JOURNALIST: Could you give us a statement perhaps overall of what the feelings was and how you found what's going on the ground here in Fiji?
MURRAY MCCULLY: Well I'd say as we've said in the communiqué we're encouraged by the reports we received today about the intention, the firm intention to hold elections in 2014 and the reports we received about the machinery being put in place to make elections possible.
We took the opportunity to look ahead particularly at the consultation process, the public consultation process due to start soon and there. We received some very strong assurances that these would be inclusive, that they would be open to all stakeholders, there would be media freedom to report the debate and we found it reassuring to receive those very strong statements from a number of levels in the administration here.
And we've made the point in our communiqué that we want to observe closely as the international community will want to observe and if we can be satisfied that those assertions are met with actions – if there is a consultation process that is characterised by freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the media then we'd feel obliged to make recommendations to the leaders to whom we report to consider some steps in response to that.
JOURNALIST: Are those freedoms available at the moment?
MURRAY MCCULLY: I think we have said in the document that this is a place in transition. And a number of the people we spoke to today were quite open about the fact that we were moving through some stages now that would see freedoms observed increasingly and so we've taken heart from that and we have responded by indicating that if that indeed happens as is being promised we would feel obliged to say to our Leaders these are very good steps that need to be rewarded.
JOURNALIST: Do you think this was a very worthwhile visit as far as the Contact Group is concerned?
MURRAY MCCULLY: It's been a very worthwhile visit because firstly we haven't had one to Suva for three years and secondly because we haven't had a meeting for some time and it's been useful to talk to people on the ground here. My colleagues and I have had an exhaustive series of discussions with people involved in the administration here and critics of the administration and what we've tried to distil in the space of one day is a snapshot of where things are today. To take account of the bold statements made about where things will be in a few months time and leave ourselves room to go back to Leaders – if all of those things happen, and say we need to move forward here.
JOURNALIST: How confident are you that there is a commitment to moving in those directions?
MURRAY MCCULLY: Well, we've seen some very strong commitments today from a number of different levels. We're taking them at face value. We think that the steps that have been taken to put the machinery in place for elections warrant us taking some heart from that and we are, I think, taking a fairly forward-leaning view here about what we need to do if indeed all of this comes to pass. It will all play out before our eyes over the coming months and we want to take a constructive and positive view of these opportunities.
JOURNALIST: Mr Sayed Khaiyum had said in a press conference after meeting with the Contact Group that the Australian Foreign Minister had asked the question whether there were reserved seats for the military in the next elections and he raised the issue that the group was not well briefed of the situation on the ground before asking those questions.
MURRAY MCCULLY: The Australian Foreign Minister did as all of us were supposed to be doing today which is ask all of the questions that are properly raised as a result of the reports that we've seen. And I think you should ask the Australian Foreign Minister who's standing here, ready as always to answer any questions … (laughter).
JOURNALIST: Where did you get that information from Mr Carr?
BOB CARR: Well I don't think that should distress you. What we are about here is seeing that there is a clear government commitment to see democracy restored for the people of Fiji. I and my colleagues have been sitting down with Ministers in the government precisely to ask these questions. I not only asked that question , I asked a question about trade union freedom , I asked a question about the Methodists being able to have their conference approved so they could gather – freedom of church assembly. I asked questions about other basic rights – freedom for the media, and freedom for the international media coming into Fiji. I'm very proud to have asked these questions. That's precisely why we were here – to ask questions.
Now we're going to be engaged in a process of assessing how the government of Fiji does what it says it will do and we're entitled, as the statement says, to apply the test to them and see how they implement the things they said to us, they would do. And nothing would give us greater pleasure – I'm sure I say this with the agreement of each of my esteemed colleagues – if we're in a position where we can make a firm recommendation to leaders when they next meet. That will depend on progress on the ground, in particular on freedom of the press, freedom of the media and freedom of assembly which we think are key considerations when it comes to Fiji's performance.
JOURNALIST: How do you respond to the criticisms by Mr Khaiyum that you came with pre-conceived ideas?
BOB CARR: Of course I did, I came with preconceived ideas. Everyone comes with preconceived ideas. We tested them. We tested them by talking to representatives of the government and representatives of the opposition groups – people who are critics of the government. That's precisely the exercise we've been engaged in today.
As a result of that exercise, we're able to settle on a report that spells out what we found encouraging but spells out things we're going to look at – the questions of implementation.
JOURNALIST: On the issue of sanctions Mr Carr…
BOB CARR: We're not talking about sanctions. The government has made certain commitments to us, we are going to carefully monitor how those commitments about freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and above all, progress to a free and fair election are going to be implemented.
JOURNALIST: One of the issues that Syed-Khaiyum also said in his presscConference is that the sanctions need to be lifted to get quality people to assist Fiji in moving forward. Australia and New Zealand have those sanctions in place at the moment. What can you say about that?
BOB CARR: I can speak for Australia and I'll hand over to my colleague, the Foreign Minister of New Zealand. We will assess that when we see free and fair elections that have been promised. That means elections accompanied by good, robust electoral practices and by comprehensive freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
JOURNALIST: Why has it taken so long for a Foreign Minister from Australia to come to Fiji?
BOB CARR: Well I am here because there was an encouraging sign from Fiji in the commitment to the constitutional process, the process of constitutional consultation. That was the matter that changed. That was the promise of improvement that has made it possible not only for me but also for my colleagues to come here.
