Fiji’s military rulers expelled Australia’s top diplomat on Tuesday, accusing her of interfering in the tiny Pacific nation’s internal affairs.
The announcement came one day after the cancellation of a regional summit on good governance that was supposed to be hosted by Fiji later this month.
In an interview with New Zealand’s Radio Tarana, Fiji’s military commander Frank Bainimarama blamed Australia for persuading Vanuatu to cancel the meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which also includes Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Fiji declared Australian Acting High Commissioner Sarah Roberts “persona non grata.”
“Her expulsion is regrettable and a direct result of recent reports that Ms. Roberts has been interfering with the internal affairs of Fiji and conducting unfriendly acts,” Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola said.
Australia condemned the expulsion, which comes amid a deep diplomatic rift between the countries that began in 2006, when Fiji’s democratically elected government was overthrown by Bainimarama.
Australia and New Zealand have been his loudest international critics and have pressured the leader to restore democracy.
In November, Fiji expelled Australia and New Zealand’s high commissioners. They, in turn, kicked out Fiji’s top diplomat. Talks between the three states had shown signs of improvement, until Ms. Roberts, who took over the post, was thrown out.
“We will be making very, very clear to Fiji our protest about this unreasonable and uncalled for action,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters in Canberra.
Australia has no plans to retaliate, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told reporters in Perth, saying that would leave Fiji without representation in Australia and end any formal diplomatic contact.
He linked the expulsion to Monday’s cancellation of a regional summit scheduled to take place this month in Fiji.
Australia has not publicly opposed the meeting but had spoken out against an additional meeting that Bainimarama had proposed that Fiji should lead and that would have included other Pacific nations.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei said the meeting, currently chaired by his nation, had been postponed because of the potential long—term ramifications of allowing Fiji to host it.
“There are basic fundamental principles and values of democracy and good governance that our organization is built on and we must continue to uphold them,” he said in a statement.
In the radio interview, Bainimarama said he is considering cancelling elections planned for 2014 because of constant interference from Australia and New Zealand.
“I am all of a sudden thinking we might not be ready for 2014 for election if we don’t get any assistance from Australia and New Zealand,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, the Australian subsidiary of News Corp. announced that it had appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers to advise on options to sell Fiji’s leading newspaper, the Fiji Times.
In June, the government gave News Ltd. a three—month deadline to give Fijians a 90 percent stake in the paper or be shut down.