ABC RN Breakfast, Suva, Fiji - Interview with Fran Kelly

  • Transcript, E&OE

JOURNALIST Australia's Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is in Fiji visiting some of the worst affected areas and overseeing Australia's relief efforts on the ground. She joins us from Suva now. Julie Bishop, good morning, welcome to Breakfast.

JULIE BISHOP Good morning Fran, good to be with you.

JOURNALIST I gather that efforts are still in a rescue and recovery phase, you've been out on Koro Island, one of the areas hardest hit by the cyclone, almost every building was flattened there on the island I believe, what's life look like on Koro Island right now?

JULIE BISHOP There are about 3,700 people who live on the Island and their homes have been destroyed, buildings have been flattened, the agricultural crops have also been devastated, so it's pretty grim but they're still in fine form. The Fijians are very resilient, happy people and as the children were waving goodbye they were singing to me yesterday, so you can't help but feel a great deal of warmth and affection for these people who have been absolutely devastated by this cyclone. Our support has been deeply appreciated. We have about 1000 Defence personnel on the ground here, HMAS Canberra arrived in Fiji on 1 March, that's the largest ship in our Navy and it was carrying about 60 tonnes of emergency relief supplies, and we've now got 7 helicopters here, they're ferrying goods and people to different parts of Fiji and all-in-all we've had a very significant response. We've had medical teams working with the Fijian Ministry of Health to respond to urgent health needs and our engineers and carpenters and plumbers are now fixing buildings, including schools so that the children can return to school today after three weeks.

JOURNALIST I want to come back to schools but are you confident that the aid we've delivered there, that we've provided is getting through to the hardest hit, sort of more remote areas, because that was a complaint earlier on?

JULIE BISHOP Oh absolutely, it's getting through to those most in need. I've witnessed the supplies being delivered to the different villages that have been devastated in some of the most remote outlying islands. Because of the presence of our helicopters, we are able to get supplies to some of the most hard to reach areas and I'm confident that Australia has made a very significant and timely effort and it's been deeply appreciated, not only by the Government of Fiji but by the people who were very excited to see the HMAS Canberra come into Suva and then sail up to Koro Island. So we've supported our dear friends in the Pacific and they are now deeply appreciative of it. The Fijian Government has also done an extraordinary job: they had pre-prepared and pre-positioned supplies in place and, apart from some communication problems early on which is to be expected, most basic structures have now been put back in place whether it be communications or roads or the like, but there's still a huge recovery and reconstruction effort underway and that's what I'll be talking to Prime Minister Bainimarama about today.

JOURNALIST Do you expect he's going to ask for more assistance?

JULIE BISHOP I believe that Fiji will need more assistance particularly they need more tourists to come here and –

JOURNALIST But are they asking more from you?

JULIE BISHOP They haven't yet but we're certainly prepared to offer. We've provided $15 million in supplies, food, shelter, water sanitation, but the major effort we've put in has been the presence of our Defence personnel and our Defence equipment that is being so useful in helping them get back on their feet. So they haven't asked for more but we'll continue to help, particularly in the area of medical and health needs – we don't want to see any outbreak of disease here, and so far that's all been contained and people are receiving medical treatment from our teams here working with the Fijian medical teams.

JOURNALIST And just on schools, we spoke to UNICEF recently so I think people listening would love to know what Australia is doing? We learnt that 240 schools were flattened by the cyclone, school is happening in tents with very meagre resources, what's Australian aid doing on that front?

JULIE BISHOP What we have done is help rebuild the schools, plumbers and engineers and carpenters off HMAS Canberra have been out helping rebuild the schools, putting the roofs on the schools, I visited one last night where it was all set up ready for the children to return today. And we're working with Ministry of Education to ensure that the buildings are secure and that the children can return and we're also providing some basic school supplies and working with UN organisations like UNICEF, so our support has been across the board. We've got volunteers here from Australia as well, I think about 50 civilian volunteers in addition to about 1000 Defence personnel.

