Address to Fiji Australia Business Council

  • Speech, E&OE

Greg [Pawson], Vili [Leqa] - thank you so much for your warm welcome from the Fiji Australia Business Council and the Australia Fiji Business Council.

Minister Kubuabola. We have become good friends and we are both working very hard in the mutual interests of our two countries.

Minister Koya. It was a delight to meet you this morning and we exchanged many ideas and many thoughts. He's a little bit Aussie, because he spent some time at school in Australia and so we had a lot to talk about.

I am absolutely delighted to be amongst friends of Australia and friends of Fiji.

Now Vili mentioned the Fiji Times this morning; I just happened to bring it along. There's the front page, 'Australia Lifts Ban - Friends Again: What we get.' But have a look at the photograph on the front page: 'Army guns ablaze.' So I realise what our priorities are here. Army won, and you've got to have sport as the most important issue on the front page. But that just underscores the common values and interests that Australia and Fiji have because I tell you in Australia, if the Wallabies won, we'd have that on the front page as well!

This has been a long time coming for many people in this room.

For many of you, the period from December 2006 until today has been tough, it's been challenging on both sides. My journey in relation to Fiji of course is much shorter. And as Inoke said, we both attended the Fiji-Australia Business Council meeting in Brisbane last year. Vili says July, Inoke says August, I can't remember - it was last year.

I had been thinking about Fiji in my capacity as the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and I knew the history. What I couldn't understand was how it was that despite the Government sanctions, despite the fact that Australia had sanctions on Fiji, Australia was still Fiji's largest trade and commercial partner. Australia was still the largest investor in Fiji, we had 50,000 Fijians living in Australia, and 350,000 Australian tourists came to Fiji every year. They were really listening to their Government, weren't they? 350,000 Australians were coming to Fiji, voting with their feet.

We have so many common interests; we're tied together by geography, by history. There is a really deep affection between the people of Fiji and the people of Australia. We love each other, we understand each other, we're friends.

Yet at a Government-to-Government level, there were tensions. I thought, if we get into Government, I need to understand this relationship better. And Frank Yourn said, "You must come to the Business Council meeting in Brisbane." I didn't have to be asked three times, Inoke, I went the first time I was asked. And I listened to the feistiest speech I have ever heard from a Foreign Minister-who pulled no punches and I thought, "Wow, have we got a problem." As I saw the then-Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs leave the stage, I thought, "Here's an opportunity." I wove my way through the crowd and I met the Foreign Minister and I asked if we could spend some time together, to talk about what we could do to repair the relationship between Australia and Fiji. That night I spoke at the dinner, I sat next to Inoke, I threw away my notes, and I spoke very much from the heart about what the people of Fiji and the people of Australia would want from their respective Governments.

I came back to Canberra and we developed a policy that I must say Prime Minister Abbott embraced whole-heartedly. And that policy was, if we were to be elected to the Government of Australia, we would seek to normalise relations with Fiji.

I knew our relationship would never be the same, it would never be like it was before 2006: I wanted it to be better. I wanted a stronger, deeper, more diversified relationship with Fiji, knowing what Fiji had done in the intervening years, respecting the position they'd found themselves in, but acknowledging that Australia had changed as well. In fact, our region and the globe has changed. And as providence had it, as it turned out, we won the election on the 7th of September and Prime Minister Abbott was very keen for me to start work on the relationship with Fiji.

I recognised that Fiji was somewhat reluctant and there wasn't the trust there that one would have hoped. So when Inoke and I met in the margins of the UN General Assembly Leaders week in New York in September last year, we discussed a lot of issues, and I appreciated there was much work to be done.

So we agreed to meet again in October and Minister Kubuabola came to Sydney.

We sat down and went through a list of things that Australia would be prepared to do if Fiji were interested in accepting our offer of normalised relations. We agreed that would be a way forward, so we looked at defence, trade, commerce, people-to-people links. I was really buoyed by that meeting and went back to my department and said, "OK, this is what we need to do".

We put together a whole package of initiatives and ideas and I sent a letter to Inoke in early January of this year setting out what I thought Australia and Fiji could do together. That letter led to Inoke arranging for me to meet with Prime Minister Bainimarama when I came for the Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group meeting here on the 14th of February this year. Now I think that Saint Valentine's Day was a very appropriate day for me to come to Fiji for the first time, because yes I have fallen in love with this country.

On the 14th of February, I met with Prime Minister Bainimarama. I presented him with a West Coast Eagles football guernsey signed by the great Fijian Australian Nic Naitanui. The Prime Minister made out he didn't know who he was but now he only talks about Nic Naitanui. And I think I might be able to wean him off rugby onto AFL maybe? But that's my plan. We had a very positive meeting and a very positive PIF MCG meeting as well.

