Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Comment: At least they agree on rugby

Prime Minister John Key and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama front a press conference together in Fiji. Photo / Claire Trevett
Prime Minister John Key and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama front a press conference together in Fiji. Photo / Claire Trevett

In Fiji they call it 'the game they play in heaven." That game is rugby, and in the end the delights of the heavenly game were almost all Prime Minister John Key and Voreqe Bainimarama managed to agree on.

Key and Bainimarama wore special matching shirts featuring the symbols of both countries - silver ferns and coconut palms.

But the talk did not quite match the shirts.

It began propitiously enough, with rugby jokes and lots of talk about 'friends' and 'relationships." Key basked in the warm welcome he was given at the sevusevu. That sevusevu took place at the vale ni bose - the base for the Great Council of Chiefs which was disbanded by Bainimarama as part of his reforms.

The literal translation of that is 'place of bosses.' At a speech at the banquet after the sevusevu, Bainimarama made it clear that he was the boss on his home turf and would not budge.

He delivered such a tongue lashing of his guest that when the next day's front page of the Fiji Sun read 'War Cry' it took a while to realise it referred to the Pacific Nations Cup between Tonga and Fiji rather than Bainimarama.

Key's response was more diplomatic but gave little ground. He made it clear New Zealand did not resile from its response to the coup. Nor would New Zealand bow to the demand to withdraw from the main table of the Pacific Islands Forum. "New Zealand is not going anywhere."

Rock, say bula to hard place.

Key has turned his affable personality into quite an effective tool of diplomacy over his eight years as PM. In Bainimarama, Key had met his match. Bainimarama did respond to Key's repartee in kind, and Key reported he was warm and engaging in person.

Bainimarama got what he wanted out of the visit. Clearly stung by questions about how 'democratic' Fiji actually was, Key's visit was a chance to show his Government was accepted as legitimate by other leaders - and to talk tough in the process.

As for Key, he went to Suva with some flattery and requests, to drop a ban on some foreign media and for Bainimarama to return to the Pacific Islands Forum. In the end, Key could not even manage to extract an acceptance of Key's return invitation for Bainimarama to visit New Zealand. Agree to disagree was as far as things went.

Perhaps Key should have taken some guidance a billboard on the open roads on the way of Suva, featuring Bainimarama and the words "watch your speed."

It is a road safety advertisement, but could equally apply to diplomacy with a former dictator.

- NZ Herald

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