Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Transcript E&OE

19 June 2009

Interview with Jim Middleton, ABC

Subjects: Fiji; whaling.

JIM MIDDLETON: Australia has warned China not to use contacts with Fiji to undermine regional efforts to return the country to democracy.

News of the diplomatic initiative emerged after Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith held high-level talks in New Zealand today, with Fiji top of the agenda.

Australia is hosting this year's Pacific Islands Forum, and the two biggest powers in the region are struggling to come up with ways of convincing Fiji's military regime to return to the fold and to bring back democracy.

Foreign Minister, welcome to the program.

STEPHEN SMITH: My pleasure, Jim.

JIM MIDDLETON: Fiji's military regime seems to be in an increasing state of denial. There's not much Australia or New Zealand can do as long as the military retain their Pyongyang-like attitude, is there?

STEPHEN SMITH: We certainly believe we have to be patient. We very much want the interim administration to return Fiji to democracy. And the Pacific Islands Forum leaders have unanimously expressed their condemnation of the abrogation of the constitution and the effective military rule.

We need to find a way of bringing Fiji back into a dialogue. Our most immediate concern is the deleterious state of the Fiji economy and the adverse consequences that we fear will flow as compounded by the consequences of the global financial crisis.

So, yes, it remains a very grave concern, but we certainly hope that the interim administration don't end up being as impervious as we've seen other administrations around the globe in recent times.
JIM MIDDLETON: Speaking of the economy, Frank Bainimarama seems to think that China will emerge as Fiji's saviour if Australia and New Zealand won't. It doesn't help, does it, to have Beijing meddling in Fiji.

STEPHEN SMITH: Other nation states are entitled to make their relations with countries in the Pacific, just as Australia and other members of the Pacific Islands Forum are.

The point that we've made to other countries is that when they, for example, engage in development assistance or financial assistance they need to do so in a manner which looks to long-term productive capacity-building, and long-term productive economic growth.

And certainly we've been urging all members of the international community that, if they are having contact with Fiji, they should certainly make the point that international community wants to see Fiji return to democracy.

Our worry is a bit broader than that. We believe that there's a distinct possibility that the adverse consequences of the global economic crisis will see Fiji in need of significant international community assistance.

Generally the starting point for that is through the international financial institutions. We would hope that that wouldn't occur because the last thing we'd want to see is further damage done to the people of Fiji.

JIM MIDDLETON: Have you spoken to Beijing in those terms about its contacts with Fiji?

STEPHEN SMITH: In the course of my conversations with Foreign Minister Yang, most recently at our strategic dialogue in Beijing a couple of months ago, I made the point that Australia wants to see Fiji return to democracy.

We are concerned about its economic condition. We are concerned about the adverse consequences for its people. And all of the international community needs to lend support to returning Fiji to democracy, both through the regional institutions like the Pacific Islands Forum, like the Commonwealth, but also the European Union, and the United Nations itself.

We all need to be putting our shoulder to wheel to encourage and persuade the interim administration to return to democracy.

JIM MIDDLETON: Talking about the Bainimarama regime's impact on the Fijian economy, he's blaming Australia and New Zealand for Fiji's plight, and that does seem to be having some impact on the attitude of Fijians.

STEPHEN SMITH: I think one of your earlier questions was about the denial of the administration, and certainly suggesting that Australia or New Zealand have done anything which would hurt their economy is frankly a great denial.

Yes, Australia has sanctions on members of the regime, both financial but also in terms of travel sanctions. But we have assiduously avoided anything which might impact adversely on the Fijian people themselves.

So, for example, we have not contemplated nor argued for things like trade bans. And when the people of Fiji have required assistance in difficult or urgent circumstances, as they were in the aftermath of the floods a few months ago, Australia has rendered very generous assistance.

So we want Fiji to be a thriving member of the Pacific. Fiji should be one of the premier and stellar economies of the region. It's not going to get to that position unless it returns to democracy, and unless the difficulties that the military intervention has caused are put to one side and put behind Fiji.

JIM MIDDLETON: On another subject, Australia and New Zealand have just agreed on their first joint whale research expedition. This seems to be designed to prove to the Japanese that you don't have to kill whales to discover more about them.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's a joint research partnership. My colleague, the Minister for Environment, Peter Garrett, and the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, with whom I met today, have announced the details of that research program.

It's a good venture. It's being announced in the run-up to the IWC next series of meetings.

We want Japan to stop its whaling in the Great Southern Ocean. And, yes, it does help make the point that you don't need to engage in so-called lethal scientific research.

There's plenty of good and decent research that you can do without killing whales. And that's what the joint program, which we're very happy to do with New Zealand, is designed to demonstrate.

JIM MIDDLETON: Shouldn't Australia and New Zealand set off down this path a little earlier if you want the IWC, the International Whaling Commission, to bring an end to what's termed scientific whaling, which just appears to be commercial whaling in disguise?

STEPHEN SMITH: We, through Peter Garrett, have been making a range of initiatives before the IWC, not just at the forthcoming meeting in Madeira, but previously. We've been working closely with likeminded countries, including, and in particular, New Zealand.

But we have been working very hard diplomatically, both through our bilateral relationship with New Zealand and also in the multilateral sphere, though the forums of the IWC, to seek to persuade Japan to cease whaling.

Now that process is ongoing. In the past, many people, including Australian representatives, have made the point that you've made, which is that the so-called science is simply a cover or a disguise for commercial whaling, which we are strongly opposed to.

But we now are backing that up with sensible scientific measures and partnerships, this one with New Zealand, to make the point that you can do a lot of scientific research about whales and about our Great Southern Ocean without engaging in the killing of whales.

And our position remains - we'd like and want very much Japan to cease. And we've also made the point that if we can't achieve that diplomatically, then we haven't ruled out, and continue to leave open as an option, taking legal action before the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to make that very same point.

JIM MIDDLETON: Stephen Smith, thanks again for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Jim.

[Ends]

Media Inquiries: Foreign Minister's office (02) 6277 7500