JOURNALIST You're listening to RN Breakfast, it's 7:50. Our guest is Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Julie Bishop, if I can bring you to some other issues now because tomorrow you'll be back home, you're meeting with your Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Canberra. Australia is engaging with Iran after it agreed last year to stop developing nuclear missiles in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions, but now France is talking about further sanctions after ballistic missile tests were launched in Iran earlier this month. This missile being tested has a range of 2000km, meaning it could reach Israel and US bases in the Middle East, do you support the call by Israel for world powers to punish Tehran?

JULIE BISHOP Well Iran's launch of missiles in recent days is under investigation by the UN Security Council members with a view to referring it to the UN Security Council, and I think that's appropriate as a matter of legal process but as a matter of policy, these launches are of great concern and I'll be very clear about that to Foreign Minister Zarif when I see him this week. Any missile tests will raise concerns, it's not conducive to reducing tensions in an already tense and volatile region and global attention is rightly focused on Iran to prove it is a responsible and constructive regional and global player, the onus is very much on Iran. And this is also an opportunity for me to raise concerns about Iran's record on human rights and continue to urge progress on that front. So having discussions with Iran on issues where our national interests are engaged is prudent but we will also pursue issues of concern, and a ministerial visit is a way to gain a closer understanding of what Iran is up to but also to convey messages and I intend to do that.

JOURNALIST Some have been critical of what they describe as your "welcoming" stance to Iran and they're talking about Australia basically being prepared to trade off or overlook perhaps some of the darker side of Iranian activity because we want Iran to take back up to 9000 Iranian asylum seekers here. Given the record on human rights you just referred to there, would you be seeking some kind of guarantee from Dr Zarif regarding the treatment of anyone sent back against their will?

JULIE BISHOP Well of course I would, and the Iranians who have gone back are testament to the fact that they're not being persecuted on their return –

JOURNALIST Have we checked on, how do we know that?

JULIE BISHOP Because we have an Embassy in Iran. Australia has maintained a presence in Iran throughout, other countries have not – the United States, Britain, Canada and others from time-to-time have withdrawn from Tehran but Australia has had a constant diplomatic and consular presence and people on the ground in Iran throughout. So if Iran wants to progress its engagement with the world and prove itself a responsible actor, it needs to stop any hostile posture – both at home and abroad – and this is an opportunity for me to raise this with Foreign Minister Zarif.

But I note you said some are concerned about this visit, this is coming from the Labor Party. Tanya Plibersek was urging us not so long ago to engage with Iran when it was under the leadership of Ahmadinejad. Iran has now had elections, they have a much more moderate level of politician involved in their public debate and I think it's important that Dr Zarif visit Australia and continue Iran's efforts to engage with the international community. A ministerial visit doesn't amount to or imply acceptance of the other's world views, nor does it imply diluting the importance of other relationships and I certainly understand the history of enmity and strategic rivalry between Iran and Israel and have raised on many occasions our deep concerns about any anti-Israel or anti-Semitic rhetoric that comes from Iran.

JOURNALIST Minister can I just ask you very briefly because there was another bombing in Ankara overnight, 27 people killed. I understand the Australian Ambassador, James Larsen, had a very narrow escape. Have you been briefed on this and do we know who's responsible?

JULIE BISHOP I rang Ambassador Larsen this morning and I spoke with him and he was, in fact, in a car at the intersection where this terrorist attack took place. A car was loaded with explosives and it exploded at this very busy intersection and he was about 20 metres away. He's ok and all of the Embassy staff are fine, in fact I don't believe that any foreigners are amongst the dead or injured, and our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of those who were killed. This is another reminder that terrorist attacks can take place anywhere at any time as these brutal terrorist organisations export their model of terrorist attack around the world.

JOURNALIST Julie Bishop, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.

JOURNALIST Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joining us from Fiji.

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