SUVA, Fiji – Fiji's military ruler on Tuesday gave the top diplomats from Australia and New Zealand 24 hours to leave the country, deepening a rift between the island nation and its biggest South Pacific neighbors.
Australia's prime minister shrugged off the move Wednesday, saying his country would continue to maintain a hard line against Fiji.
"We're not about to simply allow a coup culture to spread," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio, adding that Australia wanted stability in the South Pacific region.
Fiji's Commodore Frank Bainimarama and the governments of Australia and New Zealand have been at loggerheads since the two regional powers led condemnation of the military leader's 2006 overthrow of the elected government in a bloodless coup.
The latest spat is over a group of expatriate judges from Sri Lanka that Fiji wants to hire to replace some of those fired by Bainimarama's administration in a power grab earlier this year.
Australia and New Zealand told the judges this week that if they take up the posts in Fiji they would be subject to travel bans the two countries have placed on all senior officials in Bainimarama's government because of the coup.
"I cannot understand why Australia and New Zealand are engaged in dishonest and untruthful strategies to undermine our judiciary, our independent institutions and our economy," Bainimarama told reporters Tuesday.
"I can accept their ban on me and my senior officers given the personalization of matters. But why punish individuals both Fijians and non-Fijians who join the judiciary?"
He said he had instructed the Foreign Affairs Ministry to let the Australian and New Zealand governments know "that their respective heads of mission are to be recalled within 24 hours."
In a statement sent to local media this week, the Australian High Commission denied it had tried to block the Sri Lankans from taking up posts in Fiji but conceded they had been contacted and advised that the Australia and New Zealand travel bans would apply.
"The New Zealand government will now consider the appropriate steps to take in response to today's expulsion, and also assess the impact of this action on the already depleted resources in our Suva High Commission," New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said in a statement Tuesday.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called Fiji's action "a very substantial and serious setback."
"At some point in the cycle, Fiji has to engage in a dialogue," he said Tuesday. "We're open to that, but at the same time, it's a dialogue that can only proceed on the basis of Fiji's showing some return to democratic process."
In April, Bainimarama ally President Ratu Josefa Iloilo fired all of Fiji's judicial officers after a senior court ruled that the commander's government was illegal. Since then, Bainimarama has been appointing new judges, with critics complaining they are not independent appointments.
Fiji, a small country of some 940,000 people, has long had to rely on expatriates to fill senior judicial roles. In the past, most have come from Australia and New Zealand.