DFAT Crisis Centre

  • Transcript, E&OE

JULIE BISHOP: Thank you for joining me, the Secretary of the Department Peter Varghese, my Parliamentary Secretary Steve Ciobo and our Head of Consular Justin Brown, here in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Crisis Centre. As you can see this Centre has been activated to respond to requests from governments in the Pacific for Australian assistance in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Pam. In particular, we are working closely with the Government of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu received the biggest impact of the cyclone and the devastation there is widespread. I have just spoken to Foreign Minister Sato Kilman, the Foreign Minister of Vanuatu. He expressed his Government's thanks and appreciation for Australia's quick and rapid response to their concerns. Foreign Minister Kilman was in Sydney on his way back to Vanuatu.

The fact that communications are still down has made it very distressing for a number of citizens of Vanuatu trying to find out information about their friends and relatives. We have now sent three Australian military planes to Port Vila. They left yesterday with humanitarian supplies and teams of personnel, medical teams, urban search and rescue teams. Today, two more military planes will leave Australia and land in Port Vila, again with humanitarian supplies, and personnel were also assisting representatives from the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team to travel to Vanuatu.

Together with our partners in the Government of France, we are carrying out surveillance flights over the southern islands of Vanuatu so that we can assess the damage. Imagery is being taken, so these reconnaissance flights are all part of our attempt to assess the extent of the damage.

The humanitarian supplies are being provided now. I understand that shelter in the form of tents and tarpaulins, blankets and other necessities are being provided to people in need. Our High Commission is working with the Government of Vanuatu to ensure that we are meeting the needs of those who have been affected. We have a medical team on the ground and they are also assessing the situation at Port Vila Hospital which was quite badly damaged in the storm. Food, sanitation, water supplies are also being provided.

In addition to Vanuatu, we're also providing assistance to Tuvalu, but at this stage we think Solomon Islands, Fiji and Kiribati are coping, but of course we stand ready to assist should a request be made for specific assistance. While we're focusing on the short-term response to save lives and to provide immediate humanitarian needs, we are aware that this has been a most devastating cyclone. The impact will be felt for quite some time. The winds were at a record level, flooding, landslides, very rough seas and we expect that the impact will be quite severe. So we stand ready to assist in the longer term recovery efforts.

Australia is the principal provider of aid and assistance to Vanuatu so we will continue to invest in ensuring that we can get some positive outcomes from what has been a devastating experience for the people of Vanuatu. The death toll is still unconfirmed. There have been reports of perhaps six, perhaps eight, but we will maintain a focus on ensuring that we provide reliable information. Again I stress that if anyone has concerns about friends or relatives that they contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Hotline on 1300 555 135.

We have over 1400 Australians registered with our Smartraveller website www.smartraveller.gov.au and any Australians who are in Vanuatu we would appreciate them letting our High Commission know so we can ensure that all Australians are safe. So Australia is a dear friend and partner of nations in the Pacific we are longstanding friends of Vanuatu. Minister Michael Keenan has met with President Lonsdale, the President of Vanuatu, in Tokyo. They were both there for a conference on natural disaster relief management, somewhat ironically, and so we have expressed our support to the President. Prime Minister Abbott has spoken to Prime Minister Natuman and I've spoken to Foreign Minister Kilman so the Government of Vanuatu is in no doubt that Australia stands ready to continue to support this Pacific nation in its time of need.

I want to thank everybody from the DFAT Crisis Centre who is here today. I know that the Crisis Centre has been called upon on numerous occasions in recent times and our staff are always here so willingly - the humanitarian, consular, communications and media staff to ensure that we can respond as effectively and efficiently as possible.

I am hoping to visit Vanuatu shortly, I had a trip to Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Cook Islands scheduled for the end of the month, so I hope I will be able to visit Vanuatu, subject to the convenience of the Government, and the appropriateness of travelling to Vanuatu at that time. Steve Ciobo likewise stands ready to assist in his role as Parliamentary Secretary and we assure the people of Vanuatu that they are in our thoughts and that we'll continue to support them and respond as quickly as we can to their needs.

Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Minister, you said there were 1400 Australians registered, would there be twice as many possibly on holidays there?

JULIE BISHOP: We expect that at any one time there are about 3000 Australians in Vanuatu. When I say 1400 are registered, people have been registering since this occurred. On Saturday there were about 800 Australians registered with DFAT, now there are 1460, so people are letting Australia know that they are there so we can maintain contact with them. I would encourage any Australians who are able to make contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to do so, so we can keep track of them.

We have offered to assist passage home for those who are not able to get a commercial flight, but I understand that commercial flights are now operating. A flight from Air Vanuatu has gone into Port Vila. We're expecting that flight to return to Brisbane or Sydney this afternoon and likewise Virgin Airlines is now flying as well. But if there are people in need - we are particularly focusing on elderly people or pregnant women or children, or sick or injured people - if they require assistance to get home to Australia we can do something with our military aircraft. Not as comfortable, I'll admit, but nevertheless it would be a way of getting home if they can't get a commercial flight.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned development aid before. Isn't it true that aid to Vanuatu has actually been cut in the past year?

JULIE BISHOP: No, that's not right, we provide a significant amount of aid to Vanuatu. It's about $60 million, plus we have numerous regional programs, plus we have all the support we provide through the United Nations and multilateral organisations, but we are supporting Vanuatu in its time of need.

I announced $5 million in funding for NGOs, Red Cross, United Nations' partners and then of course, in addition to that cash funding we have the humanitarian supplies, personnel, military aircraft, so it's a substantial response but we recognise that given the unprecedented nature of this particular cyclone, that the damage will be widespread and we'll continue to support Vanuatu as we can.

