Interview: Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama
How important is the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) membership to the government of Fiji?
JOSAIA VOREQE BAINIMARAMA: During the years of our suspension, Fiji and many of its neighbours set up another regional institution, the Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF) and threw it open to many sections of Pacific society that had been excluded from the PIF. We enabled the French territories, for instance, to become PIDF members and gave a voice for the first time to the peoples of New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna. We also included others that were not being heard, such as the corporate sector and civil society groups, which are the genuine voices of the grassroots in the Pacific and had been trying for years to access the PIF. The PIF lifted its suspension of Fiji, following our election in September 2014, but as far as we are concerned, things have moved on. We regard the PIDF as a more genuine expression of Pacific islands’ opinion than the PIF, because it is more inclusive.
Furthermore, we do not regard Australia or New Zealand as island countries. They are our big neighbours, but not Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS), so our agendas often collides. Take the issue of climate change for instance, which is by far the biggest threat to our way of life. Australia, in particular, is dragging its feet on committing to the binding cuts in carbon emissions that the scientific community is urging to contain rising sea levels. Fiji is back in the PIF at a ministerial level and in areas of technical cooperation and trade, and we continue to host the Forum Secretariat in Suva. However, until there is progress on these issues, I will not be attending the Leaders Meeting of the PIF or the upcoming summit in Port Moresby.
What real threats does climate change represent to the Pacific’s low lying islands?
BAINIMARAMA: Climate change is the gravest threat that the Pacific islands have ever faced, and three nations – Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands – face a profound existential threat. Based on current modelling, those countries will simply disappear beneath the waves and cease to exist in the lifetimes of some of their young people. This is a catastrophe of enormous proportions and we are desperately trying to get the international community to accept the gravity of the situation and act before it is too late.
Even for mountainous Pacific nations, like Fiji, the situation is alarming. We have already had to move entire villages due to encroaching seas and have identified more than 600 communities that are directly threatened. So, this is a crisis for every Pacific SIDS member that urgently needs a global response. Fiji and other Pacific island nations will be leading the charge on this issue at the World Climate Summit in Paris in November 2015 – a critical meeting and perhaps the last chance to get industrialised nations to commit to cuts in carbon emissions that will arrest global warming.
Will Fiji’s return to democracy open the nation’s doors to additional foreign investment?
BAINIMARAMA: The fact that our reform programme included introducing the first genuine democracy in Fijian history has certainly improved the overall regional outlook. The success of our election in September 2014, and the fact that an international monitoring force – led by India, Indonesia and Australia – declared it free and credible, has given everyone cause for optimism.
Still, the surge in investment in Fiji, both foreign and domestic, was already taking place before the election. We are in the throes of the greatest period of sustained economic growth in Fiji since independence in 1970, and for the past three years we have recorded annual growth figures of 4% or more. Our corporate and personal tax rates are among the lowest in the Asia Pacific region and we have a range of incentives in place to attract more foreign investment, including tax holidays. We are also working with the World Bank to comprehensively reform our civil service to make it more efficient and responsive, and reduce red tape, so the investment climate in Fiji has never been better.
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