Republic of Fiji country brief
The Republic of the Fiji Islands is a group of 800 volcanic and coral islands covering 18,376 sq. km. It has a total population of 858,000 (UN estimate, 2012; the last census was 2007). Fiji's capital is Suva. Its major languages are English, Fijian and Hindi and its major religions are Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
Fiji became independent in 1970 after nearly a century as a British colony. On independence, Fiji adopted a constitutional democratic form of government based on the Westminster model. Fiji's first constitution (1970) was abrogated following two coups in 1987. A new constitution was adopted in 1990, and following a review, was amended in 1997.
Fiji experienced another period of political, social and economic instability beginning on 19 May 2000, when a group led by George Speight seized control of the Parliament. The group took then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and members of his government hostage, holding them for 56 days. In the following months, the 1997 Constitution was abrogated, the President stepped down and three successive unelected interim administrations controlled government.
In 2001, the Fiji High Court and Court of Appeal ruled that the 1997 Constitution remained valid. General elections were held in August 2001. Fiji returned to parliamentary democracy under Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, who was returned as Prime Minister at subsequent elections held in May 2006.
On 5 December 2006, Prime Minister Qarase was ousted in a military coup led by Commodore J. Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama. On 9 April 2009, the Fiji High Court found that Qarase's dismissal and Bainimarama's appointment had been illegal. In response, on 10 April 2009, Fiji President Ratu Josefa Iloilo announced that he had abrogated Fiji's 1997 Constitution. President Iloilo then reappointed Bainimarama as Prime Minister.
In 2012, a constitutional consultation process was undertaken, headed by Kenyan constitutional expert Yash Ghai. A draft constitution was submitted to President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau in December 2012, but this draft was rejected. A new Constitutional consultation process was announced in early 2013 and Fiji’s current constitution was promulgated on 6 September 2013.
Key features of the Constitution are:
- a single chamber 50-member Parliament, elected on the basis of one person, one vote using a proportional representation system
- elections held every four years
- every Fijian over the age of 18 entitled to vote
- one national constituency covering the whole of Fiji
- a Prime Minister who commands the party with the most seats in Parliament heads the elected Government
- a President as Head of State who also performs the ceremonial function of Commander in Chief of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces.
Fiji held elections on 17 September 2014, under the 2013 Constitution. Australia supported the electoral preparations by providing technical assistance to the Fijian Elections Office and accepting Fiji’s invitation to co-lead (with Indonesia and India) the Multinational Observer Group (MOG).
The MOG comprised 92 observers from 15 countries and organisations. The MOG provisional statement following the elections noted that the conditions had been in place for Fijians to exercise their right to vote freely and the outcome of the elections broadly represented the will of Fijian voters.
Following the September 2014 election, Fiji’s President, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, swore in Rear Admiral (Ret.) Bainimarama as the elected Prime Minister of Fiji. The first sitting of Parliament was convened on 6 October 2014.
Australia and Fiji have long-standing trade, investment and people-to-people links. Up to 50,000 Fijians live and work in Australia and over 300,000 Australians visit Fiji each year.
Australia is Fiji’s key trading and commercial partner in the region and is the largest foreign investor in Fiji. Two-way trade is worth over AUD1.5 billion annually and, in 2012, Australia was Fiji’s largest export destination and second largest source of imports.
In late 2013, the Australian government announced a new policy of enhanced engagement with Fiji centered on increased cooperation in political and economic relations. Both countries expanded high-level contact over the course of 2014. From 14-15 February 2014, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Fiji as part of the Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group (MCG). In addition, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Senator Brett Mason visited Fiji from 28-29 April 2014, Fiji Foreign Minister Kubuabola visited Australia from 23-24 June 2014 and Prime Minister Bainimarama made a private visit to Australia from 22-25 August 2014.
Australia had imposed travel and defence sanctions on Fiji following the military coup in 2006. A review of Australia’s travel restrictions policy towards Fiji was announced during Ms Bishop’s visit to Fiji in February 2014. On 31 March 2014, Australia lifted all travel restrictions applying to Fiji. On 31 October 2014, Australia lifted all remaining sanctions on Fiji.
Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Commonwealth in 2009. The Commonwealth partially lifted Fiji’s suspension on 14 March 2014 and fully lifted the suspension on 26 September 2014. The Chair of the PIF (President of the Republic of Palau, His Excellency Tommy E. Remengesau Jr.) announced the lifting of Fiji’s suspension from the PIF on 24 October 2014.
Australia is Fiji’s largest bilateral donor partner, with the bilateral program standing at $35 million in 2014-15. In total aid flows, Australia currently invests $61.9 million in Fiji including regional activities.
Development assistance focuses on improving access to quality education; strengthening primary health services; building resilience and economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities; and supporting Fiji’s transition to democracy.
Australia is investing in strengthening human development in Fiji by improving education, health and community development:
- improving maternal and child health and targeting the prevention and early treatment of non- communicable diseases by working closely with Fiji’s Ministry of Health
- improving access to quality education by rehabilitating another 61 primary schools and providing training and technical assistance
- offering up to 40 scholarships for studies in Australian and regional universities
- supporting civil society organisations to work with poor, remote and disadvantaged communities to access livelihood opportunities and basic services
- supporting gender equality by helping Fiji to address gender-based violence, increase women’s economic opportunities and exercise a greater role in decision-making.
Australian aid is also supporting effective governance through:
- technical exchanges between Australian government institutions and their Fijian counterparts
- technical advisers in key ministries
- dedicated Australia Awards scholarships and Australian volunteer placements in selected ministries
- policy training opportunities in Australia and the region.
Australia’s aid investments will enhance international competitiveness and trade facilitation through:
- supporting Fiji to address external constraints to trade, such as quarantine requirements and tax arrangements to catalyse investment in key markets with high growth and trade potential
- supporting private sector development in areas of potentially higher growth.
Investing in the most disadvantaged groups such as those with disabilities, women and girls, and those living in the poorest regions of Fiji, is a focus. Australia has provided humanitarian and disaster assistance in Fiji, including after cyclones and floods.
Australia assisted Fiji’s return to democracy, providing $2.65 million in 2012 for voter registration (enabling over 530,000 of approximately 590,000 voters to be registered) and civic education. The Australian aid program also provided support for six Australians to work in the Fijian Elections Office and supported the logistical operations of the Multinational Observer Group for Fiji’s elections.
In the past, economic growth in Fiji has been subdued by political instability, external shocks, and a poor enabling environment for business. Fiji faces constraints typical of other Pacific Island economies such as exposure to natural disasters, high transport costs, a small domestic economy, and geographical isolation.
The economy rebounded from a sharp contraction in 2009 with a growth rate in 2013 of 4.6 per cent. Growth was broad-based, led by service sectors such as finance, insurance and transport, and supported by greater construction and manufacturing activities. Tourism was Fiji’s strongest performing export, contributing around 13 per cent of GDP. Water, gold, garments, sugar and fish continue to be Fiji’s strongest merchandise exports.
The Reserve Bank of Fiji projects GDP to grow by 3.8 per cent in 2014. Beyond 2014, likely increases in donor lending and the potential of the Asian tourism market are likely to support continued growth. Increased business confidence following the 2014 elections is likely to also boost investment.