JOURNALIST: Minister, given you mentioned communications are still down or not fully functional, how long do you expect it be before you can safely say that no Australians have been casualties in this?

JULIE BISHOP: Well I will obviously keep the media informed, but we are doing what we can to check hotels, to check accommodation and other tourist places. We are in contact with our High Commission on a regular basis and they have communications. It's the 3G network that I understand is not accessible at present, but we certainly are able to make contact by phone.

The reconnaissance over the southern islands will obviously inform our understanding of whether there are any more areas that we need to check for Australians who may be there, but also others. The people of Vanuatu are obviously uppermost in our thoughts as well.

JOURNALIST: Minister, it appears large parts of the infrastructure of Vanuatu have actually been flattened and there's no idea yet of the extent of the damage on outlying islands. Is there any apparatus in place for a long-term rebuilding plan, or is it too soon to think about that?

JULIE BISHOP: It's a little early to talk about the longer term requirements, but it is quite evident from the photographic evidence we've already seen that infrastructure has been widely damaged - roads, the hospital, the airport at one point, buildings have been flattened. This was an unprecedented cyclone with winds of up to 250km/h and wind gusts of about 320km/h, so it was a Category 5 cyclone. That's, as I understand it, the highest rating you can get for a cyclone, so Vanuatu was right in the eye of it. So the infrastructure has been decimated in many places. Clearly there will need to be a long-term infrastructure recovery plan in place and we're already talking to the Government of Vanuatu about that.

JOURNALIST: How would you characterise the international relief response so far? Obviously there's us, you mentioned France as well, what about the rest of the world and particularly the Asia-Pacific region?

JULIE BISHOP: Great Britain has pledged funding, in fact, Prime Minister Abbott spoke to Prime Minister Cameron yesterday and France has committed support, New Zealand, we are working very closely with New Zealand and we expect that as we are able to assess the need then there will be calls for other donors. Red Cross is currently assessing needs. I know Red Cross has opened an appeal here in Australia. The United Nations is carrying out an assessment through this team that we have assisted travel to Port Vila. So in the days and weeks ahead we'll have a much better idea of what is going to be required.

Our concern was to get immediate relief to the people of Vanuatu, the people in need in the form of shelter, water, sanitation, food and that's what we're focusing on at present. I know that tents are being erected at present. I think we had about 1000 shelter kits there today and more will be arriving this afternoon.

JOURNALIST: Just one question on the China bank, do you see a point where we might well join the China bank?

JULIE BISHOP: It has always been our intention to discuss this matter with China, to negotiate with China, we've put forward a number of concerns that we had, they have taken them on board and we've been working through those issues with China. We want to ensure that anything that we invest in meets the very high standards of the kind of multilateral institutions that Australia has supported in the past and so these are matters that we are continuing to discuss with China.

A number of our close friends in New Zealand and the United Kingdom have signed up to negotiate with China on this and obviously the more countries that are involved and are having their concerns addressed then the easier it will be for Australia to have our concerns addressed.

For a start, we want to ensure that decisions are made by the Board. We want to ensure that the shareholding is appropriate for a multilateral infrastructure bank of this nature. So these are matters that we're continually discussing with China in a very positive spirit of cooperation and considerable interest.

JOURNALIST The Americans seem quite wary about it?

JULIE BISHOP The Americans have had concerns that we have shared about the structure of the bank, the governance, the accountability, the transparency and we will continue to address these issues. The United States has discussed this with us, I've had some very positive discussions with Secretary Kerry about this and we'll certainly keep them informed of our intentions.

JOURNALIST: Is the Government moving in a particular direction on this? Are we more likely to join at this stage?

JULIE BISHOP: These are the sort of matters we discuss within our National Security Committee. We had a discussion about it last year. There are particular milestones in negotiations with China and so as those milestones are reached we consider our position. But this has been a positive ongoing review and I would expect us to continue to discuss this until such time as our concerns are either met or not met and then we would make a decision at that time.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just back on the cyclone, obviously natural disasters are going to be an ongoing phenomenon. Isn't it time that we quarantined aid and development money particularly in terms of infrastructure and building cyclone proof construction in places like the Pacific so that we can have an insurance principle so to speak?

JULIE BISHOP: We already provide considerable support in the natural disaster relief and management side of things. For example there's an SMS system operating in Vanuatu, supplied by our aid program, that is sending text messages to people. We have been working closely with Vanuatu, in fact one of our Australian Civilian Corps officers is with their Disaster Management Office working there continually so we do have personnel, we pass on our experience and we have a number of programs specifically directed towards natural disaster relief management. We also have a significant humanitarian Budget that we try to keep at a particular level so that we are in a position to respond to the natural disasters as they tragically and invariably and inevitably occur in our part of the world.

Steve did you want to add something?

STEVEN CIOBO Thank you Minister. Obviously as Australians we also have endured cyclones from time to time and we have a particular set of expertise in relation to dealing with the clean-up, the recovery and the rebuilding that goes with an important recovery effort as is taking place now in Vanuatu. In that respect I think it is absolutely fundamental that Australians recognise that we have some great expertise, some of it assembled in the room today in terms of the DFAT staff. We are helping to lead and coordinate efforts with the Vanuatu recovery.

And at times of crisis that is when you always realise most strongly who your friends are. Australia, together with France, New Zealand and others are working to make sure that we can do everything we possibly can in a short and efficient timeframe that's possible to provide the support that Vanuatu's looking for. In that respect, as the Foreign Minister's Parliamentary Secretary I stand ready to provide additional assistance. And Australia's effort is being stewarded very capably by the Foreign Minister, together with the key personnel from DFAT, and I know that Australians are making a real difference on the ground, not only for Australian citizens in Vanuatu but the people of Vanuatu themselves.

Media enquiries