7 August 2009
Interview - Sky News, Australian Agenda
Subjects: Tonga ferry tragedy; Pacific aid; al-Shabaab.
DAVID SPEERS: Now the Pacific Islands Forum wrapped up here formally yesterday. There have been meetings, though, throughout the day here with various ministers and Prime Ministers, but the main focus for many of them has been on the unfolding tragedy off Tonga. A ferry went down there the night before last, and more than 60 people are now feared dead. Only two bodies have so far been recovered.
Of 117 odd people who were on board when this ferry went down about 90 kilometres from the capital of Tonga - most of those, sadly, who are missing, feared dead, are women, and children. They were below decks, it's understood, sleeping, when this tragedy unfolded, around about 11 o'clock on Wednesday night. Now the New Zealand Government is sending in three vessels, and the - and air force Orion which has been conducting a search throughout the day. The Australian Government is also sending in aircraft and some navy divers to assist.
And I caught up with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and asked him about this assistance.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well at the request of the Tongan Prime Minister, we're sending a navy dive team to help recover the bodies. So that'll be flown by the air force, I think in a C-130.
But that'll arrive as soon as we can get it there. And we're trying to coordinate with New Zealand, obviously, but that was the express request from the Tongan Prime Minister. And we've responded as quickly as we can. But…
DAVID SPEERS: Is there a problem in this region, though, with dodgy ferries being used for getting from island to island - something that needs to be, more broadly that needs to be looked at?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I certainly don't want to make any comments that would be taken to be a direct response to this current tragedy, because they will no doubt be all of the usual investigations. But in response, yesterday, we saw the leaders of the Pacific in the forum, firstly, express their condolences for the tragic loss of life.
But also, to heighten the communiqués coverage of maritime safety and maritime security issues. So I think this is now an issue which will take a higher priority, so far as the Pacific Forum and the Pacific Island countries are concerned.
DAVID SPEERS: Turning to the forum itself, now, the main topics were climate change, and also, aid in the Pacific. But it seems to me Australia didn't offer any more, any new money on either of those things to help this region.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not so much money. Firstly, on climate change, Penny Wong and I announced some more detail of assistancing the renewables and climate change area to help countries in the Pacific. But that's part of an earlier Budget announcement of $150 million that we've made.
But when it comes to development assistance, our priority here was not more assistance, our priority was better coordination of assistance, and more effective delivery of the development assistance.
DAVID SPEERS: But these Pacific states are crying out for more help aren't they? Not just better coordinated help.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Australia is the largest single donor in the Pacific. But we're not the only one. There's of course New Zealand with whom we cooperate very well.
DAVID SPEERS: We're the biggest one, though, aren't we, Australia's…
STEPHEN SMITH: We're the biggest. But there's also the European Union. France. China. Taiwan. And what we've done in the post-forum dialogue today is get agreement that we need to better coordinate and better judge the effectiveness.
Now we are very big development assistance partners with the Pacific, and continue to be so. But one of the problems that we find - whether it's the Pacific, whether it's Asia, whether it's Africa, is that you do have to be careful about duplication and effective delivery.
And that's been real progress that we've made in the course of the post-forum dialogue today.
DAVID SPEERS: But a number of reports have shown poverty's on the rise in this region, and that the economic crisis, the global crisis, is hitting this region a lot harder than some of the other countries. Is it simply the case Australia's not willing to go any further into debt and deficit to help out these neighbours.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, on the contrary, we have a well mapped out development assistance program. We've committed ourselves to substantially increasing that by 2015, and we're on the way to meet that commitment. And the Prime Minister and I have made it clear it clear that we will make those commitments, irrespective of the difficulties that we find in the international economy. And because of our proper marshalling of resources, and our good response to the current difficulties, we're very well placed to do that.
But when it comes to development assistance, there are a number of things you have to do. You have to make sure that you get value for money, you have to make sure that it is effective in the long term, and builds capacity. And you have to make sure that when there's more than one country or institution involved that you coordinate, don't duplicate.
And the addition, of course, to the countries that we find as development assistance donors in the Pacific, we also have some international institutions - like the Asian Development Bank, like the World Bank itself.
So getting proper coordination is absolutely essential.
DAVID SPEERS: And just a final question. Al Shabaab, the Somali extremist group, Islamic extremist group, is denying connection with those allegedly involved in a terror plot in Australia. Is that the end of the matter? Or do you still suspect there's a link there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there's a very serious investigation going on here, and I'm not going to say anything which would either pre-judge that or indeed prejudice the rights of people who have been charged or detained.
They have a process to go through.
But I certainly wouldn't be relying upon published statements by that organisation from Somalia to form a view. We will consider all of these issues; the relevant authorities will investigate the charges and possible charges against the people who have been detained and arrested. And we'll make our own judgments in our national security interests about some of the broader questions - including whether that organisation, for example, should now be listed under Australian domestic law as a terrorist organisations.
But we certainly won't be relying upon the public statements of elements of that group in Somalia to either help form our views or to determine our views.
DAVID SPEERS: Stephen Smith, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.
DAVID SPEERS: Foreign Minister Stephen Smith there.
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