Sydney (AFP) - Australia's new Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has vowed to push for a new era in relations with Fiji, as the coup-plagued South Pacific nation prepares to stage long-awaited elections.
Ties between Canberra and Suva have been tense since military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in 2006, culminating in tit-for-tat expulsions of their diplomatic envoys in 2009.
Bishop, who held talks with her Fijian counterpart Inoke Kubuabola in Sydney this week, said she was keen to normalise the relationship with a country that was once an important regional partner.
She said Fiji was set to return to democracy next year, paving the way for closer ties with Australia's Tony Abbott-led government, which won office in September.
"Fiji is an important nation in the Pacific, it's been an important partner in many ways and we want to move on from the era that was set under the former Labor government," she told ABC television late Wednesday.
"We want to normalise our relations with Fiji in military, economic, trade and investment -- a whole range of areas where we believe Australia and Fiji can be natural partners."
Bishop offered no specifics on when diplomatic ties might resume or whether travel sanctions imposed by Australia against high-ranking members of the military regime would be lifted.
Australia's previous government said last year it would restore full diplomatic ties with Fiji but the move stalled when Fiji refused to grant a visa to its nominated envoy Margaret Twomey.
The former government, along with New Zealand, led efforts to isolate Fiji's regime, which resulted in its suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).
In response, Fiji has attempted to cultivate ties with countries such as China and Russia, accusing Australia of treating it in a "high-handed" manner.
Bainimarama took control in 2006 pledging to root out corruption and introduce a one-person, one-vote system intended to end entrenched racial inequalities in the nation of about 900,000.
But after overthrowing an elected government he reneged on a promise to restore democracy by 2009, instead tearing up the constitution and introducing emergency laws that muzzled the media and banned public meetings.The pledge to hold elections next year has helped Fiji regain some international acceptance, with New Zealand easing sanctions in September and the PIF saying it could rejoin the grouping if the vote proceeds as planned.