PNG Ministerial Forum Media Conference

11 December 2013

Parliament House, Canberra

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

11 December 2013

JULIE BISHOP: Good afternoon. My apologies for keeping you waiting. We've had a very busy agenda and I'm delighted to be here to confirm that we have almost concluded co-hosting the 22nd Ministerial Forum with Australia and Papua New Guinea, and I'm here with my co-host, the Foreign and Immigration Minister of Papua New Guinea, Mr Rimbink Pato. This is an annual high-level Ministerial dialogue held between Australia and PNG. We had 17 Ministers from our sides discussing a wide range of issues affecting the Australia/PNG relationship.

The relationship is a foreign policy priority for the Australian Government. I've said that on a number of occasions, and we are determined to broaden and deepen and diversify what is already a strong relationship that has been based on a shared history, a shared geography, a shared interest, and a deep affection that exists between the Australian people and the people of Papua New Guinea.

We are resolved to transform this relationship into an economic and strategic partnership, and that was the flavour of the dialogue today, a number of Ministers dealing in their specific areas, based on an understanding that we are partners and that we are moving away from some of the old stereotypes of aid donor/aid recipient that has beset this relationship in the past.

We welcomed the potential in PNG's economic growth, a transformation that is underway as a result of some significant resources projects. The PNG LNG project, for one, is providing an enormous source of capital into PNG, as well as job opportunities and also opportunities for investment from Australia. We welcomed the establishment by the PNG Government of a sovereign wealth fund and we offered to continue our support in the areas of technical expertise and visits from members of our future fund to share our experience in setting up a similar fund.

Australian investment in PNG is growing, and I think it's worth noting that investment from our country into PNG is about $19 billion. That's a similar amount as our investment in China, so I think that puts it in perspective. We spoke of the need for there to be a strong law and order focus, because that also affects investment confidence and economic growth in a number of areas, including in tourism.

And we confirmed, and my colleague welcomed, the fact that by Christmas we will have deployed 50 Australian Federal Police working alongside the PNG constabulary, to work with them to enhance their capacity to deal with some of the law and order challenges. On the people to people links, we confirmed the establishment of the Australian/PNG network, which will be a platform bringing together all of the people-to-people exchanges that currently exist and then enhance it.

We will be building on the annual Emerging Leaders Dialogue that has occurred. In fact, I met with a number of the young PNG leaders in Sydney recently. But there are so many exchanges between our two countries, between schools, between our departments. There are twinning arrangements. There are scholarships. And we want to ensure that the government, the business, the community and the individual links are brought together under this new Australia/PNG network.

We also spoke about the introduction of the New Colombo Plan. My colleague and some of his Ministerial colleagues were present at our launch, yesterday, of the pilot phase of the New Colombo Plan, and we committed to working with Papua New Guinea to support their focus on the University of Port Moresby – university in Port Moresby – to ensure that, in time, PNG will be involved as a partner in our New Colombo Plan.

Minister Greg Hunt also came to the meeting to talk about the Kokoda Initiative, which is a significant tie between our two countries. In fact, when we were talking about the issue of this rite of passage for young Australians to walk the Kokoda Track, we also mentioned the tragic circumstances surrounding the PNG nationals who were killed in the recent incident on the Black Cat Track.

And we decided to sign – have you got my Guernsey there? There it is. We decided to sign a -because you guys like your sports so much, we decided to sign a PNG Guernsey with the signatures of the Ministers present at the dialogue. We will auction this off and donate the proceeds. I'm sure it will bring a lot of money. We will donate the proceeds of this to the families of those PNG nationals that were so tragically killed in that incident.

We thanked PNG for its support in helping dismantle the people smuggling trade in our region and their support for Australia's border protection policies, particularly the support in relation to Manus Island. And we thank them for their leadership and their cooperation in that regard.

Speaking of leadership, we also acknowledged PNG's regional leadership and the fact that it will be hosting the APEC summit in 2018, and Australia offered to provide support to ensure that the APEC summit will be a great success, as we know the PNG Government intends.

We also discussed Fiji and the support that PNG has been giving to Fiji, and we committed to continue to work alongside each other to embrace Fiji in its return to democracy. And we are looking forward to credible elections being held in September 2014, and acknowledged the financial assistance that PNG has now provided to Fiji, as has Australia, over the years.

We also had a discussion about our development assistance program, and we acknowledge the great work that has been done by the Australian aid program and development assistance program over many, many years. And we decided it's time to look afresh at the development assistance as Australian aid is a smaller amount of the PNG budget as their budget grows over time.

