Prof Robbie Robertson: A ‘son of Fiji and the Pacific’
19 June, 2021, 5:35 pm
Last week, many in the international USP community mourned the passing away in Melbourne of a former USP academic in history and politics, Professor Robbie Robertson, whose life’s work focused on many painful themes that are still for Fiji and indeed, for USP as well.
While he was a citizen of NZ and Australia, he could legitimately also be called a “son of Fiji and the Pacific”, judging by the quantity and quality of academic work he did on Fiji and the Pacific, all imbued with his deep passionate commitment to ordinary working people, regardless of race, class or creed.
With USP going through the throes of Fiji’s expulsion of an “expatriate” vice chancellor who was exposing skeletons left behind by the previous administration, it is no coincidence that forty years ago, Prof Robbie was also denied a work visa by the Fiji Government because he and his partner Akosita Tamanisau (then a journalist at a very different Fiji Sun) were researching the hidden sides of the Rabuka coup.
USP and the Fiji public need to ponder on the great contributions made by this “expatriate” academic, Prof Robbie, to the intellectual life of Pacific students, staff and the wider regional community.
Robbie also brought international academic experience to USP, having worked for Australasian universities like La Trobe, ANU, James Cook University, and Swinburne University of Technology.
As many of his former USP friends recollect with great nostalgia, Robbie also loved living life to the fullest, socialising merrily with family and friends at USP and in the drinking holes of Suva.
Robbie also planted deep roots in the DNA of Fiji and the Pacific with his decades of joyful partnership with Akosita, whose own commitment to community in Fiji and Bendigo not only helped steer Robbie’s ship of life, but also provided the greatest of care during his last months.
A quality academic Robbie was a graduate of Otago University, also coincidentally my alma mater but just a couple of years after me.
From his earliest days Robbie opposed senseless wars, rejecting the NZ military draft for service in Vietnam, much to his parents’ chagrin.
As Prof Vijay Naidu remembers, Robbie was recruited at USP in 1980 as lecturer in history.
Vijay introduced him to the sights of low-cost housing and squatter settlements that was the emerging evidence in Fiji, as elsewhere, of uneven developments of capitalism and globalization that Robbie later wrote umpteen books about.
Robbie became a close friend of Dr William Sutherland, also a USP lecturer in history and politics, but a close adviser to the Bavadra Government which was brutally removed by the Rabuka coup in 1987.
Deemed an enemy by the Government then, William Sutherland had to flee Fiji.
Robbie and his partner Akosita then began gathering the underbelly stories of the 1987 coup and soon came under malign surveillance of the Rabuka authorities.
Robbie’s work permit was rescinded.
Getting married to Akosita in a rush, Robbie was forced to leave Fiji.
He and Akosita were welcomed by Helen and William Sutherland in Canberra, before settling in Bendigo where he began teaching at a campus of La Trobe University.
Expelling USP academics: some progress?
It is interesting how powerful Fiji government use the same language when expelling dissident academics they disapprove of.
Few at USP today will remember that in the early seventies, there was a Professor of Mathematics Theo MacDonald (then also supervising my own aborted Masters in Mathematics), who was a radical teacher inspiring students into social activism.
When a powerful politician’s car in a rush to get to Nausori Airport, mowed down a pedestrian, anonymous pamphlets were strewn around Suva documenting that terrible breach of human rights of an ordinary citizen.
Prof MacDonald, who had to fly to Australia with his sick daughter, was held responsible for inciting the pamphlets and banned by the Alliance Government from returning to Fiji.
The massive protests by USP students and staff were ignored by the USP management then.
Prof Vijay recalls that similarly when Robbie’s work permit was revoked by the Rabuka Government in 1988 claiming that the “NZ Man was a security risk” they also had to flee to Australia.
Attempts to relocate Robbie to Vanuatu proved futile as the Vanuatu Government did not facilitate the move.
