National News

Australia plays key role in Fiji future

Fiji finds itself at the centre of global attention.

The Pacific nation of 900,000 people spanning 330 islands faces an election later this year, the result of which will be closely watched.

Last week it hosted the Pacific Islands Forum which attracted the gaze both of US Vice President Kamala Harris and senior Chinese officials, as the two global powers jostle for influence in the region.

Fiji is also being monitored by governments, business and global agencies for signs of what is being described as "economic scarring" following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The practical impact of this, says Foreign Minister Penny Wong, is countries like Fiji potentially heading down a "lower development path" - something no Pacific nation can afford.

"We need to work with them," she said last week.

Australia is playing a key role in helping Fiji to avoid this economic scarring and its associated fallout.

The Australian government's Fiji development program last year had a budget of $147 million and it is the Pacific nation's largest public health partner.

It provided $83.5 million in direct budget support for the Fijian government, which during the pandemic enabled the country to keep up spending on health and social welfare, strengthen its fiscal position and debt profile, and better position its economy for recovery.

This meant such programs as Fiji's disability allowance and benefit payments for the poor could continue.

It was an important step in rebuilding trust with Fiji, which in the past has seen its share of government instability, poor governance and corruption.

Support for tourism - the country's largest revenue earner - has also been forthcoming, with Aussies voting with their feet and returning to the island nation's resorts in huge numbers.

For the first six months of 2022, Fiji received 205,529 visitors, showing a 50 per cent recovery of arrivals over the same period in 2019.

Exporters of food are also being assisted through an Australian-funded market development facility.

The Fijian government now estimates economic growth of 12.4 per cent this year but officials say it will take three years to restore the economy to pre-pandemic levels.

Education is another major area of co-operation.

Through Australia's $25 million Fiji education program, support is being provided for teacher preparation and development, inclusive education and civil service reforms in the sector.

With schools closed since April 2021 due to COVID, resources were pivoted to respond to remote learning requirements including the development of radio tuition.

Major facilities such as the Blackrock camp and new Maritime Essential Services Centre in Lami - due for completion in 2024 - will not only create jobs but boost Fiji's leadership in responding to natural disasters, protect local fishing and increase naval and coastal rescue capabilities.

Last week's $US1.6 billion acquisition of Digicel Pacific by Telstra, backed by government funding, is also considered critical to the region's growth and security.

However the country is not without its challenges.

Save the Children has been working in Fiji since 1972, with projects in 80 communities across 10 districts.

CEO Mat Tinkler says while Fiji is one of the most developed economies in the Pacific there are a number of difficulties.

Continuity and quality of education delivery is one.

And there are still "significant challenges" with under-nutrition and malnutrition, he says.

As well, children are exposed to a high level of violence in the home - a situation exacerbated by the pandemic as parents lost incomes and many students the protective environment schools provided.

"Many of the vulnerabililties were amplified by COVID," Mr Tinkler told AAP.

He says a cash transfer program was particularly well received by women who lost their jobs.

"All of them said to me (the payments) were life-changing and that if they didn't have that money they would have been struggling to survive."

He says the new government in Australia is "leaning into its role" in the Pacific, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last week attending his first Pacific Islands Forum leaders' summit in Suva and a flurry of ministers making a path through the region since the federal election.

There are a number of unknowns ahead for Fiji.

The looming election pits two former coup leaders against each other - current prime minister Frank Bainimarama and Sitiveni Rabuka.

There is the strategic challenge as China takes a closer interest in the region while the Biden administration seeks to boost the scale of US investment and activity.

And there is the existential threat of climate change, with well over 600 villages at risk of flooding due to rising sea levels, cyclones becoming more devastating and frequent, salt water ruining farmland and an increase in pests and diseases.

But what is certain is Australia will maintain a close eye on what is a vital piece of the Pacific puzzle.

© AAP 2022