Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Free Tibet? Let's start with Fiji

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John Key has nothing to gain by siding with the Dalai Lama. Photo / Kenny Rodger
John Key has nothing to gain by siding with the Dalai Lama. Photo / Kenny Rodger

As far as breaking election promises go, it's hardly a biggie.

So, John Key promised last year to meet the Dalai Lama and now, oh dear, his diary is full and it's not possible.

At least he's saying it up front, and not contriving meetings in airport lounges and behind the bike sheds like previous prime ministers have done.

The world's longest surviving political exile is back in town again, selling peace and religion at the Vector arena for $20 a seat.

In his spare time, he's again trying to stir up trouble against China, one of our largest trading partners.

If I were Prime Minister, I suspect I would also think the chance to swap pictures of Bronagh and the kids with this turbulent priest was not really worth the trouble.

Tibet was never the Shangri-La that his ageing hippy supporters make out.

It was a feudal theocracy run by a Buddhist hierarchy, who perpetuated themselves, not by family line, but by plucking unsuspecting youngsters from their families, spiriting them away to spooky monasteries and proclaiming them the reincarnation of dead high priests.

Whether the exiles want to reinstate this system is anyone's guess. And really, is it any of our business? Certainly, it's hardly a battle worth risking New Zealand's economic future over.

It's not as though John Key is the first of our leaders to bow to the reality of politics in the grown-up world.

The most obvious genuflection to a greater power came in 1986, when David Lange decided he couldn't risk French President Mitterand's threats to our trade with the Europe Economic Community if we didn't release the Rainbow Warrior bombers.

The two French government agents, Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart, had pleaded guilty to blowing up the Greenpeace ship in Auckland Harbour, killing a crewman in the process.

They were sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter, but in just over six months were given back to the French, in a deal stitched up with the aid of the United Nations Secretary-General.

To give him his due, Mr Lange did stand up to our ally, the United States, to veto nuclear ships visiting our ports.

That earned us a cold shoulder that still lingers. We got relegated down the queue as far as free trade deals were concerned.

It might also have increased our willingness to cosy up and send troops to such questionable conflicts as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The French and the Americans were our so-called allies and partners, yet when we crossed them all bets were off.

Cheeking a non-ally like China over an issue as esoteric as Tibet seems suicidal.

We can't even persuade or bully our tiny near-neighbours like Fiji to restore democracy, or Tonga to institute it, so why risk our livelihood taunting the elephant with genuinely big tusks?

Talking Fiji, Mr Key flies out to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago to where a controversial report on democracy in the 53-nation club of former British colonies will liven up the discussions.

This is a foreign affairs issue that New Zealand, as a founding member of the grouping, genuinely needs to confront.

The authors declare that on its 60th anniversary, "if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant ... it must work harder to address the concerns of ordinary citizens". It calls for "a renewed commitment to championing democracy and to the protection of human rights. Otherwise, however uncomfortable this might be for some leaders, there is no real justification for the Commonwealth".

Put together by the Commonwealth's "think-tank" policy studies unit, it recommends getting tough on autocratic regimes, by, if necessary, publicly "shaming" some of its members. That tactic hasn't exactly cowered our friends in Fiji, but short of invasion, and no one is talking that, what else to do?

What it does suggest is something that the Commonwealth has long seemed to lack - a sense of purpose, other than just providing a comfort blanket to the royal family and Britain to help them get over their loss of empire.

The authors suggest that promoting democracy "should not be just one among a number of Commonwealth objectives; it must become, and be recognised as, the defining characteristic of the association".

They're proposing a system of democracy warrants of fitness, where the Commonwealth secretariat has a standing and statutory invitation to every Commonwealth country "to provide a regular health check on the state of democracy in each member state".

Government, the media, the legal profession and NGOs would be part of the process.

This warrant of fitness would not just involve election day activities, but all the other aspects of democracy such as political funding, state interference in political parties and the like.

The authors acknowledge the size of the project. They note that in many countries the main threat to the checks and balances needed for a true democracy is "a too powerful and overweening executive".

It also notes that "the development of a democratic culture demands that democracy is practised not only in political parties, but also in most other social, political, cultural and economic institutions, organisations and communities".

It's been 18 years since the Harare Commonwealth Declaration that proclaimed making democracy "a way of life" in the Commonwealth. Now we have a proposal on how to make it happen.

Whatever we might say to each other, democracy is something we New Zealanders are quite good at.

And as a foreign affairs project, teaching it to others is likely to be more rewarding and productive than vague campaigns to save Tibet, or for that matter, Afghanistan.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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