But it is worth noting that when Prof Ahluwalia was recently expelled by the Fiji government alleging that he was a security risk to Fiji, the reactions of the other Pacific Member countries of USP were different.
Prof Ahluwalia relocated at the invitation of Nauru’s Government and USP will now relocate him to Samoa.
This is some progress of sorts, but in my view the expulsion need not have happened in the first place.
Perhaps Fiji and USP can take heart that Prof Robbie was eventually allowed to return to Fiji and USP where he worked for several more years as Professor of Development Studies contributing to teaching, researching, writing and publishing.
Robbie’s great books on the Fiji coups
One of Robbie’s lasting legacies to Fiji was his thorough examination of the military coups of 1987, 2000 and 2006 generating much academic debate among supporters and opponents of each of the coups.
Robbie and Akosita wrote the book about the 1987 Rabuka-led coups and its hidden underbelly with much evidence contrary to the alleged objectives of the ethno-nationalists, even espoused by some senior USP academics.
Robbie and Dr William Sutherland then co-authored the readable, Government by the Gun: the unfinished business of Fiji’s 2000 Coup, again shedding more light on the behind the scenes events which gave the lie to the ethnonationalist propaganda.
In 2017, through ANU Press, Robbie published The General’s Goose: Fiji’s contemporary tale of misadventure, trying to make sense of the 2006 coup in the context of the previous coups.
While most of us USP academics were united in our opposition to the 1987 and 2000 coups (and many of us suffered in various ways from the 1987 coup), the 2006 coup was also divisive in that quite a few senior USP academics and former academics (mostly Indo-Fijian) gave tacit and active support to it believing in Bainimarama’s rhetoric of racial equality for all in Fiji.
Over the past three years, I discussed with Robbie at length my personal belief that his 2017 book The General’s Goose, while a great source for students and academics, offered too generous a perspective on the fundamental causes of the so-called “Bainimarama revolution” and “clean-up campaign”.
I felt that it in discussing the origins of the 2006 coup, it did not give sufficient weight to its genesis in the 2000 coup, and specifically the nonchalant disregard of military intelligence (by Colonel Vilame Seruvakula) giving details of the impending coup, ambivalent policies regarding salaries and rations continuing to go to the CRW soldiers holding hostages in Parliament (the Evans Inquiry Report), nor of the responsibility for the subsequent deaths in military custody of five CRW soldiers allegedly involved in the 2000 mutiny, but possibly innocent.
While well documented in Robbie’s book but also not given sufficient weight are the convincing views of Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, US ambassador Larry Dinger and NZ High Commissioner (the late Michael Green), nor is there sufficient weight given to the long brutal censorship years after the 2006 coup culminating in the rigidly managed elections of 2014 according to an imposed electoral system which had the appearance of racial equality.
These are all matters still outstanding in the political dialogue in Fiji.
But Robbie was not a slave to his ego or his views and we agreed to disagree, while respecting each other’s views, as all true academics ought to do, and unfortunately all too often don’t.
I personally feel (and Akosita agrees) that if Robbie had the time to do another book on where Fiji is today, his perspectives on the “Clean-up Campaign” might also change, given what the Fiji public knows today about the financing of a certain political party during the elections of 2014 and 2018, and the health and economic disaster that in my opinion has been visited on Fiji by those wielding power.
Robbie also wrote chapters in books and academic articles about a whole range of Fijian and Pacific issues: NZ (“Government Unemployment Policy in NZ”), Vanuatu (“The People Stand UP: Vanuatu’s Foreign Policies in the 1980s”) the Pacific (“The Pacific Plan” and “The Pacific Plan and Labour Mobility”) and even China (“The Cultural Revolution”).
Robbie’s International works
It is important for USP students and staff who have just gone through the trauma of seeing their expatriate Vice Chancellor expelled from Fiji, to appreciate what good expatriate academics bring to the USP community, such as matters of interest to the global academic community.
