Lip reading the doublespeak

Dev Nadkarni

Protocol and decorum all too often define dealings with people in power. There is an undercurrent of political correctness even in what is palmed off as candidness in freewheeling media interviews with politicians because consummate politicians know well that there is no such thing as an off the record comment.

It is therefore not very often that a scribe is witness to a remarkably no holds barred verbal sparring between an astute politician and an intelligent, well informed and articulate private individual where both parties let their hair down in a rare display of free and frank collegiality.

Recently, I was caught up in such an intellectual, articulate verbal crossfire between two very eminent gentlemen. In deference to the senior and sensitive positions that these gentlemen hold in their respective fields of work, I wouldn’t venture to even give so much as a clue to their identities let alone mention their names. Besides, it was an informal social outing and, as the two men began their verbal sparring, I had promised I wasn’t wearing my journalistic hat. (Even then they squinted at me from the corner of their eyes more than once during their conversation.)

But some of the very sensitive and controversial issues these men discussed and cogently argued about is something I thought would be well worth sharing with Islands Business readers, especially because of the enduring interest in this topic around the region and beyond for the past several years.

To set the context, however, I would need to give a brief background of the two men: one is a dual citizen of Fiji and one of the Anzac nations and the other is a lawmaker of one of these Anzac nations. This is not an exact, verbatim record of what each of the men said but it certainly is a faithful narration of how the largely collegial but sometimes heated conversation went (it must be remembered that the setting was informal and the two men had their wine glasses topped up twice during the powwow).

From what I recall, Mr Dual Citizen (Mr DC) started out accusing the Anzac nations of having lost the plot on Fiji soon after December 2006 and holding on to an ill advised, somewhat naïve isolationist position for far too long. Mr Law Maker (Mr LM) jumped to the defence of his own government and that of the Anzac brother nation, saying that was the only tenable position his country could hold based on the values the two countries were founded on.

Mr LM was at pains to explain that for the Anzac nations democracy was not negotiable under any circumstances and it would be impossible to justify any government formed by a group of people by force or by any undemocratic means or through fraudulent elections. He waxed eloquent about the tenets of democracy, freedom, liberty, rule of law, transparency and all that goes with it. The Anzac nations would find any government that wasn’t founded on democratic principles and did not guarantee these attributes difficult to deal with. It wasn’t Fiji alone, Mr LM assured.

It didn’t matter which party was in power in the Anzac nations, these principles are non negotiable and that was why the two nations were consistent in their response to the events in Fiji since December 2006, Mr LM soldiered on. He was speaking on behalf of his country, not reflecting the views of his political party, he pointedly said. There was no other recourse available and the two countries continued to hold that position.

Mr DC was unimpressed. He said he wondered if these principles had double standards that exposed the Anzac nations’ “hypocritical” position. He said, by the same “moral high ground” from which the Anzac nations arrived at their decision on Fiji in the years immediately following the December 2006 development, the Anzac nations shouldn’t be seen in the company of the likes of China and Pakistan.

Australia has a hugely successful commercial relationship with China while New Zealand bent backwards to sign a free trade agreement. It doesn’t seem to matter that democracy is a non existent concept in China, when it comes to business and commerce, Mr DC asked. He rubbed it in saying New Zealand even gave a red carpet welcome to then Pakistan dictator Pervez Musharraf, now jailed on a slew of charges, when he visited the country while he was nothing more than an undemocratically self appointed “strongman”.

Caught on the back foot, Mr LM mustered his typical parliamentary fobbing off techniques. Those situations were different, he said rather tamely. China was never a democracy, so the government there hadn’t been formed by force or military action overthrowing a democratic one, he said. It was always like that and it is like that now so the world has come to accept it, he added.

And how about the dictator of Pakistan? Mr DC needled. That’s a distant country, not in our Pacific backyard, Mr LM countered, realising full well that he was losing ground to his worthy opponent. So, these principles are inversely proportional to history and distance, Mr DC asked. It wasn’t as simple as that, Mr LM countered. There were many other factors to consider.

Such as what, asked Mr DC and continued without waiting for Mr LM to answer: was it one set of rules for a comparatively smaller, poorer, powerless neighbour and another for a bigger, richer, militarily more powerful trading partner and a distant dictatorial country that has been under the scanner for accusations of abetting global terrorism?

The parliamentarian’s body language and tone now became decidedly conciliatory. The Anzac nations had now changed their stance quite considerably, he said. Ever since the steps towards holding elections became credible, far fewer sanctions now remained. The erudite Mr DC wasn’t convinced this was the only reason. He asked if the United States had anything to do with the gradual but firm come down. Mr LM appeared surprised.

By way of explanation, Mr DC said the fact that the Anzac nations having had taken their backyard for granted, they had failed to seriously notice the growing Asian geopolitical clout in the world’s biggest untapped regions for natural resources. The United States is a natural Anzac ally and asked the two Anzac nations to pull up their socks and regain what they had lost in the Pacific to China. That was a bigger motivator in the come down, more than anything else, Mr DC said.

Mr LM shook his head dismissively saying now the conversation was heading into the realm of conspiracy theories and that he did not wish to be part of it. Mr DC asked Mr LM, what the Anzac nations’ approach to Fiji would have been if they were to start all over again. Mr LM was probably thankful for the master of ceremonies’ spoon clinking an empty wine glass to call everyone’s attention to the first of a series of long and boring speeches of that evening.

But that conversation for me was like lip reading political doublespeak.