Monday, July 18, 2016

"There's a lot of love": Fiji trade minister Faiyaz Koya as diplomatic tensions with Australia ease

Fiji's diplomatic and trade relationship with Australia has almost normalised as tensions about a history of military coups continue to fade, according to a senior Fijian government minister.

The South Pacific nation's Trade and Tourism Minister Faiyaz Koya says concerns about coup-driven political stability are no longer an issue after Australia lifted sanctions imposed in 2006 when Frank Bainimarama seized power in a military coup.

Listen to the full interview with Faiyaz Koya

"I think we've gone quite far already. There's a lot of love and now we're just strengthening that love," Mr Koya told The World Today.

"We've pretty much normalised our relationships and we're on a firmer footing now."

After years of bilateral tensions steming back to military coups in 1987, Australia lifted the remaining sanctions and sought to normalise diplomatic relations with Fiji in October 2014 after Prime Minister Bainimarama was returned in democratic elections.

At the time Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the decision to lift sanctions marked "a new era" in Australia's relationship with Fiji which she described as a "work in progress".

Mr Koya has been visiting Australia to build relations with government and industry as Fiji's economy continues to recover from tropical Cyclone Winston which devastated parts of the nation in February this year.

The impact of the cyclone, which harmed the tourist industry, rocked Fiji's economic growth (GDP) after steady rises in recent years.

But Mr Koya was positive when he spoke to the ABC saying it was fortunate that the cyclone steered away from major tourist hotspots.

"We've done all right. We've had some growth and the Aussies and the Kiwis have still been coming across and that's our major market," My Koya said.

Mr Koya says Fiji is monitoring the impact of Britain's decision to leave the European Union amid concerns the uncertainty could disrupt important sugar exports.

"Britain especially because of sugar. And our sugar exports go out to the EU so people think it could have a massive effect on us," Mr Koya said.

In addition to sugar, Mr Koya is working to attract investors to Fiji's still untapped agricultural assets.

"For us, it has to be agriculture. We are trying to expand it as much as we can," Mr Koya said.

"We have vast tracts of unused land and very very good virgin land. It's the economic base that we need to expand."

Despite the focus on economic recovery and rebuilding diplomatic and trade links, Fiji remains synonomous with political instability and military coups steming back to 1987.

But Mr Koya says while the world might see Fiji that way, it's not the image for locals.

"Not at all. I actually spoke with a young gentleman and I asked - what is it that you find good about Fiji?," Mr Koya said.

"He said 'the best thing for us is the stability. This is somebody at home telling us.

"So stability is not really an issue any more."

Mr Koya also says Fiji is dealing with its corruption problem with the establishment of the Fijian Independent Commission against Corruption.

"I think we followed some of the models out of Hong Kong and we have done quite well in getting rid of it as much as we can," Mr Koya said.

"Again it's something that has effected a lot of countries. But I think Fiji has led the way with that and we have done fairly well out of it.We have advanced quite well in terms of corruption at home."

Mr Koya rejected concerns about media censorship in Fiji and believes political and social tensions between indigenous Fijians and Indians which have played a role in previous coups are being resolved.

"Everybody's a Fijian. No one is labelled or put into a little group," Mr Koya said.

"Obviously there's going to be some small elements that always exist but the fact that they're all known as Fijians has gotten rid of that problem.

"It's something we were left with when the English were around, the divide and conquer thing happening but not any more."