28 Jun 2013

NZ-Fiji relations exposed in top diplomat's memoirs

5:03 pm on 28 June 2013

More revelations about Wellington-Suva diplomacy have been exposed in a book launched in the New Zealand capital this week Thursday.

"The recollections of a former New Zealand High Commissioner to Suva, Michael Green, have just been published under the title Persona Non Grata ."

Michael Green, who died last year, was ordered out of Fiji in 2007 after the prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, accused him of meddling in the country's domestic affairs - a charge New Zealand denies.

Michael Green's widow, Gillian Green, told Sally Round being declared 'persona non grata' did not so much hurt as disappoint her late husband.

GILLIAN GREEN: To be honest, I think he always knew that he had done nothing wrong. Michael was not the sort of person to be rash or to make some sudden statement that he hadn't thought through first, so I think he was quite confident that he'd done nothing wrong.

SALLY ROUND: Was this book about putting the record straight in that regard or was it about having a record of events at a very important time in Fiji?

GG: I think it was more about having a record about what happened. Because we went through a time that was actually quite hopeful in Fiji - 2005 and 2006 were really very hopeful. People thought the election had gone reasonably well. There were a few niggles about features of that election in 2006, but on the whole the external moderators were quite comfortable with the way it had gone. And Fiji seemed to think, 'Right, we've weathered this election, we've elected another democratic government - we will survive'. And then six months later, of course, it's all over.

SR: You were next-door neighbours to Commodore Frank Bainimarama. What was that like, on a personal level?

GG: (Laughs) We were. On a personal level it didn't matter at all. We used to make a joke because we had a swimming pool - I don't know who designed the swimming pool - but the swimming pool was in the shape of a kiwi. And we always thought if the relationship broke down all anybody had to do was to go into a helicopter and have a look for a kiwi-shaped swimming pool and they'd know where we were. On the whole, the guards who were at the front gate were perfectly friendly and we didn't have any particular problems. But we knew that if Bainimarama ordered action by his staff that they would do it. So we spent the last few nights in Fiji under the protection of our police and defence attaches, who spent every night with us in the house patrolling around with baseball bats. It was fraught at the end, yes.

SR: What was the crunch time for the change in attitude towards Michael Green?

GG: To be honest, I think it was the football match, because he was declared persona non grata only about a week later. There had been a cabinet meeting between the football match on the Saturday, and the decision to expel him. And I think frank Bainimarama just lost patience with New Zealand's stance. What happened at that football match - it was between the New Zealand Junior All Blacks and the Fiji team. And on the day Michael was supposed to be in the same tent with the president. When he got there 20 minutes before the president, as protocol demanded, he was told that the president was ill and couldn't come, and so would he take over the role as the ambassador representing the other team, which meant that he sat in the tent and he greeted the teams and things like that. And I think for Bainimarama sitting in the stand, that was more than he was prepared to take. And I'm quite sure it was a matter of Bainimarama's ego. I think that undoubtedly the New Zealand stance had irritated him, but I think the precipitant was that football match.

SR: And that was despite efforts by Winston Peters to get some kind of compromise?

GG: He made a lot of effort in November to try and bring the parties together, but the fact was Bainimarama was not prepared to negotiate, and I think Qarase was. I think he was prepared, in fact, to give up quite a lot if he had been able to find a way to prevent the coup. But Bainimarama came back denying everything that had been agreed at the meeting in Wellington. He just wasn't prepared to negotiate.

SR: How closely did Michael Green follow political events after he left Fiji, because it's been a very tumultuous time since?

GG: It has. Well, for about the first year after we came home he was actually sort of involved with Fiji policy for things like forum meetings and things like that. So for about a year he was fully involved, and then, of course, we read the blogs. We kept in contact with friends as best we could to see how things were going.

SR: As New Zealand takes a more cautious approach towards its relations with Fiji was there any tension with the current New Zealand government about spilling the beans so to speak, in this way?

GG: I don't honestly know. Michael, of course, had to get Foreign Affairs permission to publish this book. Diplomats are not allowed to publish books without getting that permission. And the ministry gave permission for the book to be published. But quite what happens from this point on I'm not sure.

SR: What's struck me about the book so far is the amount of detail. He was a meticulous recorder of events and people.

GG: He was. He was a very, very thoughtful man. We used ot laugh about this, because he was one who sat and thought about things and I was the one who just reacted immediately. He was not somebody who ever committed himself rashly to anything - not to an opinion, not to a speech, not to a thought, not to an action. Everything was thought through. Because he was an experienced diplomat - he had been deputy secretary of foreign affairs and he was very senior.

SR: Did he have a sense that he needed to record things because what he knew he was going to be revealing at a later stage would be important?

GG: I think there was some of that. I think he felt that somebody who'd been through the situation and was not Fijian and was not part of the current interim government needed to record what was happening. Because the damage done to Fiji is considerable, the damage done to ordinary Fijians who are finding their lives turned upside-down. There was lots of talk at the time that this was a bloodless coup. Well, it was not a bloodless coup. People died, people were injured, people were hurt, people were harmed, and their civil rights go on being harmed. I think Michael felt very strongly about the situation and felt that somebody needed to record from the perspective of somebody who did have a lot of knowledge about what was happening there, that that record should be put down on paper.

SR: And how do you feel he would be thinking now about Fiji supposedly on the path towards elections next year?

GG: I don't think he'd be any more hopeful than me. I'm not hopeful. I think it will only be hopeful if they have the army and the military fully out of the equation, and until I see that I don't believe it will happen.