And then suddenly it all came together. In March, we lifted the travel sanctions – after Inoke texted me – we lifted the sanctions. Prime Minister Bainimarama stepped down as the Commander of the Military Forces. Fiji was allowed into the Commonwealth Games. I thought that was a fantastic moment when the brilliant Fijian athletes could start giving us Commonwealth countries a bit of real competition.

Then the election date was announced in March. In April, my Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason came to visit Fiji for the first time. In May, the Secretary of my Department, Peter Varghese, came to Fiji and Pio Tikoduadua the Prime Minister's Permanent Secretary came to Canberra.

In June, Foreign Minister Kubuabola came back to Canberra on an official visit. We met in my office in Parliament House and talked about the Fiji elections and what Australia could do to assist. Australia was asked to co-lead the Multinational Observer Group and we also provided support in many other ways for the elections.

In August, Prime Minister Bainimarama came to Australia for a private trip, I think he was doing a bit of campaigning amongst the Fijians who live in Australia but had registered to vote. I want to congratulate Fiji on the number of Fijians who registered to vote - over 540,000 people, I thought that was a brilliant outcome, but some of them were in Australia and needed to be reminded to vote. I met with Prime Minister Bainimarama at that time, we had a very positive discussion about the elections and what he thought would happen post-17th September.

In August also, we learned of the news that 45 Fijian peacekeepers had been kidnapped after their work on the Golan Heights and we weren't sure where they were. And the immediate reaction of the entire Australian Cabinet was, "We've got to get them out." It's like your brothers have been kidnapped. We have to help. I rang Inoke who was campaigning somewhere in rural Fiji and he said, "Please pass that on to the Prime Minister." So I rang Prime Minister Bainimarama and he'd just been at a rally. He thanked us for our concern.

Inoke said, as he headed off to make a mercy dash to the Middle East, some of our intelligence agency representatives met him at Sydney Airport to give him all the information that we could gather from intelligence sources around the world. This could have been a tragedy that I don't think Fiji could have coped with, I don't think Australia could cope with that kind of tragedy. I would like to congratulate Inoke for not taking our advice and doing what he instinctively felt was the right thing to do. Going to Qatar, meeting with the Qataris, and we had a happy ending. I was as relieved as anyone when I got a text saying that those 45 Fijian peacekeepers were safe. I put out a press release at the time because we wanted the world to know that Australia and Fiji were friends.

Of course on the 17th of September, you held an election; we had a big election observer team from Australia. Before I came here, I met with Peter Reith who is a former Defence Minister in the Howard Government and he'd led our group and he told me what a positive experience it had been. It wasn't perfect, no election is perfect, and after every election, we in Australia, and other countries that are democracies, look at what they did and what we would do differently next time. We look at how can we improve, because after all this is the people's opportunity to have their say on who they want to represent them in Parliament.

I know that the Multinational Observer Group will be handing down the final report soon and no doubt it will contain recommendations for how things can be done better in Fiji next time. I want to congratulate the Fijian Government for giving the people of Fiji the opportunity to have a say and the feedback that I've had, even from the Opposition, is that it was a great experience for people to have their say.

Now, just having an election doesn't make a democracy. It's a significant symbolic gesture, it produces the Government of the day, but your institutions, your thinking, your attitudes also have to be democratic. And Australia looks forward to working with Fiji to ensure that it is a shining light of democracy in the Pacific.

So I was really pleased to find that I am the first foreign dignitary to visit – that's not how I refer to myself, others do –to visit Fiji since the election, and I was determined to be.

I had a meeting with Prime Minister Bainimarama yesterday. I thought it was a great meeting but, according to the Fiji Sun, the Prime Minister was also happy with the meeting. That's all that counts, if the media says the Prime Minister's happy, I'm happy.

The Prime Minister and I discussed many things that I followed up with in my meeting with Foreign Minister Kubuabola shortly after. First, we talked about the list of issues that we had been talking about in February, about how we would normalise relations.

I am delighted that Australia will now have a permanent Head of Mission here in Fiji and Fiji will have a permanent Head of Mission in Australia. At that juncture, I should thank Glenn Miles, the Acting High Commissioner who has been here through some interesting times. He will be leaving this Wednesday; we've sent him to another post, which is challenging. We're sending him to Beirut, to Lebanon. Glenn, I want to thank you on behalf of the Australian Government for the outstanding work that you've done here and of course we have with us a former High Commissioner Jennifer Rawson who was also posted here, and our diplomats have always been absolutely focused on maintaining the relationship between our two countries, whatever the external circumstances might be.

