Canberra praises new draft constitution for Fiji

THE Australian government has welcomed the completion of Fiji’s new draft constitution despite a bitter row between Yash Ghai, the chairman of the constitutional commission, and the Fiji military government.

“The draft constitution is a substantial document and another step along the path towards Fiji’s return to democracy,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said yesterday.

“The strong interest of the people of Fiji in the commission’s work was shown by the very large number of submissions it received – over 7000.

“The Fiji police have confiscated printed copies of the draft constitution, but it is now available on websites. Some political parties and individuals have already commented on it publicly.”

Confirming the extent of the antipathy between the government and internationally respected constitutional expert Professor Ghai, Fiji’s Information Secretary Sharon Smith wrote a letter to the editor of The Australian, published today, saying the professor’s request for copies of the draft constitution to be printed was “contrary to law”.

Ms Smith writes that police burned printers’ proofs “for security reasons”, in an action taken “to preserve the integrity of the constitutional process”.

She said that 599 copies of the constitution “were sequestered by police on the government’s instruction”.

Three of the country’s largest political parties, the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (the United Fiji Party), the Fiji Labour Party and the United People’s Party, have said they support the new draft constitution.

Jenny Hayward-Jones, the Lowy Institute’s Pacific expert, said yesterday “it is the right thing at this stage” for the Gillard government to help keep the constitutional and democratic momentum going in Fiji.

Despite the falling out between the Fiji government and the constitutional commission, she believes “it is unlikely they would try to start again” with a fresh constitution, and that it remains strongly likely that the Constituent Assembly will frame its discussions around the draft completed by Professor Ghai and his colleagues.

She described Professor Ghai as having “unparalleled expertise” in drafting constitutions, in often extremely challenging settings. “(Interim Prime Minister Frank) Bainimarama appeared to be concerned that he seemed to have ceded some control over the process to Ghai, which through the recent chain of events he seems to have regained,” she said.

Ms Hayward-Jones said much depended on who was appointed to the Constituent Assembly

THE AUSTRALIAN