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Fiji is the new Burma, a ‘virtual dictatorship’ (whatever that means) according to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

But if Rudd is so concerned about dictatorship, freedom of the press and the rule of law, why is he is so jolly chummy with China?

Frank Bainimarama asked today for a three way meeting with Kevin Rudd and NZ PM John Key. Rudd flatly refused to consider a meeting, saying ‘The people of Fiji deserve better.’

So do the people of Australia, but that is hardly the point. What counts is doing whatever can be done to help one the smallest nations in the world maintain a society which is open and free and fair to all its citizens.

Fair to all its citizens is the point at issue. The constitution of Fiji entrenches a racist system in which nearly half of the population are and forever will be second class citizens in their own country. It is a system designed to ensure that indigenous Fijians always have control of executive and legislative power.

The votes of non-indigenous Fijians do not have the same value. No non-indigenous Fijian, regardless of where he or she was born, or how long his or family has resided in Fiji, can ever be president.

It is all very well to talk about the importance of the rule of law. But what do you do when the law is bad?

South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961 in part because of protests about a system that reduced the rights of a substantial part of its population on the basis of race. Why has a similar system been considered acceptable in Fiji?

The answer is that Frank Bainimarama, and surprisingly, a number of the old ruling elite, including the Mara and Ganilau families, do not consider it acceptable. They believe that the long term stability and prosperity of Fiji, not to mention natural justice for all its people, demands a consitution in which rights of citizens are not determined by race.

Changes to remove the racism from Fiji’s constitution were impossible under former PM Laisenia Qarase. But if a vote was taken now, with the existing constitution still in place, with its different valuing of votes depending on race, Laisenia Qarase would almost certainly be returned to power.

Frank Bainimarama has committed to elections in 2014, saying it will take that long to make the changes needed, both on paper and people’s hearts, for truly fair elections to be possible.

Bainimarama may be mistaken. He may even be mis-stating his motives. But it is too early to make those judgements, and he is right at least about this: the existing system in Fiji is wrong and will take time to change.

In the meantime, he and the people of Fiji deserve do deserve better. They deserve a fair hearing. They deserve a chance to have their say. They deserve support and guidance as they try to undo a racist sytem and replace it with something just and open.

They certainly deserve better than shallow judgments and threats from popularist leaders like Kevin Rudd, who while condemning Bainimarama are happy to cuddle up to China.

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