With the Prime Minister and also with Inoke, we also discussed the defence relationship, because clearly that is a relationship of fundamental trust. And when there is full defence cooperation between countries then you know that there is mutual trust and respect. So we're looking forward to resuming a defence cooperation agreement, we hope to send a senior defence delegation here shortly. We want to invite Fiji into our Pacific Patrol Boat Program again, about time we upgraded those old patrol boats, get a couple of new ones in place. We want to upgrade our Assistant Defence Attaché to a Permanent Defence Attaché.

There's also the issue of the public sector and Australia is very keen to support Fiji in putting robust strength into your public sector and public sector agencies. So we will be working with Fiji to have what we call an Institutional Partnership Program, whereby we'll have exchanges between public sector employees in Fiji and Australia – twinning arrangements. I'm hoping that Inoke and I can do that with our own departments, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so that graduates and more senior people can spend time in each other's country and each other's departments, learning from each other and gaining skills and experience.

Inoke and I have also announced that we will be having Senior Officials' Talks on a regular basis so that our senior people come to each other's country, again exchanging ideas and views and ironing out any issues that we may have.

We are also very keen to promote further the already strong people-to-people linkages. As Inoke said Fiji was invited this week to be part of our Seasonal Workers Program. Once the Memorandum of Understanding is negotiated and signed, we hope to have that in place by early 2015 so we can welcome to Australia Fijian workers in a range of areas including agriculture, horticulture, hospitality and the like. These workers will also gain skills in Australia, and importantly they will be sending remittances home. Inoke, I will also counsel them that they have to go home at the end of it!

We are also exploring a Working Holiday Visa for young Fijians to come to Australia and vice versa. We've had this Working Holiday Visa program for a while, we get an enormous response from Europe and South-East Asia and we want to see young Fijians have an opportunity to work and holiday in Australia and also get their mums and dads and friends over to visit them and have a bit of a holiday in Australia as well.

Inoke mentioned the New Colombo Plan. Some of you might remember the original Colombo Plan that was post-Second World War when we brought lots of students, particularly from South-East Asia, to study in our universities, gain qualifications and experience life in Australia and then go back home and contribute to the development of their countries. Over the years, thousands and thousands of young people from South-East Asia studied in Australia. Not only did they get benefit from it, qualifications, experience, and an ability and capacity to contribute to their country, they set up friendships and networks with Australians that have lasted a lifetime.

When I travel through South-East Asia, I'm always struck by the number of Presidents or Prime Ministers or Cabinet Ministers or business leaders who are Colombo Plan alumni. And that's how they started their relationship with Australia.

I decided it's time we did that but in reverse. It's time we sent young Australians into our region to study in your universities and learn from you and live with your families and work in your businesses. So that they can come back to Australia with new ideas and perspectives and understanding and maybe another language, but they will be much more productive employees for Australia and they may well work in businesses in the region. They will have that experience as a young undergraduate. And I well remember my first trip overseas - it makes such a profound impact on you.

I established what we call the New Colombo Plan; we had a pilot program this year with four destinations: Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Indonesia. We've decided it's worked, we're going to scale it up and we invited 38 countries in the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific to be part of the New Colombo Plan, 38 accepted including Fiji. We've put out the first round of applications for scholarships from March of next year and a number of Australian students made their first choice Fiji, so we are going to have medical students studying obstetrics and gynaecology, art students studying Pacific literature, history and culture, and students studying in the areas of health and community public health. So we're going to have young Australians building connections and relationships with Fiji and we think that this will underscore the relationship for generations to come. This is how you make sure that a relationship endures, you invest in your young people.

We're also offering scholarships for Fijians to come to Australia through our aid program so that young Fijians can spend time in our country learning about Australia, picking up skills and experience. Again, it's those connections, those networks; the friendships that I think are the most important.

On the business, trade and commerce side of things, the Fiji and Australia Business Councils are absolutely vital to ensuring we recognise the opportunities that exist for us to increase trade, increase investment. I was so delighted to read, shortly after he gave it, Prime Minister Bainimarama's speech delivered here yesterday morning in which he said Fiji is 'open for business', the precise words Prime Minister Abbott said on the 7th of September, Australia is open for business.

