Key on Fiji: 'Let bygones be bygones'

Frank Bainimarama in 2006 (Reuters)
Frank Bainimarama in 2006 (Reuters)

Prime Minister John Key says it's time for New Zealand to "let bygones be bygones" and normalise the relationship with Fiji, despite ongoing concerns about the country's transition to democracy.

It'll be the first time a New Zealand Prime Minister has gone to Fiji in a decade. Then military leader Frank Bainimarama took power in a coup in 2006, the fourth since 1987 for the Pacific island nation.

"Those warm diplomatic relations were broken off by Helen Clark when they had the military coup and we followed up with all of that," Mr Key told More FM this morning.

"But they've had elections now, and I sort of felt I guess as the bigger side of the relationship we should put our best foot forward and go up there."

Mr Bainimarama's grip on power was legitimised in 2014's elections, when he was re-elected Prime Minister. International observers didn't see any "electoral misconduct or evident intimidation", but concerns were raised about the complex voting system and restrictive media environment.

"It's still a work in progress," says Steven Ratuva, Canterbury University professor of Pacific studies.

"A lot of changes are taking place and a lot of issues in terms of governance, freedom of expression, development and poverty are still there. It takes a bit of time. That's why it's important for countries like New Zealand to lend a hand."

Some Kiwi reporters are still banned from the country -- a touchy subject Mr Key said he'd bring up, but doesn't expect to be resolved immediately.

"People often don't want to admit that they're wrong or don't want to change immediately."

Mr Key will also take a look at New Zealand's contribution to the post-Cyclone Winston reconstruction effort. Forty-four people were killed and 40,000 homes destroyed in February when Winston made landfall, the strongest tropical cyclone to do so in recorded history.

"We're the friends they turn to when the going gets tough," says Mr Key. "We're not going to condone military coups, but that's behind us now. We should look forward, not back."

Prof Ratuva says New Zealand was "very, very quick" to offer help following Winston, unlike China and Russia, which have been trying to extend their influence in the Pacific, perhaps at New Zealand's expense.

"Russia recently signed a military agreement with Fiji for further military aid in the future, and China has been providing lots of aid, and Fiji is very strategically located and one of the reasons why the two powers have been focusing on Fiji," he says.

"It's important for New Zealand to try and balance these out. New Zealand's influence in the Pacific has been waning in recent years, particularly when Fiji has been trying to mobilise against New Zealand's membership of the Pacific Islands Forum...this visit is very important in terms of sorting out some of those geopolitical difficulties."

Another purpose of Mr Key's visit could be to win the country's vote for Ms Clark in her bid to become Secretary-General of the United Nations. Prof Ratuva says with Fiji offering a candidate for President of the General Assembly, it's in both countries' interests to get along.

Mr Key first met Mr Bainimarama at the UN General Assembly last year.