21 January 2009
Joint Media Conference - Perth
with New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully
Subjects: Australia - New Zealand relations; Fiji; Barack Obama inauguration; US relations; BHP Billiton announcement in Ravensthorpe.
STEPHEN SMITH: I am very pleased to officially welcome the New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully to Australia and very pleased to welcome him to Perth and Western Australia.
This is our first formal bilateral meeting since the election of the new New Zealand Government in November last year. It's not the first occasion Murray and I have met. We met when Murray was in Opposition and since Murray became Foreign Minister we've met in the margins of APEC in Lima; and of course we're both also members of the Pacific Island Forum, Foreign Ministers Ministerial Contact Group on Fiji. But this is the first formal bilateral that we've had Foreign Minister to Foreign Minister either in Australia or New Zealand.
Can I say, we started the day very enjoyably by watching the Western Force train out at Guildford. The Western Force are playing a game against Canterbury on Friday night and of course some of the Western Force Wallabies are back; Nathan Sharpe and Matt Giteau. So Mr McCully and I watched training. For me it was enjoyable, for Murray it was work, because Mr McCully is also the Minister for Sport and Minister for the World Cup, an important event occurring in 2011.
We've just had a formal bilateral meeting today going through a range of issues and interests to Australia and New Zealand. We'll adjourn to the war memorial and lay a wreath at the war memorial in King's Park reflecting obviously the ANZAC relationship, and we'll continue our bilateral discussions over lunch.
Can I say that the relationship between Australia and New Zealand is one of the most important that Australia has. We're firm friends, we're great partners, and that relationship has been forged on the battleground and also on the sporting field. And there are very many trappings of our first-class relationship.
Of course Australia and New Zealand have the longest standing, and one of the best free trade agreements, the CER. And that's worked very well for the economies and for the people of both our nations for over 20 years. We share important defence and security and police cooperation as well, including in East Timor, in the Solomons and also whilst we are in different locations in Afghanistan.
So the relationship that we have is a first-class one, touching, people to people contact, defence, security and important economic relationships. I'll throw to Murray to enable Murray to make some...
[audio missing - break in tape]
MURRAY MCCULLY: ...values the free trade agreement that it has with Australia, it's the oldest, it's the most comprehensive as Stephen Smith has said to you. And we look forward to the opportunities as an incoming Government in New Zealand to try and do, as new Governments can, to look to enlarge that relationship.
The security relationship between our two countries is close as well. We've got people working together in places like Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Afghanistan, where I see that servicemen from both of our countries now have won Victoria Crosses for bravery in that theatre.
We all share a great sense of responsibility for the Pacific region, which we are a part. We have a number of issues on our plates in that respect, which are sent to test us, but we have a very close sense of cooperation in the way in which we deal with those challenges.
So, from my point of view as an incoming Minister it's been great pleasure to come to Perth to have a look at the Western Force training this morning and to be able to transmit important messages back to the Crusaders prior to Friday.
I thought I was very clever reporting to Nathan Sharpe and his colleagues that Richie McCaw appeared at training earlier this week, and was looking in great shape, but I missed the news while I was travelling that he's not playing in the team apparently.
So I really appreciate the special effort that you've gone to, Stephen, to give me the opportunity, not just as Foreign Minister but as the Minister for Sport and the Rugby World Cup, to see those dimensions to the relationship here. So I'll leave it there and happy to deal with any questions that come up.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much, Murray.
Murray and I are happy to take questions about the bilateral relationship and any matters of mutual interest. I am also happy at the conclusion of that to take any Australian based questions. So we're happy to respond to your questions.
QUESTION: Can I just start with a couple on Fiji?
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure.
QUESTION: Commodore Frank Bainimarama has decided obviously not to go to the Special Pacific Forum Leaders meeting on Fiji. From both countries perspective, do you think the Forum leaders will agree to the Commodore's request to defer the special leaders meeting?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I might go first and then invite Murray to make some remarks.
The Australian Government very much believes that the Special Pacific Island Forum Leaders meeting should go ahead. We understand of course the difficulties caused by the floods in Fiji; and our understanding of that has been reflected by an initial $3 million contribution to humanitarian systems and recovery. So we understand the importance of a response to the floods. But this Special Pacific Island Forum Leaders meeting goes to Fiji's long-term future and Fiji returning to democracy. So the Australian Government view is we believe the forum should continue.
