Doorstop Interview, DFAT Crisis Centre

  • Transcript, E&OE

JULIE BISHOP I'm here to meet with and thank the members of our Crisis Centre gathered here in Canberra in relation to Australia's response to the natural disaster that occurred in Fiji as a result of Tropical Cyclone Winston. This is the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall in Fiji, a category 5 cyclone, winds of up 325km/hr. There was widespread damage across Fiji, earlier in Tonga but Fiji really bore the brunt of the eye of the cyclone: power outages, roads, houses, buildings, widespread damage. Tragically, the Fijian Government have reported now that 43 people died as a result of the cyclone and it came quite close to home here at the Department of Foreign Affairs as one of our staff, Rodney Yee, in Fiji lost his father.

About 40,000 people are still in evacuation centres. The number has been higher but as restoration work takes place people are able to leave. All up, we think about 250,000 people have been negatively affected in one way or another by this cyclone in Fiji.

Australia's response was immediate. We had prepositioned supplies throughout Fiji and we were able to release them immediately. There was about $5 million in our initial package to provide hygiene kits, food, water, sanitation, the immediate basic needs that were required. We have since increased that amount to $15 million, so another $10 million, and this is helping to rebuild schools and medical centres and the like, so all up our cash contribution has been $15 million and of course we continue to work closely with the Government of Fiji as they indicate needs.

At one point Prime Minister Turnbull spoke to Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama who thanked us for our rapid response. I have kept in constant communication with Foreign Minister Kubuabola, and indeed I received a text from him this morning saying that he was in Suva and saw HMAS Canberra coming into the harbour and the people of Fiji were delighted to see such a physical manifestation of Australian support.

On the civilian side, we have had about 50 Australian personnel in Fiji, it's down to about 41 now. We've had members of our crisis response team, we've had specialists in disaster recovery work. We have two medical teams of 21 medics there at present and they have been carrying out lifesaving treatments as well as now assisting in some of the health and medical issues.

We have also a significant defence contingent. Four of our helicopters have been there virtually from the outset taking supplies to some of the outlying islands. With HMAS Canberra now in Suva, we have another three helicopters that were on board that vessel so there are seven Defence helicopter there. We have been deploying transport planes, the C17s and C130s, on a continuous basis and I think there have been 21 deployments all up of our planes filled with personnel, supplies over the little while. We have also utilised our surveillance planes, the P3 Orions, who carried out assessments around the outlying islands so that we could provide information to the Fijian Government as to what was required. We're working with partners in France and New Zealand in the immediate vicinity and they are also deploying Defence assets to assist in the recovery efforts in Fiji.

All up, there are about 1,000 Australians on the ground in Fiji, about 50 civilians depending upon what is needed and about 950 Defence personnel, 180-190 were there from the outset and another 760 on board HMAS Canberra. HMAS Canberra will be in Suva and then go to some of the outlying islands taking much needed supplies.

I want to thank everyone who's worked in the Crisis Centre here. This was activated virtually immediately and we have seconded people from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, consular, humanitarian, from Defence and we are working very closely with the Emergency Management Australia team as well so that there's a whole of Government response to this natural disaster and that's why we have invested so heavily in ensuring that we can respond quickly. We have an Emergency Relief Fund that we use for precisely these circumstances, because ours is a region that is prone to natural disasters and at this time of the year we know invariably there will be some cyclones that will cause damage.

I didn't imagine that Fiji would be hit by a cyclone of this ferocity but nevertheless, the Government of Fiji has responded magnificently and with friends like Australia, the country will rebuild, they will be able to restore the damage that has occurred. Tragically, the loss of life, 43 deaths, is very sad and we feel for the people of Fiji. There's a deep affection between the Australian people and the Fijian people and we are a partner in the good times and the bad, a partner of choice for the people of Fiji as we respond so rapidly.

Likewise, Australian businesses have responded very positively. The banks, Westpac and ANZ, have been very supportive in terms of financial arrangements. Virgin has assisted in taking supplies as well as the commercial planes that were running as soon as the airport could be reopened and a number of other companies, including Telstra and Optus, have made some arrangements that will help the people as they adjust to life after the cyclone. So I also want to thank all those who are holding appeals, media organisations, banks and others are holding appeals so that Australians can donate and ACFID which is the peak aid organisation in Australia, is accepting donations or directing them to the right appeals.

