Doorstop interview - Suva, Fiji

  • Transcript, E&OE
14 March 2016

JULIE BISHOP Good Morning. This morning here in Suva, Fiji, I have met with Prime Minister Bainimarama, and also with Foreign Minister Kubuabola.

The main topic we discussed was not only the recovery effort and Australia's role in working with the Fiji authorities to provide basic food, shelter and sanitation and hygiene equipment, but also the longer term recovery effort that will be required. Yesterday we visited Koro Island and saw the devastation - the homes and buildings, churches and schools that have been so severely damaged. Australia will continue to offer our support, and work with the Fiji Government in restoring Fiji back to normal.

One other issue that is quite disturbing is the fact that the agricultural crops have been devastated and so this season, there will be a loss of income and impact on the economy. So Australia stands ready to support Fiji in helping with the economy and getting crops back in for planting.

Overall, the Australian effort has been well received and deeply appreciated – particularly the presence of a thousand Australian Defence personnel, the largest ship in the navy, HMAS Canberra, and the number of helicopters that have been used to take goods and personnel to the outlying islands.

This has been a tragic time for the people of Fiji, 44 casualties as a result of the cyclone, but the people are resilient, stoic and determined to restore their lives and Australia is proud to have been a part of this effort.

JOURNALIST Minister Bishop, in terms of further assistance, to Fiji, what is the Australian Government willing to offer?

JULIE BISHOP We are working with the Fiji Government and will respond to requests from the Government for further help. We understand that there will be an overall needs assessment undertaken in the next few days and Australia stands ready to continue to support Fiji at this time. I am meeting with other ministers this afternoon, including the Education Minister, to determine what are the priorities in terms of health care, education and economic support – particularly in relation to agriculture.

JOURNALIST In terms of those priorities, what did the Prime Minister indicate? Were there areas of priority that he mostly was a concern to him?

JULIE BISHOP At this stage, after the initial recovery effort, he was concerned about health care, education (longer term) and also agriculture. So, the three areas that I've identified were in fact areas that were identified by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. We will work closely with the authorities , as we have over the last three weeks, to ensure that we provide targeted support that reaches those most in need.

JOURNALIST From here, do we have any indication of where and what sort of assistance we will be providing in the weeks and months ahead?

JULIE BISHOP We are continuing to retain our presence here. As you saw yesterday they are moving into the phase of immediate support to longer term support, putting roofs on schools, ensuring children can get back to school, ensuring that medical centres are operating and of course ensuring the tourism trade can continue to thrive, because tourism is one of the major pillars of the Fijian economy.

JOURNALIST How much more money does Australia stand to offer?

JULIE BISHOP Well, it is a question of what Fiji is looking for. We obviously work in partnership with the Fijian Government and provide the support that they are requesting. We've already provided $15 million in an immediate response. In addition to that of course, is the cost of having our Defence personnel here and our civilian personnel. We had a two medical teams here of 21 medical personnel. They will remain for as long as they are needed. Likewise, with the Defence personnel, we are in the hands of the Fijian Government. This morning I will be going to the National Disaster Management Office to hear directly from them about what the recovery plan will look like in the months ahead.

JOURNALIST Should other nations be doing more as well?

JULIE BISHOP Other nations are providing support. That's a matter for the Fijian Government to determine which partners they are calling upon. But Australia has, from the outset, as a friend and long-standing partner of Fiji, been prepared to provide as much support as the Fijian Government has asked for, and in the areas that they have asked for. We want to avoid any duplication or waste. Our experience in responding to natural disasters like this is to work closely with the local authorities to ensure that the support we're providing is targeted, focused and gets to those most in need.

JOURNALIST How strategically important is this for Australia's relations with Fiji, given normalising of relations after 2014?

JULIE BISHOP When I was in Opposition in 2013, I met with Foreign Minister Kubuabola at that time and said that a Coalition Government would seek to normalise relations with Fiji and we have certainly done that since coming in to Government. I think that the partnership that has been demonstrated over the last three weeks underscores the importance of maintaining a strong and close relationship with Fiji. Our Defence engagement is strong, we're looking to increase trade and investment, we are supporting Fiji in development assistance at a government to government and people to people level. Things are certainly looking very bright.

JOURNALIST In your discussions with the Fiji Government, have they given you a number of what they may need in regards to the sectors that have been most affected?

JULIE BISHOP No they haven't. We've been talking more generally as I've said, I understand the Fijian Government is carrying out a needs assessment for the longer term recovery plan and we hope to be a part of that discussion.

