Key Points:

Don McKinnon, former Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, now Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, hosted a dinner for heads of government at the Pacific Islands Forum this week and invited Fiji's coup leader, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. Helen Clark objected.

She failed to see how a country that has been suspended from the Commonwealth could be its dinner guest. Mr McKinnon explained it was his job to maintain a dialogue with a suspended member and encourage it "back on to the democratic train".

New Zealand and Australia are cast in the role of tough cops on Fiji, and it can seem a lonely one. Everyone else at the forum in Tonga seemed to be a soft cop. Commodore Bainimarama arrived to louder cheers than any of the legitimate leaders attending the gathering, and at the official opening, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare described Fiji as "family" and said it needed "our understanding and assistance to bring it back into the fold".

"We would not be doing justice to our objectives if we sought solely punitive action for a member of the family," he said.

"Solely" is the operative word. The family probably appreciate the hard line being taken by Australia and New Zealand, which last week went as far as to refuse a visa to a Fijian representative soccer player because his partner is the daughter of a soldier. That extraordinary stricture cost New Zealand soccer a home international and made the country appear petty and vindictive.

Such is the price we are paying to uphold the democratic principle in another country. Why are we doing this? New Zealand's attitude to the Pacific, even more than Australia's, has a paternal streak as well as self-interest. Both countries regard stability in the South Pacific as important to their own security and rightly consider that stability is best served by Governments that adhere to constitutional procedures, and preferably democratic ones.

They need to have confidence that their counterparts represent the will of a country. Commodore Bainimarama might represent his country's will but nobody can know until he submits himself to an election, which he says he will do - the year after next. Until he proves his credentials he has no place in the Commonwealth and should not be at the Pacific Islands Forum either.

There are more than enough tensions between democratic states at these gatherings without making room for imposters. The Solomon Islands boycotted this forum over its review of the regional assistance mission to restore order in the country. The countries leading the mission have their own tensions over Air New Zealand's military charter flights to the Gulf.

And Fiji is not the only forum state falling short of democratic standards. The host suffered unrest in Nuku'alofa not long ago and has tried to ban pro-democracy demonstrations for the duration of the forum. But Tonga seems to be moving in the right direction at its own pace. Fiji has fallen from the constitutional standards it once observed and, having now suffered repeated armed seizures of its elected power, is in danger of losing the democratic habit.

The cold shoulder of neighbours and its exclusion from their gatherings seem the only hope for Fijian democracy. If Governments such as New Zealand's seem to care about that more than Fijians do, that is no reason for Fiji's friends to relax.

Clubs such as the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum are most effective when they suspend all dealings with destroyers of democracy. Such people do not deserve a place at the table, not for collective decision-making, not for dialogue, not even for dinner.