This is easily seen from the international books Robbie published over the years: The contemporary era (1984, USP); The Making of the Modern World (1986 Zed Press, London); and The Three Waves of Globalisation (Zed Books, 2003).
He was working on another book of global interest (Civilisation of Globalisation: how we became modern) at the time of his passing and was close to completion.
USP students and staff today must ponder on their good fortune in being taught by excellent international academics like Prof Robbie who could have worked for much higher salaries and perks at developed country universities where he was accepted over the years not just as Professor but also Head of Departments and Faculties.
Robbie served at La Trobe University as Associate Professor of History and Development Studies, at ANU, and University of Otago. Apart from his stints at USP, his last two substantive posts were at James Cook University (Queensland) and Swinburne University of Technology (Melbourne).
At James Cook University he was Professor and Head of School of Arts and Social Sciences and I had the good fortune that with his assistance and that of Professor Hurriyet Babajan (then Head of the Cairns Institute) I was granted a Visiting Professorship after I had been pushed out from USP in 2011.
Both Prof Biman Prasad and I are still Adjunct Professors at The Cairns Institute to this day, giving us a scholarly link to higher education in Australia.
When informed of Robbie’s passing, the Office of the Vice-Chancellor at JCU (Professor Sandra Harding) promptly and sadly replied: “Robbie Robertson provided significant leadership at James Cook University during his time as Professor and Head of the School of Arts and Social Sciences … (he wanted) education to be inclusive, conscientiously promoting the democratisation of higher education …. a potentially liberating force that should be available to all who could benefit. Those who knew and worked with him at JCU have stories of his tenacity, strength of character, support for others and dignified approach in all matters.,, a man of great integrity ..a very genuine and kind human being. His professional and academic colleagues are saddened by the news of his passing.”
On sadly learning of his passing away, the Vice Chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology (Professor Pascale Quester) told his University community that “Robbie was inaugural Dean of the School of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities from July 2014 until his retirement in July 2019.
His leadership during this time was highly valued by both staff and students.
Robbie was known for his reflective and measured demeanour.
He was admired at Swinburne for his scholarship and sustained advocacy for academics across teaching, research and leadership in the School of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.
He offered myriad large and small career opportunities for school staff, both academic and professional, during his time as dean.
(We) acknowledge Robbie’s significant contribution to the university and thank him for his dedication.”
These are indeed words of high praise by two Australian vice chancellors of very large universities of international standing.
Robie’s contemporaries at USP
Robbie’s USP and regional contemporaries also had similar views to those of the two Australian VCs.
Prof Biman wrote “Robbie will be missed by all his academic colleagues, friends and students. His writings on Fiji will remain his legacy and will remind all of us of his concerns about Fiji and it’s future.”
Dr Jacqueline Leckie, a former lecturer at USP, remembers Robbie as her tutor at Otago University when she was a student.
She recollects that he was instrumental in her first lecturing job at USP.
She recollects, “I learned so much from him as a colleague and he was so supportive professionally… [he shared a sense of political outrage – and also hope – and how to pass on that passion in an academic way to our students”.
Dr Claire Slatter observed that “Robbie was one of those rare, warm, unpretentious, open-hearted, amiable scholars, who enjoyed teaching, researching and writing… Although a historian, he delved into analysing Fiji politics, especially coup politics”.
Dr Ganesh Chand, an economics lecturer and contemporary of Robbie and later Vice Chancellor of University of Fiji as well as Fiji National University), recollects with fondness that Robbie was a good friend and advisor on many things, academic and non-academic.
He appreciated that Robbie contributed with articles to the nascent Journal of Fijian Studies edited by Dr Ganesh Chand and also published a book with the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies.
Prof Stuart Firth remembers Robbie’s “endless curiosity and background knowledge” for all his tasks.
Yvonne Underhill-Sem remembers a “beloved Pacific scholar” whose writings remain to “enrich new generations of Pacific scholars”.
Also full of life
All his colleagues and friends remember with great joy Robbie and Akosita’s frequent parties and socialising.