JOURNALIST Minister, the Four Corners team has been arrested in Malaysia when they questioned a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal. Is Australia, as a close ally and neighbour of Malaysia, concerned that the current government is using criminal proceedings to target critics of its government?

JULIE BISHOP We are deeply concerned about this. We are providing consular support to the ABC crew and will certainly raise the issue at the appropriate level within the Malaysian Government.

JOURNALIST Minister Bishop, can you tell us what the situation is with our Ambassador at Turkey following the attacks there?

JULIE BISHOP I spoke to Ambassador James Larsen this morning to ascertain whether any Australian had been caught up in the terrible incident that occurred in Ankara, where a car bomb I understand went off in a busy intersection, and our Ambassador was actually at that intersection in his vehicle about 20 metres away from the blast. He is fine. All the Australian staff and our locally engaged embassy staff are fine. In fact, I understand that no foreigners were either killed or injured in the attack, although investigations are still underway. At this stage, I can confirm that there are no reports of Australian casualties and our Ambassador is somewhat shaken, but he is focussed on doing his job and ensuring that any Australians that might need support in Turkey at this time are receiving it.

JOURNALIST Does this raise questions about the security of Australian diplomatic personnel in areas that have either had an attack or are under threat?

JULIE BISHOP We are constantly reviewing the security arrangements for our diplomats overseas. Of course it's an ongoing concern for us. We focus on the secure and safe presence of our diplomats all the time, so we continue to review the security of our embassy staff, and the location of our embassies and the like. That's why we focus so heavily on ensuring that we have the most secure embassies in some of the most troubled places. Australia doesn't have embassies in every country in the world. We have about a hundred diplomatic posts overseas so this is a continuing concern for us.

JOURNALIST Will there be a specific investigation into this particular diplomatic post?

JULIE BISHOP There is always an ongoing review and whenever there is an incident like this, there is always a review.

JOURNALIST Do you think he (Ambassador) was targeted or was it just unfortunate that he was in the area?

JULIE BISHOP He was just there at the time. No, I don't believe at all that he was targeted. This was actually directed, as I understand, at Turkish soldiers.

JOURNALIST Would we consider pulling diplomatic staff out given the worsening situation in Turkey?

JULIE BISHOP No, we would not.

JOURNALIST What's your message to the Australian travellers, like business people that are travelling given the state of Turkey? Is it a safe place to go to?

JULIE BISHOP There are a number of hotspots in the world at present and we continue to reach out to Australians to read our travel advice on Smartraveller to ensure that they have the most up to date information, to ensure that they have travel insurance and to register on line so that our embassies and diplomats know who is in that country. Otherwise, this is a stark reminder of the fact that terrorist attacks can occur at anytime and anywhere. That's why Australia is involved in the coalition to defeat terrorism at its source in Syria and Iraq because these terrorist organisations are exporting a brutal form of a terrorism model around the world.

JOURNALIST On this prison swap with Matthew Ng, do you believe he deserves such a long sentence? Or should he be released from jail?

JULIE BISHOP These are matters that are determined under the terms of the prison swap agreements and this is handled by the Attorney General. In order for a prisoner to be able to carry out their term in Australia, certain conditions have to be met.

JOURNALIST In your meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister tomorrow, are we any closer at all to a repatriation agreement on asylum seekers?

JULIE BISHOP As I said last week, these discussions are at a very early stage amongst officials. Foreign Minister Zarif is in Australia to meet the Iranian community in our country but I think it's a very timely opportunity for me to raise with him matters of common interest because we both have defence forces in Syria and in Iraq. We are flying the coalition flights into Syria, we have forces in Iraq and so we have some common interests. Trade is a significant issue given that financial and economic sanctions have been lifted by the international community on Iran and most trading countries around the world are making overtures about doing more business with Iran and I don't want to see Australian businesses disadvantaged in any way. There are a number of issues for us to raise, but it is also an opportunity for me to raise concerns that we have of Iran, and the onus is on Iran to prove that it is on its way back to being responsible international player.

JOURNALIST Is there any chance of a deal being done in this trip on repatriation or is that a much longer term goal of asylum seekers?

JULIE BISHOP It is certainly a goal but it is at officials level at present. It's not something that I am personally negotiating with Foreign Minister Zarif. It's being dealt with by officials.

JOURNALIST Just on Malaysia, how concerned are you by the growing crack down with the Malaysian Government?

