First Reactions to News of Another Coup in Fiji

A personal comment, written on the day Fiji's parliament was hijacked, on the loss of Pacific expertise in Australian universities. For ongoing comments on the crisis, see my notes on the 2000 Fiji coup.

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One day during my second year at university, after some friends and I had spent a pleasant evening talking over dinner at their place, we switched on the television to check the news. We missed the headlines, but one of my friends picked up the main story: 'There's been a coup in Fiji.'

'No,' I said, not believing it, 'there was an election in Fiji'—one that I'd followed with interest, seeing that my father was originally from there. The Fiji Labour Party had defeated a government of long-standing only a month earlier.

But she was right. There had been a coup in Fiji.

I was a political science student, and that day ended up shaping how I spent the next ten years of my life. I wrote an honours thesis on the 1987 Fiji coup, which led to a PhD thesis (now a book) on the interaction of tradition and politics in Fiji and Tonga.

Now, thirteen years and five days later, it's happened again. I was at dinner with my wife at a friend's place, and at the end of the evening we switched on the television, and saw that there has been a coup in Fiji.

All I could think was, 'Here we go again.'

And all I could think after that was, 'I don't know the details. I'm out of the loop.'

I drove home tonight with pretty mixed feelings. First, of course, of sadness for a country I care about. Without knowing any of the details (though I knew that the Chaudhry government was always in for a difficult time), I can't help feeling that armed force is no solution to the problems Fiji faces: not in a country that spent a difficult decade rebuilding a basic level of trust and goodwill among its peoples. All that effort is now undone, or so it seems.

And second, I felt a sadness for my own country. Those feelings need a more round-about explanation—one that's highly personal.

This new coup in Fiji is exactly the sort of dramatic and newsworthy event that has the Australian media casting around for academic experts to explain them. If I was an academic still researching Fiji politics in some Australian university, they would probably be looking to me—especially since anyone who types 'Fiji coup' into a web search engine tomorrow will see my pages near the top of the list. I would happily oblige, because I believe that explaining the deeper causes of current events to the public is one of the most valuable things that political scientists (and indeed all academics) can do.

But I'm not an academic researching Fiji politics—not right now. Although I've been qualified to be one since submitting my thesis in 1995, I've never been employed as a full-time academic. Not for want of trying, of course: I spent over a year looking for academic work, and accumulated a pile of applications three inches thick, before I landed my first full-time job as a research assistant (not in Pacific politics). The mid-1990s were a terrible time to emerge onto the academic job-market in Australia, and times have only gotten worse since then. In 1995-96 there was maybe one political science position advertised per month for the entire country (all in other fields than the Pacific); in the year after that, under a new cost-cutting government, the figure would have been two or three for the whole year.

At the same time, there was a flood of new PhDs on the way. In my research assistant job, working for two government-funded reviews of research and research training in the humanities and social sciences, I found out why. In 1990, a labour-market think-tank had predicted that because many Australian academics were due to retire there would be a shortage of academics in the mid-1990s. The Department of Education responded by increasing the number of postgraduate scholarships for the whole country, to encourage more students to stay on. Meanwhile, the increase in undergraduate numbers of the late-1980s started to flow through to postgraduate numbers, which rose steeply in 1991/92 before the extra scholarships kicked in. And after they kicked in... well, ask any young Australian PhD graduate what it's like to compete with hundreds of your peers for non-existent academic jobs.

1991 was the first year of my PhD. I remember being told a few months earlier that there would be a need for more pol sci lecturers in the mid-1990s when the current crop retired; no doubt in response to news of that labour-market study. It was an important factor in my decision to keep studying. It wasn't the only one, of course, but no-one consciously embarks on 3-4 years of study without some kind of expectation of a job at the end—and certainly not with the expectation that they would end up on the dole for a year and then in a job they could have got with their honours degree.

True, there was also an element of bad luck in the field I chose. At the start of the 1990s the Pacific was, if not a hot topic, still generally considered important by Australia. Coups and insurgency in Fiji, New Caledonia and Bougainville were still fresh in Australian minds.

But over the course of the 1990s, Australia turned its attention, at least at government level, from its east to its north: from the Pacific islands to Asia. Many Australians, myself included, think it was no bad thing for us to engage more with Asia. But did we have to neglect the Pacific in the process?

'Neglect' is the key word. I wouldn't claim that Australian governments felt ill-disposed towards our Pacific neighbours; of course they didn't. But they neglected to ensure that Australia would be able to maintain its academic expertise in this area. Not just in this area, but in dozens of areas; hardly any part of the Australian university system has emerged unscathed from the staff-cuts and funding-erosion of the past decade. Without sufficient academics to teach and research in a particular area, you are bound to see a flow-on effect on the public service, industry, and the public: although our written body of knowledge still increases, we don't as a people know as much as we once did about the Pacific islands, because we don't have as many people explaining and interpreting them to us.

And I don't know as much as I once did about Fiji, even with a book behind me, because there's only so long that you can maintain an academic interest in a subject when you don't have an academic reason to. It's about a year since I last seriously followed events there; since then, I've been focussing more and more on the subject that's paying the bills, which is more than enough to take up every ounce of my attention, and is about as far from 'tradition and politics' as you can get: IT and the Internet.

Do I regret doing the PhD? No. Do I regret the path I've taken since then? No.

Do I regret that Australia has fewer and fewer Pacific experts to turn to at times like this? Yes. Our understanding of our neighbours is the poorer for it; and ultimately, we're the poorer for it.

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Page created 19 May 2000

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