Obviously we'll be in discussion with our Pacific Island Forum partners about that issue. We think it's important, very important that Commodore Bainimarama, the interim Prime Minister attend. And our officials have made it clear to Fiji officials that if for the sake of convenience Commodore Bainimarama wants to or needs to transit through Australia for the purposes of getting to PNG in quick order, then I would respond very favourably in terms of an approval for that.
So we think it's important the Forum go ahead. We think it's important that Commodore Bainimarama attend and we will view favourably the facilitation of his attendance.
We think it's very important that Commodore Bainimarama explain to the leaders why he's not proposing to meet his faithful and unconditional undertaking to the Pacific Island Leaders Forum in Tonga in October 2007, why he's not proposing to hold an election before the end of March this year.
MURRAY MCCULLY: Well, I broadly share those views and the New Zealand's Government's position is this - pretty much identical I think here, to that which you've heard outlined on behalf of the Australian Government. We think it is important that the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting does take place. And to see why I think you simply have to look at the historical context here. The Commodore gave a clear and unequivocal commitment to forum leaders that elections would be held by March 2009. That commitment will not be kept.
The Ministerial Contact Group - that Minister Smith and I are both members of - met in Suva, identified with the Commodore that those elections would not be held in due time, that the commitment would not be kept, and reported to forum leaders a range of decisions that it now falls to them to make.
The reality is that busy prime ministers, leaders of nations, have diaries that simply do not make it possible for meetings to be arranged at short notice. And the reality is that a deferral would very likely mean that the accounting which is due by the Commodore to the Pacific Forum Leaders will not occur in a timely fashion, if the request for a deferral is accepted.
Like the Australian Government, the New Zealand Government's been saddened to see the devastation by the flooding in Fiji. We too have made now two contributions, and we'll obviously look at that situation as things proceed.
So we have every desire to see the flooding dealt with in the most effective manner possible, and we'll contribute to that process; but we do not believe that that should stand in the way of a process that is very important to the Forum and to the Forum leadership.
QUESTION: Would it be acceptable - again, this question for both countries - for him to send an envoy, I guess, considering the fact that, I mean, there's been tens of millions of dollars damage, and 11 dead? Isn't it pretty reasonable for the leader of a country to want to be at home at a time like that to help with the clean-up?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Australia's view is that we very much want Commodore Bainimarama to attend. As I say, we understand the difficulties caused by the terrible floods, and we've responded with humanitarian and other assistance.
The problem for Commodore Bainimarama is this: it was he who gave a faithful and unconditional commitment to his fellow leaders in Tonga in October 2007. And I think his fellow leaders very much want a personal explanation from him as to why he's not proposing to meet the election timetable that he outlined for them in Tonga in 2007.
Whilst of course a representative, either his Deputy or an acting Foreign Minister would be preferable to no presence, Australia's very strong view is that it is much more preferable, and desirable, for Commodore Bainimarama to attend. And as I say, Australia would facilitate any travel arrangements which made it easier for him to attend PNG by transiting through Australia, if that's required or necessary.
MURRAY MCCULLY: Well, can I just say very briefly to that, that I think it is very desirable that the Commodore should attend the meeting.
The commitment that was made to forum leaders was in the nature of a personal commitment that he made. In the context of the way in which Pacific people interact, I think it is very important that he should make himself available to account to the Pacific leaders as a consequence. However, we can't make him go. He's due the opportunity to provide an explanation, and if he chooses to exercise that by way of sending a representative, then I guess that's what the Forum should accept.
QUESTION: If [indistinct] returned with those [indistinct] from that meeting when would be the next opportunity you'd have to talk to him about the election?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that'll be a matter for the leaders themselves at the Pacific Island Forum. We're dealing here with nearly a dozen and a half Pacific countries. And as you'd expect all those leaders have very busy itineraries; so one of the reasons, the very sensible, practical reasons why Australia doesn't want a postponement or a deferment is of course the difficulty in getting the leaders together again at short notice.
So we very much, strongly believe the meeting should go ahead in Commodore Bainimarama's presence. I put it, as Mr McCully has, no higher than if Commodore Bainimarama chooses not to attend, then obviously it's preferable there be some Fiji representation rather than none.