JULIE BISHOP I'm always concerned when there are instances of a crackdown on freedom of speech and in democracies particularly. I'm also concerned about the freedom that journalists have to carry out their work in such places around the world. These are matters to be raised with governments from time to time, and we certainly will with Malaysia.

JOURNALIST What's the latest that you know about the journalists there?

JULIE BISHOP Our consular team are giving them support and are there to give them assistance whenever they need it. Our High Commissioner in Malaysia is in contact with them.

JOURNALIST One of your predecessors, Stephen Smith, is being counted as the Leader of the Labor Party in state. Do you have any thoughts on that?

JULIE BISHOP I think the people of Australia will remember Stephen Smith as a Cabinet Minister in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government that brought Western Australia a Carbon Tax, and a Mining Tax, banned live cattle exports into Indonesia and, trashed the Budget with deficits. I think Stephen Smith will have a lot of explaining to do should he want to run for state office.

JOURNALIST Is there any discussion with the Fijian Government in regards to the Seasonal Worker Scheme?

JULIE BISHOP Yes, most certainly. I discussed with Foreign Minister Kubuabola the Seasonal Workers Programme. Australia has lifted the cap and we are delighted that a number of Fijian workers have taken part in the Seasonal Workers Scheme. This benefits both countries. Australia seeks workers in agriculture, accommodation - in areas where we can't get local people to take the jobs and the Fijian people get an opportunity to get work, to send remittances home and hopefully gain some skills. It's a wonderful example of Fiji and Australia working closely together in partnership to boost the economic benefits for both Australia and Fiji.

JOURNALIST How embarrassing could it be for the Government if it votes on a motion to vote against voting on the ABCC Bill in the Senate this week?

JULIE BISHOP Well this is obviously a matter for discussion within the party, but we wouldn't even be having this discussion if the crossbench senators didn't vote with Labor to prevent a crack down on corrupt unions and union officials. The only reason we're having this discussion is because the crossbenchers and Labor are refusing to support legislation that would prevent corrupt unions and corrupt union officials from carrying out their unlawful activities as identified by the Royal Commission.

JOURNALIST How unimpressed have you been with the current crop of Senate crossbenchers?

JULIE BISHOP I'm disappointed that they haven't supported legislation in this instance that would crackdown on the unlawful behaviour of rogue union officials and corrupt unions. Surely this is fundamental legislation that any right-thinking person would support. We're trying to stamp out corruption in unions and amongst union officials, and this was identified by the Royal Commission that any responsible parliamentarian should support.

JOURNALIST One last question on Fiji. We saw a number of villages wiped out yesterday. There were children singing, waving, adults smiling. What did you take from the people that we saw and I guess the vibrance that they emitted in amongst all this devastation?

JULIE BISHOP Any Australian who has ever visited Fiji can't help but fall in love with the Fijian people. They are happy, they are resilient and they take tragedy in their stride. I thought it was quite inspiring to see how happy the children appeared to be even they've been away from school for three weeks. Maybe that had something to do with it, and they were returning to school, but their parents were absolutely determined to rebuild their lives. That is why I've been so proud of the work of the Australia Defence Force and our NGOs and the private sector have been able to achieve here in Fiji. We are a friend, we are a partner, we're a neighbour. This is our part of the world and Australia has responded in a way that I hope supports the Fijian people and they seemed very grateful for it. On the radio recently here in Fiji, they're encouraging children to hug an Australian soldier if they saw one in the street to say thank you. There have been great shows of affection and appreciation for Australia's efforts here.

JOURNALIST Are you worried about the influence of Russia and China on Fiji?

JULIE BISHOP I think that Russia and China and other countries are showing an interest in the Pacific. There are plenty of calls for more support in development assistance. I was in China recently and had a very good discussion with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on how we can co-operate to provide support in the Pacific, where our interests are aligned and we're very interested to work with China to ensure that development assistance targets those in need and provides a boost for local economies. After all, the best way to reduce poverty is to boost economic growth, provide jobs and, thereby reduce poverty in some of the Pacific nations. Here in Fiji, we're working very closely with the Fijian Government and they seem very appreciative of our efforts.

JOURNALIST You're meeting with the Education Minister a little later today, have there been any discussions as to further funding in the existing programme AQEP?

JULIE BISHOP No there haven't been such discussions but I believe as I've said earlier the Fijian Government is looking at its needs over the next few months and indeed years and Australia will be part of those discussions.

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