Rory Ewins's Pacific Islands Politics

Changing Their Minds: Tradition and Politics in Contemporary Fiji and Tonga

Rory Ewins

Book CoverChanging Their Minds is a contribution to the literature on the politics of tradition in the Pacific, published by the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies in December 1998. It draws on over sixty interviews with political figures to discuss how tradition works, how it affects politics, and the forces affecting tradition and politics in Fiji and Tonga today.


Should be of great interest to scholars of the Pacific.... The author has a light, engaging style that makes the book easily accessible to a wide audience. [The Contemporary Pacific 2000, 12(1): 273]

An intriguing look at how traditions have been created, altered and interwoven into the political scene. [Fiji, 6th ed. (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2003): 53]

From the Introduction · Contents · Slideshow

From the introduction, “The Paradoxes of Tradition in the Pacific”

A few years ago, while skimming through a Sydney music newspaper, I came across the following breathless statement:

Even as I write the traditional music-only CD is being rapidly supplanted by things like CD-ROM’s and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that within a few years every CD released will come with lyrics, images, and a whole swag of extras (Stuart Coupe, The Drum Media, 23 August 1994, p. 46).

It wasn’t the news that caught my attention so much as the language used to announce it. Compact disks, those symbols of our digital age, had been on the market for just over ten years, and that was apparently long enough to make them “traditional”.

Few examples better illustrate the flexibility and ambiguity of the concept of tradition. We refer to it regularly in our everyday lives; the word crops up in news broadcasts, sports coverage, political speeches, and light-hearted family jokes about birthday rituals. In these contexts, references to tradition are intended to convey concepts of stability, continuity, and changelessness. When we praise the “traditions of cricket”, for example, we are emphasising both the long history of the sport and the recklessness and short-sightedness of those who ignore that history, thus reinforcing the popular perception of tradition as ancient and unchanging.

But talk of tradition also implies a recognition of the constantly changing nature of our social world. Without ever-present change, tradition would not be considered worthy of particular praise (or condemnation). And behind tradition’s facade of stability we may sometimes glimpse a shifting form uncomfortably similar to the “change” it is meant to oppose. It is a blurring of boundaries to which we sometimes unwittingly contribute. Examples such as the “traditional CD” suggest that in our search for contrasts to continual change we end up labelling anything that is not new “traditional” in the hope of lending it an air of venerability. Increasingly, however, the process may be working in reverse, with the connotations of the word being altered the more it is applied to the questionably traditional. A decade ago, the long-playing record enjoyed traditional status, thanks to its thirty years of use. Now the CD is a tradition at age ten. Surely these uses of the word cannot mean the same?

The word “tradition” is not so much a useful clear-cut term as a trap waiting to catch the unwary. Having stumbled into that trap myself, I hope that this book shows one way out of it. When I began studying the Pacific Islands, I found that my academic background in political science had not equipped me to explain why tradition played such a strong role in the rhetoric and practice of the region’s politics. In order to explain the politics of countries such as Fiji and Tonga, I first had to explore the concept of tradition. So although this book is concerned with many aspects of life in contemporary Fiji and Tonga and their interaction with politics, it is above all about tradition: about what the word means; about the concept’s paradoxically fluid nature; and about how it affects all of our lives, in the Pacific and elsewhere.



Introduction: The paradoxes of tradition in the Pacific
Why Fiji and Tonga?
The nature of this study
Outline of the book
1. Tradition in Pacific politics: The academic debate
The study of tradition and politics
The concept of politics
The “invention of tradition”
The need for a theory of tradition
The evolution of culture
The evolution of tradition
Political consequences of tradition
2. Definitions of tradition: Some local opinions
The concept of tradition
Fijian and Tongan traditions
Tradition and identity
“Invented traditions”
3. Tradition in the political process: Fiji
The Council of Chiefs
The chiefly system
From Mara to Rabuka
Provincialism and party politics
4. Tradition in the political process: Tonga
The King
The nobles
The government
The Pro-Democracy Movement
5. Forces for change: Education
Higher education
Education in schools
Celebration as education about tradition
6. Signs of change: Land
The concept of indigenousness
Indigenousness and the land
Issues relating to the land
7. Forces for change: Money
Trends towards business
Tradition as a barrier to business success
The desire for economic success
8. Signs of change: Family, gender, city and country
The importance of family
Change in the family
Women in politics
Differences between city and country
9. Forces for change: Travel, church, and the media
Expatriate and external influences on society
The church in politics
The media
Fiji’s media
Tonga’s media
10. An awareness of difference: Fiji, Tonga, and the postmodern world
What is postmodernism?
Truth, truth, and “truth”
“But what about Hitler?”
Tradition, postmodernity, and postmodern traditionalists
11. Conclusion: Politics as the negotiation of change in tradition
Politics in Fiji in the mid-1990s
Politics in Tonga in the mid-1990s
Changes that people want but don’t want
Challenges to existing traditional authority
Why political scientists should study tradition
The spirit of Burke and the spirit of Paine


pacific politics