very keen to get a softening in some of the sanctions that have been leveraged against the regime.
LINDA MOTTRAM: Other observers though say the Fiji Foreign Minister carries little weight in the Bainimarama regime and they caution Australia and New Zealand not to give anything to Fiji that could be used to legitimise the regime.
MARK COLVIN: Linda Mottram.