Newsline, interview with Jim Middleton. Subjects: Fiji trip, Australia's relationship with Fiji, direction of aid budget.

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

Subjects: Fiji trip, Australia's relationship with Fiji, direction of aid budget

16 February 2014

JIM MIDDLETON: Australia's new Government had foreshadowed that it would reshape its overseas aid budget and some cuts have already been announced. In a key note speech during the week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop detailed the new approach declaring the aim to be greater accountability about where the money goes to ensure assistance was more effective and efficient. Ms Bishop singled out Papua New Guinea as one country where Australian aid had failed to deliver widespread improvements in health and education.

The Minister was speaking in Canberra ahead of her trip to Fiji as a member of the Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group to assess Fiji's promise to return to democracy.

Foreign Minister welcome back to the program.

JULIE BISHOP: Good to be with you Jim.

JIM MIDDLETON: On the face of it, has the government in Suva done enough to deserve restoration of full relations with its neighbours on the face of it?

JULIE BISHOP: Jim, I took to the last election a promise to change Australia's foreign policy in relation to Fiji. I hope to be part of a very constructive discussion with the Fijian authorities to help normalise our relations as Fiji transitions back to democratic rule. The Foreign Minister has been in touch with me on many occasions, Foreign Minister Ratu Kubuabola and he has assured me that an election will be held by this September. We should support Fiji in its efforts to bring back democratic institutions and hold a free and fair election and that is what I will be aiming to achieve this weekend, discussions on how Australia can support that outcome.

JIM MIDDLETON: Is permission for Australia's High Commissioner to return to, go to Suva one of the conditions that Australia has as a bottom line for re-admission to the Pacific Islands Forum, for example.

JULIE BISHOP: I am not imposing conditions on the discussions we are having, I'm…

JIM MIDDLETON: But you would hope that is one of the results of this weekend's talks?

JULIE BISHOP: I'll be looking to have a productive wide ranging discussion with the Fijian authorities, including with the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister and others. We want to ensure that we can support Fiji return to democracy. We want to normalise relations with Fiji. We want to build the political ties, the defence ties, the economic ties again. Fiji is an important Pacific nation. I believe it's time that Australia embraced Fiji, that we work with Fiji toward normalising relations – not only with Australia and New Zealand but also with other Pacific nations.

JIM MIDDLETON: On the Fijian side, the travel bans on people who were behind the 2006 coup are a particularly sore point. Is it possible these discussions could lead to those being dropped?

JULIE BISHOP: Our travel sanctions on figures in the Fijian regime are under review. I have had very productive discussions with Foreign Minister Kubuabola about this and I expect to have discussions this weekend about that as well. They are under review. They were imposed in 2006 as a result of the military coup at that time. Over that period, exemptions have been made, visas have been granted. Arrangements have been made, particularly on compassionate grounds. So as we move towards September, I am certainly ensuring that the visa arrangements remain under review and hopefully we will be able to make some announcement about that.

JIM MIDDLETON: The Pacific Islands Forum in is early September in Palau, Frank Bainimarama has promised elections before the end of September. Is there any possibility that Fiji could be re-admitted to the forum before the elections?

JULIE BISHOP: That would be a matter for the other members. The Commonwealth is also looking very closely at Fiji's transition back to democracy and free and fair elections because Fiji was also suspended from the Commonwealth. In my discussions with members of both the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, they are looking forward to welcoming Fiji back into the family. So the timing of the election of course is a matter for the Fijian authorities and I hope to find out sometime this weekend as to when that is likely to be. Because of course Australia wants to provide support to their electoral commission and to provide assistance in ensuring that elections are held and that they are free and fair.

JIM MIDDLETON: As a former and very esteemed former colleague of yours, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard frequently made the point that a robust media freedom of speech were one of the key pillars of a democratic society and advertisement to the world for democracy. A number of foreign journalists are still banned from Fiji. The chairman of Fiji's media industry development authority, Ashwin Raj, says they should be let back in. Let's look at what he had to say.

ASHWIN RAJ, FIJI MEDIA DEVELOPMENT AUTHOIRTY: Because a lot has changed since the 2006 takeover. There is no emergency decree in place. People are free to report and in that context, I think we must revisit our position and I think goodwill is growing on both sides. There is enough conversation between government and the international community and I certainly hope that we will take that direction and open up our doors.

JIM MIDDLETON: So that's the point being made. The question I guess is will Fiji's elections be seen to be free and fair if highly experienced esteemed journalists, like the ABC's Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney and his radio New Zealand colleague, are not there to observe what is going on and get an informed view to the world of just how free and fair these elections are?

JULIE BISHOP: Australia's experience is that the presence of journalists, the presence of the press underpins freedom and democracy and I welcome the comments that you have just played because I believe that the presence of the international media will give legitimacy to the elections held in Fiji.

JIM MIDDLETON: Another subject, you have just delivered an important speech on aid and read the right act effectively, introducing the concept of mutual obligation to Australia's aid program. If countries don't do what they are committed to with Australian aid money it will be stopped or redirected, you say, governments have said that in the past, why should we believe that you will actually do what you say?

JULIE BISHOP: We are transforming our aid budget in a number of significant ways. We are ensuring that we have a reasonable, affordable and sustainable and responsible aid budget. It will be a core funding of $5 billion each and every year, increasing by inflation of the CPI. We want to ensure that our aid money is directed to where it can have the greatest impact and make the biggest difference. That will be our region, the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific. We intend to work with partner countries, organisations in the private sector to deliver effective outcomes.

What we've done in the past hasn't always worked. Sure, we have had some good results, but when so many nations in the Pacific are not going to meet any of their millennium development goals. In some instances they are going backwards on basic…

JIM MIDDLETON: PNG is a particular example and you singled out PNG in your speech. Corruption are rife, it is one of the biggest recipients of Australian aid. But wouldn't it make matters even worse for ordinary citizens of Papua New Guinea to cut back Australian aid, it would be the aid equivalent of sanctions.

JULIE BISHOP: I didn't say I was going to cut back aid. When I talked about the redirection of aid, that was a recommendation of the former government's aid effectiveness review that said that if benchmarks aren't met, you should either halt the aid or redirect it.

What I'm saying we are going to work with our partner countries to ensure that the aid budget is spent in the most effective way and delivered in the most effective way. I said effectiveness will be the watch word and people will hear me say this because we want to lift the standard of living in countries in our region. We want to alleviate poverty but we want to grow their economies so that the sovereign governments of these countries can be responsible for the standards of living in their countries.

I talked about PNG a lot, it's a country that I feel passionate about. I have great affection for the people of Papua New Guinea, but I want to ensure that the $500 million that we put into PNG every year – this is a country that is going through a real transition with enormous resource wealth coming into the country. We want to make sure that we leverage the private sector, we use our aid budget in an effective way and work with the Papua New Guinean government to build their economy so that they can support their people.

JIM MIDDLETON: Foreign Minister, you have been very generous with your time, thank you very much. We do appreciate it.

JULIE BISHOP: It's been my pleasure.

Media enquiries