QUESTION: Is there any inclination, sorry, amongst the Pacific nations, though? I mean Sir Michael Somare's sort of said that there needs to be understanding on both sides.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we're in consultation, as is New Zealand, with the other Pacific Island Forum countries. We've all been asked by the Secretary General of the Forum, Pacific Island Forum, for our views as to postponement or otherwise.
And the view that officials are relaying to the Secretary General of the Pacific Island Forum is as I've indicated it to you: our view is it should proceed in Commodore Bainimarama's presence. That's the view we've put forward to the Secretariat of the Pacific Island Forum; that's the view we're indicating to our partners in the Pacific.
MURRAY MCCULLY: Can I just make the additional point that the Ministerial Contact Group report that is to go to the Forum leadership is not a report by the Foreign Ministers of New Zealand and Australia. It's a report from a number of foreign ministers, from a range of Pacific Nations. And it was a report that was reached by consensus.
So, there's I think a risk here of seeing New Zealand and Australia as being in a slightly different place to some of the Pacific nations. I think that's implied by your question.
What I'd say to you is that the spirit that I saw around the table of the Ministerial Contact Group when trying to share the problem, and share the path towards a solution, is still the sort of sentiment that I hear from Pacific leaders that I'm talking to about the way in which they want to see the next step of this process played out as well.
QUESTION: I'll move on just a couple quickly on Barack Obama...
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure.
QUESTION: ...his inauguration. He's pledged to travel to a major Muslim nation early in his Administration. Does Australia think that that could likely be Indonesia? Is there any inclination...
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, let me make some general remarks on the inauguration and the new Administration. I'm sure Murray we want to do likewise. Firstly, we welcome very much the new President's inauguration. We very much look forward to working closely with his new Administration. I'm very much looking forward to working with Secretary of State-Designate Clinton, when her nomination in confirmed, which is expected in the next couple of days.
The Alliance between Australia and the United States continues to be an indispensable part of Australia's strategic and security and defence arrangements. And we fully expect, as has always been the case, that the Alliance will continue.
We expect in the course of the first half of this year relevant ministers such as the Minister for Defence and I will make all the usual contact with our counterparts, and we also expect in due course the Prime Minister making contact with President Obama. So we're looking very much forward to that.
The inauguration of course is greatly and deeply historically significant: the first Black American President. And I think that adds to the notion that any new Aovernment, any new Administration, brings with it the chance of a fresh approach, or fresh enthusiasm to what have appeared to be intractable problems.
So there is a deeply significant, historical opportunity here. And we look very much forward to working with the Obama Administration in pursuit of that.
So far as Australia's priorities are concerned, the ongoing alliance is essential to us. The active engagement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific is essential; the active engagement of the new Administration from the President down in responding to the global financial crisis is essential. The active engagement of the new Administration in pushing forward on a successful conclusion to the Doha round is in our view important, very important to economic advancement throughout the world. So far as the President's itinerary and him visiting the Asia-Pacific, of course his itinerary is a matter for him. But Australia actively encourages the United States from the President down to engage very thoroughly with the Asia-Pacific. And if the President in due course chooses to visit a country in our region, whether it's Indonesia or any other country, we would warmly welcome that; but of course the President's itinerary is a matter for him.
From Australia's perspective, we regard it as unambiguously in Australia's national interest, but also in unambiguously in the international community's interest that the United States is actively and thoroughly in the engaged in the Asia-Pacific.
MURRAY MCCULLY: Can I just reflect on the sentiment that Stephen has expressed that the election of any new government with new personalities provides an opportunity for problems that might have seemed almost insurmountable to be met and dealt with. And I think that it's that sense that challenges that have previously looked insurmountable might now be able to be confronted that has excited people not just in the United States, but around the world. And so we welcome the opportunity that comes with the election of the Obama Government - the Obama Administration in the United States.
From New Zealand's perspective, the New Zealand National Party in Opposition has played an active and bipartisan role in trying to ensure that we make progress in the relationship that we have with the United States. We have had some challenges in times past and the last few years have seen significant gains made in that relationship being enhanced.
We now look forward as an incoming government in New Zealand, we've been in office for a couple of months, to work with the incoming administration in the United States to build on the progress that has been made so far, and that is something that the Prime Minister and all of his ministers are totally committed to achieving.