Friend for fifty years, Helen Sutherland and Dr Jackie Leckie remember not just the great intellectual discussions at Robbie’s parties, but also his great love of music and amazing collection of cassette tapes which came in handy at his Ska-Meke parties, endless Chinese dinners with family and friends, and camping on the beach at Natadola.
Claire remembered Robbie “with deep appreciation for his friendship and kindness. And for his love of music. He was always recording cassettes of music he enjoyed and gifting them to friends… On Saturday night, Vijay and I listened to the soundtrack of O Lucky Man, a recording of which he had gifted to Vijay way back when”.
Even my own son Amit (a musician) fondly remembered his music jam session with Robbie’s son Nemani at the USP campus home of Robbie and Jita.
Helen observed that Robbie had the great good sense to marry Akosita.
Helen thought they made an awesome partnership and Jita was patient and unwavering in her love and care for Robbie right to the end.
For Robbie to be Robbie, it helped enormously that he had a soulmate in Akosita (Jita) Tamanisau, daughter of the great Fijian musician, Eremasi Tamanisau (Senior), who equally felt strongly about defending democracy and freedoms as about music and the arts.
After her USP days as a student, Jita became a journalist for the Fiji Sun as a stringer for South Magazine and Gemini News Wire Service when she and Robbie co-authored their book of the 1987 coup.
She recollects attending the “dinner parties at the Sutherland’s, the Naidu’s or at Jacqui’s, attending political meeting and public lectures and very often unwinding at the Golden Dragon night Club or at Traps”.
She loved and admired Robbie’s profound thirst for knowledge and his quintessential ability to share his insights- always thoughtful always with respect.
And there was his wit.
After being forced out of Fiji, Akosita related to journalist Malcolm Pullman that although the deportation from Fiji meant that she was unlikely to see her three brothers, two sisters and parents for many years, she deeply believed that “telling the truth about the coups and the politics behind them will be more important in the long run”.
She recalls that not just academics but journalists were also the targets of the military government (so what is new might Fiji Times journalists ask today?).
Akosita began a long period of community involvement in Bendigo: the statewide family violence sector, the Drug & Alcohol sector, and the Homelessness sector.
She even began a women’s musical group, the Wahine.
Supporting each other through their trials and tribulations.
They both took inspiration in Robbie’s sabbaticals, secondments and leadership appointments in other universities.
She related “At times we lived separately for years in different countries, in different states and in different cities as the nature of our work invariably demanded. But we continued to maintain and nourish our commitment to each other always finding joy in the company and the great times spent with family friends”.
Not too long ago, Akosita and Robbie spent a long evening at my Melbourne home with abundant food and drink, and of course Jita’s music with a visiting Fijian friend (Meli) with some videos lost on my computer somewhere.
Robbie’s own last words
Perhaps I should leave the last words to Prof Robbie who uniquely and with considerable humor put together words and images for his own end Vale Robbie that ought to be played at the wake that Akosita is planning.
This is a lovely record full of images of his beloved relatives and friends over the years all over the world, some mentioned here, but many not.
Robbie recorded: “Fiji has changed me in ways that I think would never have been possible had I only lived in NZ or Australia … aside from a host of dismal unempathetic politicians who cannot accept change and have no vision for a better future, my only other disappointment is in the apparent conservatism of my own supposedly once radical generation. A big thank you to all who gave me such a wonderful life.. and (quoting Gorbachev) nothing trumps the meaning of life than to love a woman and to be loved by her.. I am so glad I experienced this love and the love of my sons Julian and Nemani”.
- PROF WADAN NARSEY is an Adjunct Professor at James Cook University and a former Professor of Economics at the University of the South Pacific where he worked for more than 40 years. The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of this newspaper.
(Contributions from DR GANESH CHAND, DR JACKIE LECKIE, PROF VIJAY NAIDU, PROF DR CLAIRE SLATTER and HELEN SUTHERLAND)