So thank you again to everybody who has worked so hard to ensure that the people of Fiji are supported in their time of need and hopefully over the coming days we'll be able to wind down our efforts but we will continue to support the Government of Fiji and the people of Fiji as they need our assistance to recover from this cyclone. Thank you.

JOURNALIST Minister, are there concerns about a disease outbreak, specifically the Zika virus? Is there anything more the Federal Government could potentially do if we do see an outbreak like that?

JULIE BISHOP We have certainly been conscious of that from the outset which is why we immediately dispatched sanitation, health, hygiene kits. One of our first priorities was to ensure the hygiene side of the damage could be arrested, why we sent medical teams very early on to ensure that any potential outbreak of disease could be managed. We have also worked with Fiji over many years to build up their health system so that they're in a position to respond. So it's a matter that we have been very conscious of and have been focussing our efforts to ensure there isn't such an outbreak.

Water, sanitation, hygiene kits and shelter have been our priorities and at one stage I took a call from the Fijian Foreign Minister to ensure that we were sending more tarpaulins and shelter kits because the evacuation centres were really feeling it and I assured him that we had kits that were prepositioned, that we were flying them in, the shelter and tarpaulins, and that also HMAS Canberra would have additional. So we think that we've provided support to about 50,000-60,000 people so far in terms of supplies but the issue of disease is one that we were exceedingly conscious of from the outset.

JOURNALIST Minister, just on the DFAT website, it says that the department put out a tender for a proposed single facility for delivery of Australia's bilateral aid program to Fiji. Why is DFAT outsourcing the delivery of the aid program in Fiji and is now the best time to be doing that as a country recovers from this cyclone?

JULIE BISHOP Australia always works with partners on the ground. There is nothing unusual in that at all. We always work with partners, with NGOs, with organisations who have infrastructure and personnel in place. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cannot be in every country all the time. We work with other organisations, so in the case of Fiji we would have a contract to deliver certain services with organisations whose role it is to deliver services in countries in our region, so that's standard.

JOURNALIST Minister, how did the Party Room receive the comments made by Tony Abbott when it came to his suggestions -

JULIE BISHOP Can I ask if there are any other questions - I'll come to that but are there any other questions about Fiji and our response and the Crisis Centre?

JOURNALIST I have an aid related question if that's OK.

JULIE BISHOP If it's about Fiji?

JOURNALIST Kind of. The Australian Council of International Development released its Budget submission today, saying that Australia was at increased risk in terms of biosecurity and disease outbreaks as a result of foreign aid cuts. What's your response to that criticism and is it only a matter of time before diseases like rabies or foot and mouth disease come up on our off shores?

JULIE BISHOP I don't accept that criticism because we have targeted our aid budget to areas that require significant response, so instead of spending money on, for example, a Parliament House for a country in Latin America, what we're now doing is focussing our aid budget on issues that affect our region and the biosecurity of our region is a significant part of that. I spoke earlier about the Emergency Fund. You may recall the Emergency Fund was the one raided by the Labor Party when they were trying to pay for onshore processing in detention centres and they took money out of the Emergency Fund. Well I've restored the funding to our Emergency Fund so it is available for situations such as we've just seen in Fiji. As far as our aid budget is concerned, it's targeted, it's focused and it certainly ensures that we are targeting the health systems of other countries. This occurred with the Ebola crisis. You might recall that our response in West Africa was significant but we also had funding available to build the resilience of the health systems in our region and that's a focus of our aid budget. Any other questions on aid?

JOURNALIST But ACFID says that money…investments in the health sector in southeast Asian countries have actually gone down, so is that a concern?

JULIE BISHOP You mean the money that the Australian Government puts into southeast Asian countries?


JULIE BISHOP Well countries like Indonesia are now significant economies in their own right. Indonesia, for example is the 14th largest economy in the world. It is a member of the G20. Australia's the 12th largest economy in the world and so we work in partnership with Indonesia as to their needs and their requirements, and Indonesia is now a significant economy investing significantly in its own health system. That's the whole idea of aid; it's not to replace the funding that other governments can make out of their own resources, it's to support developing countries alleviate poverty and we're doing that by building their economic resilience which is the best way to alleviate poverty. I always give examples of a country like South Korea that was a significant recipient of Australian aid. Of course now South Korea, having built its economy, is now a significant donor of assistance to other countries and that's the whole point of Australian aid, not to replace the funding of governments who are able to afford to build their health systems but to support countries that can't and that's why we've been working so closely with countries in the Pacific and targeting our efforts here.