QUESTION: You mentioned in that answer that you see the alliance as indispensable. Former Labor Leader Kim Beazley's spoken today and says that he thinks that Australia are going to find it harder to get Washington's attention under Obama than Howard did with Bush. He basically sort of suggested that Asia's going to be lower on Obama's agenda and he spoke about the active presence in Asia being essential as well. What are your views on that? Do you think that it's going to be a case of struggling to get Washington's attention?
STEPHEN SMITH: I have to confess I haven't seen Mr Beazley's remarks in that respect so I'm very wary about commenting on a contribution that I haven't seen. So I might just make some general points, for fear of being put at odds with Mr Beazley, which would be unusual for those who know the history of the Labor Party.
Of course when the new President comes to office today as he has, there are a range of issues which will be forced upon him for immediate attention. The global financial crisis will of course be one and the United States or American economy will of course be central to that.
Secondly of course will be the Middle East, and we saw the recent crisis in Gaza. Thirdly will be the much touted draw-down of United States troops from Iraq. And fourthly the United States enhanced engagement, again much touted, in Afghanistan.
Of course Australia has interests, very significant interest in Afghanistan, as New Zealand does. So that will obviously be of interest to us. But whenever a new President comes to office there are a range of issues which require immediate or urgent attention.
The point that we will make to him and his officials is that the alliance between Australia and the United States is very important to both nations. It's served both nations well, in both our nations' interests. And secondly, in this century as we see economic, political and strategic influence shift to the Asia-Pacific region - the growth of China, the growth of India, the growth of the ASEAN nations and economies combined - it's absolutely essential that the United States is actively engaged in that respect.
And irrespective of the immediate priorities in the first days or weeks or months of the new Administration, I've absolutely no doubt that in the course of the first half of this year that so far as Australia and the United States is concerned it'll be business as usual, so far as the Australia-United States Alliance is concerned.
But equally we also see enhanced opportunities with the new Administration. The new Administration through Secretary of State-Designate Clinton has indicated at her confirmation hearings, that she sees a greater role for multilateral activity by the United States, particularly within the United Nations. We strongly support that and look forward to working closely with them.
We also think there'll be opportunities for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, particularly when it comes to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and also the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
So I have absolutely no reservation or hesitation or doubt that in very quick order we'll have a first class working relationship with the new Administration and all of its personalities, advancing Australia's national interests.
QUESTION: So you don't believe then that we're going to struggle to get Washington's attention to [indistinct]...
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I don't.
QUESTION: [Inaudible question]
STEPHEN SMITH: No I don't. I think Australia is held in very good regard in Washington generally, very good regard in the United States generally and I think that that will continue.
Whenever there's a change of Government or Administration people will always speculate as to whether the new Government or the new administration will produce the goods so far as the alliance is concerned. It was said of us. And what we saw when the Australian Government came to office just over 12 months ago, it was in very short order we had a very professional and personable working relationship with the previous Bush Administration. Yes we had a very strong difference on military contribution to Iraq, but our withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq was handled in a very professional and co-operative way with that Administration.
So I've got absolutely no doubts that our working relationship with the administration from the personal working relationship between Prime Minister Rudd and President Obama down will be nothing but first class.
QUESTION: Minister, are you concerned about the BHP Billiton announcement in Ravensthorpe and the effect that that's going to have for Australia in terms of - well the economy and trade?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, first can I say obviously I'm very disappointed that BHP have been forced to make that commercial decision. And obviously I feel very much for the families who are adversely affected; there's nothing worse for a family than someone losing their job. But the regrettable reality is that BHP have to adapt to the commercial reality just as the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have made it clear that Australia has to adapt to the regrettable reality of the global financial crisis. I'm very pleased that BHP, who I regard as a good corporate citizen, a very good corporate citizen, have indicated that all full entitlements will be paid and there won't be any difficulty over that.
And I would hope, as we work our way through the global financial crisis - not just as a government and a nation, but the world generally - that in due course we would see an upturn in minerals and petroleum resources again which would open up the prospect of Ravensthorpe being re-opened. So I feel very much for the families concerned. As everyone knows the minerals and petroleum resources industry is absolutely crucial to Western Australia's economy. We have seen growth in that industry for nearly a decade, exponential growth. We're now going through tough times, that is something that we are not surprised by.
On the contrary, the Prime Minister has been indicating publicly that we need to understand there will be serious adverse consequences from the global slowdown and that's why the Government has been doing everything it possibly can to seek to continue to have positive economic growth in our own domestic economy.
All right. Thanks very much.
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