February 27, 2008 / 6:47 AM / 11 years ago

Australia, NZ pledge democracy push in Pacific

By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Australia and New Zealand on Wednesday said they would unite to push for more democracy in the troubled South Pacific as they condemned a crackdown on critics by Fiji’s military-installed government.

The two neighbours, both major donors to their smaller island neighbours, said they would also present a united front internationally on climate change after Australia agreed in December to sign the Kyoto climate change pact.

"You’ll see that reflected in the combined positions we take across the many meetings which will occur across the international community in the two difficult years which lie ahead," Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said after meeting his New Zealand counterpart Helen Clark in Canberra.

Both leaders condemned the Fiji government’s decision this week to expel the Australian publisher of the Fiji Sun newspaper over a series of articles accusing the country’s Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry of tax evasion.

"It’s inconceivable that you can hold open, free and fair elections if you have media intimidation," Clark said.

Fiji’s military commander Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup in December 2006 after accusing the elected government of corruption, has promised to hold elections in 2009.

Australia and New Zealand, the South Pacific’s major military powers, have joined Europe and the United States in demanding Bainimarama stick to the election schedule.

Both countries also have peacekeeping troops and police as part of a regional force maintaining stability in the Solomon Islands archipelago.

After their second meeting since Rudd’s November election win, which ended almost 12 years of conservative government in Australia, Clark said Rudd’s decision to ratify the Kyoto pact meant both countries could act together against climate shift.

"It puts us on the same page and the work we must now do and the intense international diplomacy around reaching the post 2012 agreement," Clark said.

"It makes a huge difference to New Zealand to have Australia in and for us to be able to combine diplomatic effort and muscle in the international negotiations."

New Zealand was an early signatory to the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.

Rudd and Clark, who both lead left-leaning governments, said they were committed to a single economic market, with trade across the Tasman Sea already topping A$15 billion in 2006-07 under a 1983 trade deal billed as one of the world’s freest. "I’ve reinforced the importance for New Zealand of the work that’s been going on around the economic integration between the two economies and have been assured that’s core business for the new Australian government as well," Clark said.


(Editing by Michael Perry and Sanjeev Miglani)

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