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21 Oct 2018 7:14
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  •   Home > News > International

    Fears Prince Harry and Meghan's Fiji visit could influence outcome of election

    "It's not the right time" for Prince Harry and Meghan's planned visit to Fiji next month, a former top Fijian diplomat says, warning that the trip could influence a key upcoming national election.

    "It's not the right time" for Prince Harry and Meghan's planned visit to Fiji next month, a former top Fijian diplomat says, warning that the trip could influence a key upcoming national election.

    The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will visit Australia, Fiji, Tonga, and New Zealand on a 16-day trip starting October 16, and will land in Fiji just 20 days before the country's November 14 election.

    The royal couple has proved to have star power, pulling in hundreds of millions of viewers for their wedding in May and has already set the NSW country town of Dubbo abuzz with royal fever ahead of their visit.

    Robin Nair, who was Fiji's foreign affairs permanent secretary until he quit last year, said "the perception is, of course, that the [Fijian] Government will take full advantage" of the opportunity to be seen with the pair.

    "Fijians love the Royals … and the Government knows that there will be great euphoria and joy created by the visit," he said.

    The November election will only be the second democratically-held election since a 2006 coup led by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama ousted the then-prime minister and started eight years of military-led rule.

    "I would have thought the British High Commission in Suva would have advised the Commonwealth office in London about the forthcoming elections and the environment in which the elections are taking place," Mr Nair told the ABC.

    "The palace should be advised that the visit should be postponed.

    "It's not the right timing."

    Another outspoken Government critic, Shailendra G Raju, who has been an aide to two former Fijian prime ministers, posted a letter addressed to the UK High Commissioner to Fiji on Facebook calling for the visit to be "postponed to a mutually convenient and more appropriate time".

    However, in a statement provided to the ABC, a spokesperson for the High Commission maintained that the "program will be non-political and support bilateral relations between the two countries".

    "Given that Their Royal Highnesses are visiting Australia, New Zealand, and Tonga next month, it makes sense for a visit to Fiji to take place at the same time," the statement said.

    What role are the Royals allowed to play?

    Associate Professor Giselle Bastin, a royal expert at Flinders University, said since the early 20th century it had become important for the Royal family to remain politically neutral, and "they are seen to maintain their political impartiality".

    In the lead-up to the 2014 Scottish referendum, Queen Elizabeth reportedly told a Scottish resident: "I hope people will think very carefully about the future," a rare remark from the monarch.

    It was reported that the Queen refrained from attending a World War II allies victory — VE Day — celebration the day after the 2015 UK election to avoid appearing political, and in 2016, a front page from The Sun newspaper declaring the "Queen backs Brexit" prompted a formal complaint from Buckingham Palace.

    "When it comes to things like elections, or major public events, they are very keen to either disappear or to make sure that they have an even spread of contact with people from the different political parties," Associate Professor Bastin said.

    As a new Royal, Meghan may have already broken the protocol: during a July visit to Ireland, an Irish senator posted a now-deleted tweet which claimed Meghan had said she was "pleased" about the result of the recent referendum on abortion.

    Senator Catherine Noone said the initial tweet was "unintentionally misleading" and the Duchess "was not in any way political".

    'Photo opportunities' do not always lead to victory

    Associate Professor Bastin said the itinerary for the October trip would have been finalised long before the election was called in Fiji, so it wouldn't be fundamentally changed, "but it will be built into their itinerary that they are at least exposed to people from the various political persuasions".

    The Duke and Duchess's visit to Melbourne will be in the lead-up to the Victorian state election on November 24, but Associate Professor Bastin said the same protocols would apply on any international visit.

    "They meet the Premier of the day but there's usually the leader of the opposition party hovering in the background somewhere, so they make sure they meet or confront both sides, and it will be the same for Harry and Meghan," he said.

    Despite concerns, history has shown a royal photo opportunity does not always translate to victory.

    Associate Professor Bastin pointed to the 1947 royal visit to South Africa, when then-prime minister Jan Smuts "was in every photo opportunity" with King George and his family.

    "As it turned out, the Smuts government did not survive the next election anyway. So having just clung onto the Windsors for several weeks, didn't actually tip him over the edge," she said.

    The Fijian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was contacted for comment, but had not responded at the time of writing.

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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