ABC Pacific Beat - Interview with Karen Barlow
JULIE BISHOP When I became Foreign Minister last September I was determined to take steps to normalise relations with Fiji and I have been working with the Ministers from Fiji so that Australia can enter a new and constructive phase in our bilateral relationship. Effective today the Australian Government will lift all travel restrictions applying to Fiji. This includes restrictions which have been in place applying to the Prime Minister, military personnel and their family members, appointees in the judiciary.
Australia wants to play its part in supporting Fiji's return to democracy within the Pacific family. I believe that lifting travel restrictions will lay a framework for closer dialogue and co-operation with Fiji with not only our relationship but regional issues
KAREN BARLOW Isn't this though Australia's trump card with Fiji? Doesn't Australia need more to be assured there will be free and fair elections in September?
JULIE BISHOP In taking this step to lift the travel restrictions it recognises the significant progress that Fiji has made toward elections in September this year. A date has been fixed. It also recognises that the Pacific Island Forum Ministerial Contact Group was of the view that we should take steps to normalise our relations with Fiji and I also note that New Zealand has also decided to lift all travel restrictions and I certainly welcome that step as well.
KAREN BARLOW Is this unconditional though? What is the quid pro quo? What is Australia getting in return?
JULIE BISHOP It is not conditional on Fiji holding an election but I am assured by the conversations that I have had with Prime Minister Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Kubuabola that Fiji is progressing towards elections on the 17th of September. They are putting in place all the processes and procedures necessary and we are certainly keen to support Fiji to hold free and fair elections. We are pleased that they are talking about international election observers and we are certainly encouraging the Opposition parties and civil society to remain engaged in the process as they lead towards these elections.
KAREN BARLOW In asking for what Australia gets in return I guess I am talking about the people that have been thrown out of Fiji, including Australians, for speaking out, for talking about what is happening in Fiji. What is going to happen to them?
JULIE BISHOP Well significant improvements have taken place in Fiji, but I do recognise that we need to continue to emphasise the importance of ongoing improvements to media freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and I emphasise the importance of these matters including access for the international media on every occasion that I speak to the Foreign Minister and the Attorney General.
KAREN BARLOW Also in regards to Australia. Does Australia now expect Fiji to accept the Australian High Commissioner to Fiji?
JULIE BISHOP These are matters that we will continue to discuss with Fiji. My focus at present is to ensure that we are providing the kind of support that they need to hold an election which is considered to be free and fair and that is why I am particularly pleased that they have agreed to international election observation and I hope that Australia can take a part in that as well. So we are focussing on a new and positive phase in our relationship with Fiji.
KAREN BARLOW Will Australia be inviting Frank Bainimarama to Australia?
JULIE BISHOP Well that is a matter for Prime Minister Bainimarama, but I would imagine between now and September he will be very busy with his new political party campaigning in the elections in Fiji. I have met with the Opposition parties. They are organising themselves to contest the election. I am sure the next few months will be very busy but the point is, if Prime Minister Bainimarama wishes to come to Australia, the travel sanctions have now been lifted.
KAREN BARLOW In regards to closer, or normalisation, of defence ties that is something which is still I guess in the pipeline. That's something perhaps for after the election?
JULIE BISHOP We are sending some defence representatives to Fiji in April to commence the normalisation of defence arrangements and so that process is continuing, but Australia still refrains against the supply, sale or transfer of arms and related material in relation to Fiji's military, but we are looking forward to the resumption of a full defence cooperating relationship after the Fiji elections. We have already begun defence discussions with Fiji and they should be normalised as soon as possible.