JOURNALIST: This is what they said they'd do all along. Do you get the feeling then that there's a sense of "Well we told you so"?
BOB CARR: No. Not remotely. I'm here because there was the announcement of the membership of a constitutional consultation body. That has made it possible for us to come here and engage.
JOURNALIST: Mr Carr is Australia here because the US said so?
BOB CARR: No.
MURRAY MCCULLY: Can I just go back to the question and provide an answer for New Zealand in relation to the sanctions issue. They're not a Forum matter. They are a matter that New Zealand and Australia talked about but I'm on record in New Zealand as saying that we would like to see as part of this process of transition, the civilian-isation of the administration here. We'd like to see civilians with skills moving into roles that are currently occupied by some of the military, including some at Cabinet level.
I know there's been some discussion about that from time to time and I've said that if that is on the minds of those in authority here, we would feel obliged to look at providing exemptions for new appointees of civilian background as part of a process of encouraging this transition.
Now, that's not something that's been responded to to date but put the offer on the table again. We wouldn't move out of step with Australia but we'd certainly commence a conversation between the two of us, I think, if there was a desire to see more civilian leadership in Fiji as part of this transition process.
JOURNALIST: Is that what Australia wants too?
MURRAY MCCULLY: I endorse that absolutely. If we can see a serious de-militarisation of the administration in Fiji, that'd be something we'd respond to. It's very unhealthy to have in the region – and again all my colleagues have noted this – it's unhealthy to have in the region a government which is so dependent on the military. And progress on that score would see a positive response from us.
JOURNALIST: Do you think one day was enough to make up your mind?
MURRAY MCCULLY: Look, these are very busy Ministers and it was difficult to get them together for a day that suited the authorities here. I'm grateful that we've had last night and today together. I'm obliged to all of those in Fiji who have actually put themselves out to talk to us in the way they have and I think our colleagues here have worked extraordinarily hard to consume this information and distil the report you see today. It's one that does show a sense of transition. It's taken some careful judgement on their part. I think they've got it just right, so a day was enough.
I do think that we need to think about the engagement process going forward. We've foreshadowed in this communiqué a desire to provide an update for leaders when they get together in Rarotonga in August. I'm certainly going to work hard as the representative of the Forum Chair to ensure that the progress that is made over the intervening period is properly reported. I think we've got an obligation to do that. We came here to be positive. We want to be positive as we leave.
JOURNALIST: Mr McCully, you met with the Elections Office this afternoon … [inaudible] the Attorney-General saying in the press conference earlier today – suggesting that the Group conduct a gap analysis in the elections office. Currently four provincial offices are not functional in the elections office. Did that concern you? Is there a way in which Australia and New Zealand can assist?
MURRAY MCCULLY: We've made a general offer but we're looking for ways in which we can help. We think it is a process that is taking Fiji forward and I think we've identified a number of those opportunities today and we'll sit down and talk about that. Subsequently it's not something we've tried to determine in the context of the communiqué. But I think it's a good question we will feel challenged by the discussions today to identify those areas in which we can help.
JOURNALIST: What the Fijian Government has told you today, they've been saying all along from earlier this year. Why the change?
MURRAY MCCULLY: There have been some steps backwards, as well as steps forward over a period of time and I came here to be positive so I'm not going to litigate that. What I'm going to say is we've been very fair minded in the assessment about the steps that have been taken to reinforce the commitment to elections in 2014 and make sure the machinery is there and those things having been done we've given appropriate credit for it and we're hoping very much we'll be giving appropriate credit in a few months' time for some further steps that involve a consultation process that's inclusive and which shows the opportunity for the media to be fully engaged and for people to be able to get together express their views freely. Now I think these are all good steps and we want to play a full part in it.
JOURNALIST: Mr McCully you also met with some officials at ANZ and other government representatives on the trade issues. Was there any talks on Fiji coming forward to participate in Pacer Plus negotiations?
MURRAY MCCULLY: Those topics were referred to. Indeed we asked some questions about that. It's an issue we'll reflect on more carefully in our report. We want to portray that as something we dwelt on in the context of our deliberations to the communiqué. But certainly, it's something that we are thinking about and will be reporting to leaders on either now or later.
JOURNALIST: What are the Group's thoughts on the Constitutional Consultation Committee that we have in Fiji?
MURRAY MCCULLY: We heard about it today. It hasn't started its work yet. As we've, I think, tried to fairly assess the progress that's been made on other matters we'll try and fairly assess the progress the Commission makes when it starts its work too.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] military seats in the Parliament. Do you regret saying that?
BOB CARR: No. It's in the statement. All the Foreign Ministers agreed on that as being an important insurance to extract from the government. It's in the statement.
JOURNALIST: So you don't regret saying that?
BOB CARR: Why would I? This is a very, very militarised government and we think the people of Fiji deserve to have that addressed.
JOURNALIST: So what made you say that?
BOB CARR: Our goal is to see democracy restored and entrenched. But why are you asking me? It is in the statement. That's an assurance that's been welcomed by all my colleagues.
JOURNALIST: And, after the meeting what is your comment on Fiji?
BOB CARR: Well we welcome the commitments we received from the Government today but we're going to measure very, very carefully, their implementation. That's the agreed position of the Foreign Ministers who spent today speaking to people from the Government and from non-government groups and we welcome signs that Fiji is in transition but we do seek attention to careful implementation, particularly of freedom of the media, freedom of association and de-militarisation.
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