Any other questions?

JOURNALIST How did the Party Room respond when it came to Mr Abbott making comments about the Budget and having to rein in spending?

JULIE BISHOP I think that what goes on in the Party Room is generally confidential and it's briefed out formally by, I think George Brandis briefs out what goes on in the Party Room, so on the assumption that George Brandis has briefed out what Tony Abbott said in the Party Room, it was well received. The contributions of our colleagues are always well received. We are a party of lower taxes, smaller government and we're trying to find savings to repair the Budget. I recall very well being in the Howard Government that delivered successive surpluses and then when Labor came into Government and panicked in response to the global financial crisis and then blew the surplus and then built up the most extraordinary level of debt and deficit, and we have to find our way to repair the Budget. That's what we're doing so all contributions from colleagues in the Party Room are well received.

JOURNALIST Doesn't that put pressure on the leadership team, as Mr Abbott put it, to try and find additional savings in addition to the tax reforms?

JULIE BISHOP That's precisely what we have been doing ever since we came into Government. Under former Prime Minister Abbott, under Prime Minister Turnbull, we have been looking for savings and we have been trying to get the Senate to agree to those savings and this has been happening since 2013. We find the savings and if they're blocked by the Senate, that's a challenge. It's economically irresponsible for the Senate to block savings. Labor was even blocking the savings that it identified itself, so of course we need to manage this through the Senate but that's been the case ever since we came into Government.

JOURNALIST Does it surprise you that Treasurer Scott Morrison's been ringing the NSW State Treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian, quote unquote: "how do we get ourselves out of this mess?"

JULIE BISHOP And who said this? Did Gladys Berejiklian say that this is what had occurred?

JOURNALIST That was the comments.

JULIE BISHOP From Gladys Berejiklian?

JOURNALIST That was the comments.

JULIE BISHOP I didn't see that report so you're telling me Gladys Berejiklian, what she put out a press release? Did she give a press conference? No? She didn't? OK, perhaps when I see what Gladys says or when Scott says what went on I'll comment on it, but if it's speculation or hearsay I'm not commenting.

JOURNALIST Minister Bishop, has Tony Abbott's public support for the Japanese submarine bid in Tokyo over the weekend undermined the competitive evaluation process?

JULIE BISHOP The competitive evaluation process proceeds and people can comment as they wish but the Ministry, the Cabinet, will consider the recommendations of the competitive evaluation process when it's concluded. There are three bidders - France, Germany and Japan. I've not seen the detail of those bids so I'm not in a position to evaluate the three bids and we have a team of experts to do that and I don't know that, anybody else has seen the three bids apart from the Office of the Future Submarine Program and when those bids are evaluated, I assume there will be a recommendation that will be considered by the National Security Committee of Cabinet. The National Security Committee of Cabinet will then take it to a full Cabinet meeting. There will be a decision sometime in 2016 as to the international partner for our future submarine program.

JOURNALIST Following on from that then, was it inappropriate the comments Mr Abbott made to put such a strong support behind the Japs winning the contract?

JULIE BISHOP Backbenchers are entitled to make comments, they are entitled to their own opinions but I have pointed out there is a competitive evaluation process put in place by the former Prime Minister and-

JOURNALIST So did he know-

JULIE BISHOP Can I finish? The competitive evaluation process is underway. It would be highly inappropriate for me, as a member of the Cabinet that makes the decision, to comment on the value or the worth of the bids while a competitive evaluation process is under way. So as a member of the National Security Committee, as member of a the Cabinet, I won't be commenting further on it other than to say there's a competitive evaluation process under way.

JOURNALIST Do you share Tony Abbott's view that the Safe Schools policy is social engineering and funding should be pulled from it?

JULIE BISHOP I think the Safe Schools program clearly needs analysis. A number of concerns have been raised by parents and those concerns have been conveyed through to the Minister for Education and I'm sure he's taking them on board.

JOURNALIST Has there been any response from China to Mr Abbott's comments around the South China Sea dispute?

JULIE BISHOP I'm not aware of any.

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