by Richard Giedroyc
December 11, 2012 – Mints put a lot of time and effort into what designs appear on coins. Mints pride themselves on innovative designs that may win the coveted annual Coin of the Year award presented by Krause Publications.
Design selection, however, should never be taken for granted by either a mint or the government telling the mint what to depict on coinage. Since time immemorial the subjects depicted on coins have had propaganda value. This can easily evolve into a dangerous political situation when design changes are made, which is currently what is being played out in the Pacific island nation of Fiji.
The British Commonwealth of Nations is a unifying entity that was established following the independence of many of the former colonies of Great Britain. The British monarch, in recent history that being Queen Elizabeth II, has continued to appear on a majority of the coins and bank notes issued by these countries even though these are now independent nations. Any change to a subject other than the British monarchy has been met with opposition, something now being learned by Fiji’s Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama and President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau.
Bainimarama was the commander of Fiji’s military forces when in 2006 he staged a military takeover against the same prime minister he had installed during a coup in 2000. Bainimarama dissolved the parliament while seizing presidential powers. In 2009 the Court of Appeal declared his government to be illegal. This decision was cancelled when the Court of Appeal was dissolved by Fiji’s president, who is a Bainimarama supporter. Since that time Fiji has become the first nation ever to be suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum and from the Commonwealth of Nations for failure to hold public elections, which Bainimarama has now promised will take place in 2014. The Commonwealth of Nations had demanded elections be held by 2010. Bainimarama insisted he needed more time. Opposition leaders said he has been using this time to jail his opponents.
Domestic Fiji newspapers have become mouthpieces for the Bainimarama government, sugar coating the changes about to take place in Fiji’s coins and bank notes. Several of these newspapers quoted Reserve Bank of Fiji Governor Barry Whiteside’s November 29 public statement in which he said, “Work on the new series of notes and coins commenced in February 2010 during the United Nation’s declared Year of Biodiversity, so it was most fitting to recognize this important theme and what better way than to do so in our national currency.”
Understanding the political tsunami that might follow, Whiteside was careful to give a glowing eulogy for the outgoing portrait of the British monarch: “…and we are indeed grateful to have had the privilege of this association over the past 78 years.”
One of the political aspects of this change from depicting a monarch to politically sterile innate subjects, in this case being biodiversified objects on coins and bank notes, involved the fact Queen Elizabeth II has been dubbed Tui Viti by the Great Council of Chiefs, a Fiji chiefly title essentually recognizing her as the queen of Fiji. Bainimarama is not an elected prime minister, nor is he an aristocrat. This appears to be immaterial. In addition to being prime minister he is also Fiji’s Minister for Finance, and as such has overseen the design committee of what friendly domestic press has termed “eminent” Fijians as well as having personally approved the new design selection.
While Fiji’s domestic news media have tried to put a happy face on the changes in the numismatic iconography about to take place Radio Free Australia is under no constraint to allow the less than loyal political opposition to voice their disapproval.
Adi Litia Qioniaravi is a representative of Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs. On a recent Pacific Beat program broadcast on Radio Australia she said, “[It has] been met with great shock and sadness [as] the royal family is held in very high regard and passion by Fijians. I don’t think that the significance of the royal household of Windsor to the original Fijians is clearly understood now. I’m saying this because our high chiefs had given the highest position of chief of Fiji—the head chief of Fiji—to the [British] royal household.”
Mick Beddoes is a former Fijian parliamentary opposition leader. Beddoes has accused the Bainimarama government of having no right to change the designs unilaterally, while being quick to take the opportunity to point out the current government was not elected.
Using Radio Australia to get his message across Beddoes said, “Why now, given that we are not operating in a democratic environment? These kinds of decisions – especially the fact that it is a symbolic matter of the queen, and by association our chiefs and the people of Fiji – this I would have imagined is a matter for the elected representatives of the people.”
Beddoes used Radio Australia as his political pulpit, adding, “This is certainly not a matter that an unelected regime … and the institutions that are currently operating under its control, to make such decisions – I don’t believe that they have a right, and frankly they don’t have a mandate.”
“It is a childish way of trying to forget our historical connections with those that were responsible for founding this nation. In 1970 we became independent, but Australia, New Zealand, and Canada were independent before us and they still use the queen’s head on their currency. We have forgotten the colonial past – we are now moving to the future, but there are certain things we cannot change – we can remove the queen’s head but that doesn’t mean we erase our history.”
It may be one thing to have defaced the ancient Roman coins depicting the feared Emperor Caligula once he had been murdered, but as the current Fiji government is learning it may be something else to remove the iconic depiction of their traditional tribal Tui Viti, still being greatly admired by the public.
For more information on the bank’s policy please visit the website of the Reserve Bank of Fiji.
Last summer Fiji has, additionally, stroke the Queen’s official birthday from the public holidays’ list.