I know he had a bit of a crack about the trade imbalance, but there's more we can do. Today I was delighted, before we came here, to announce that an existing pilot project, the Market Development Facility, which provides Australian development assistance money partnering with private sector businesses to leverage up their opportunities to build significant businesses here in Fiji – that is working. I went through the exhibition and I saw what we do with a businesses producing mud crabs, tourism, export advice, spa products, a commercial nursery for farmers, the Adi Chocolate business – I think they're going to be a huge hit in Australia, particularly the kava chocolates. And then a business where the acidic soil in Fiji is now being improved by the addition of lime, so simple but what a great opportunity to make the soils more productive here and improve crop yields.All these great little entrepreneurial businesses, with just a bit of seed capital, can leverage what we have seen today.

I was so impressed with the Market Development Facility, what we'd achieved with just over a million dollars, that I announced we'll invest $A8.8 million over the next four years into the Market Development Facility to see the wonderful entrepreneurial spirit of the Fijian people given an opportunity to grow. Because the private sector is where jobs are created, it's the private sector where investment needs to be made. When you look globally about 90 per cent of jobs around the globe come from the private sector, 60 per cent of investment, capital investment and infrastructure comes from the private sector, that's what we need to have flourishing here in Fiji.

Now just finally on the issue of multilateral and regional organisations: Fiji, of course, is back in the Commonwealth and I think that's a great outcome. And the Commonwealth was all the poorer for your absence. [To Minister Kubuabola] PIF, well yes, I did read in the Australian media that you were planning to kick me out. I saw that, so I came over here and found that the Australian media – shock, horror – the Australian media might have got it wrong that what Fiji was suggesting was that we should talk about PIF and the PIDF. I added in the SPC and the MSG – we have so much regional architecture. Is any one of those bodies, or are they collectively, really meeting the needs, the economic, the social, the security the political needs of the Pacific? Well, isn't it time we sat down and discussed the mandate of these organisations? Isn't it time we worked out what is the relevant regional architecture that the Pacific needs?

In a very frank discussion with Inoke yesterday, before he could announce he was kicking me out, I jumped in and said, "What we must do is try and make this work for the Pacific. So how about we get all the Pacific leaders together – and you've got to be a Pacific country,– let's get together and talk about what we actually want."

Who do we want to be: partners or dialogue partners or what other membership capacity they might have - and let's work out what we actually want as Pacific countries and have a really honest discussion about the regional architecture and make it relevant for the 21st century and make it respond to the needs of this region because we have so much potential here.

We have bright young people who need a future. We're a secure part of the world. We have so many assets. We are unique in so many ways. And sure, there are some big countries like Australia and PNG and Fiji and Samoa and New Zealand, and there are some very small countries, but surely, our common interest is making this region thrive, more stable, more secure, more prosperous, more peaceful. So Inoke thought, "that sounds like a good idea" - and he said, "you're going to have to run it past the Prime Minister."

So yesterday afternoon we did some wonderful things, I launched a partnership between the University of the South Pacific and the Australian Pacific Technical College to give young Fijians the opportunity to get Australian-level qualifications in commercial cookery and tourism and hospitality and they're going to be a huge asset in your fantastic tourism industry.

I met with the Speaker and handed over a letter from our Presiding Officers, inviting the Fijian Parliament to send a delegation of parliamentarians to Australia and we'll send a delegation of parliamentarians to Fiji. I met with the Leader of the Opposition; we had a very positive discussion about the role of Opposition in a thriving democracy. Believe me, I know, I've been in Opposition for six long years and I'm not going back!

And then I attended the evening reception that Foreign Minister Kubuabola so graciously hosted for the Australian delegation last night and at the right moment – I approached the Prime Minister and asked him whether he thought it would be a good idea for us to have this dialogue about regional architecture. Standing before me were representatives of PIF and representatives of the PIDF. He said he thought that would be a very good idea, so we spent the next half an hour working out whether it would be in Nadi or whether it would be in Suva or whether it would be in Sydney. Now I didn't push it – all the Fijians ended up nominating "Sydney". So now we are going to plan to get all of our colleagues and counterparts in the Pacific together so that we can have the discussion that we should have had a long time ago about what sort of regional architecture will work for this region.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope that you'll gather from the speeches that both Inoke and I have given, that there is enormous confidence and optimism around Fiji, and Australia feels it, Australia wants to be part of it.

Now we are friends. We want to be close friends. We want to be your partner of choice, and I stress – of choice. Australia needs to prove that it can be relied upon, that we can be trusted and that we have your interests at heart. And both governments have now announced that they are open for business. So here is the opportunity for two willing governments to work in partnership with each other, work in partnership with you the business communities of our respective countries. And I can truly say that I firmly believe the very best days of the Fiji Australia relationship lie ahead of us.

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