We want to ensure that the funding we provide – we are the largest donor to PNG. We want to ensure that the funding we provide is able to go to developing a sustainable economy. We want to move away from direct service delivery, like medicines and school books. That's the responsibility of the PNG Government. We want to be part of their economic growth, sustainable economic growth, and infrastructure.

We want to address the restraints that currently exist in relation to sustainable economic growth. We talked about the performance benchmarks the Australian Government intends to put in place in relation to our aid budget across the board, and also the mutual accountability that must exist for the investment, as well as the results.

So we concluded that this is a special relationship unlike any other relationship we have with any other country. Long may it endure. I certainly look forward to making my first official visit to PNG early in 2014. Minister Pato and I have met each other on many occasions in the last few months, but it has been difficult for us to be in the same place at the same time in our own countries.So I'm certainly looking forward to visiting Port Moresby in early 2014.

Minister, I thank you and your Ministers for your constructive dialogue today and the fact that we were able to reinforce our strong bilateral commitment to this very special relationship.

Thank you.

RIMBINK PATO: Thank you, Foreign Minister, for your excellent leadership. I think it's been demonstrated with the – in terms of the efficiency with which we've been able to have the meeting and close in on all of the issues. As Minister Bishop has indicated, the number of issues, bilateral matters, that we've discussed are far and wide-ranging.

And it is now very clear that there's going to be a new outlook in the Australia/Papua New Guinea relationship. Because, moving forward, with the growth of the PNG economy, in terms of PNG being one of the fastest developing economies in the world – it has got the largest population of the Pacific Islands. It has got economy growth at the rate of between eight and 10 per cent over the last decade.

All of these put new challenges, and therefore we are addressing realigning our budget focus in areas that are of great need to address the aspirations of our people in the areas of health, education, law and order, and infrastructure, which has been also the focus of the Australian Government in our developing partnership.

So, moving forward, the new look – the new focus is on a partnership which has matured, and how we can partner together to benefit mutually from the economic growth that's taking place in Papua New Guinea, and, of course, taking into account that Australia remains Papua New Guinea's oldest and best friend.

And, unfortunately, we've not been – as the Foreign Minister has said, we've not been able to meet in PNG, as we should have, or in Australia. This is my first official, I think, visit to Australia. Because I have commitments from my job, I've not been able to make it happen.

JULIE BISHOP: It's about our eighth meeting, though.

RIMBINK PATO: Yes, indeed. It's probably, you know – as the Foreign Minister says, it's probably the eighth meeting, which shows that with the mutuality of interests and the comprehensiveness of the issues that have been canvassed and discussed, and the efficiency with which we've reached the outcomes we have.

It's a very exciting time for Australia and Papua New Guinea in the year ahead, and I remain very convinced and very excited by the new prospects that a new government of Australia will bear on the bilateral relationship between Papua New Guinea and Australia, because Australia remains the closest and biggest donor, development partner. In terms of investment, Exxon Mobil has taken over in terms of it being the largest investor.

But Australia's focus in Papua New Guinea on all of those issues, on people to people issues and very emotional issues such as the Kokoda Track, are matters which – PNG has a lot of admiration for the government and the people of Australia.

And so into the future, I think, with what we have agreed upon, there are exciting times and I'm very grateful for the continuing support that the government and the people of Australia continue to give to our people and our government.

QUESTION: Minister Pato, what sort of projects would you like Australian aid money to be spent on, if not those more grassroots projects in health aid and that sort of thing? What specific projects would you like to be funded?

RIMBINK PATO: In the last min forum – Ministerial Forum in PNG – we looked at realignment of Australian aid, in the sense that it should be focused on those four key areas. And in terms of further focus, we're looking to – say, for example, in terms of education in general, less focus on the University of Papua New Guinea [indistinct] say, in terms of infrastructure, rather than looking at infrastructure in general, let's look at the Ramu to – Ramu/Madang/Lae highway, whether it's rehabilitation or re-scoping. Let's look at it as a focus for next year.

Those are the kind of things. The law court complex at Waigani is another one. Deployment of police – 50 of which, or 30 of which, have already arrived. I've had the opportunity to receive them in Port Moresby, and 20 more are going to come by the year's end. So that will total 50. And the Angau, which is a major, major infrastructure – the Angau Memorial Hospital, which – we've agreed to do it on a fifty-fifty basis.

Whether we do it on a fifty-fifty basis or we do it – we re-scope it or rearrange our funding – we need to refocus on the priority areas, because that's the way PNG is budgeting. Our budget is focused on key infrastructure development. And therefore we want to align the aid to meet the targets of the PNG Government's programs, so together we can account to each other and account to our people.

QUESTION: Mr Pato, can I ask you when the – there are more than 1000 asylum seeks at Manus Island. When you expect there to be decisions on their claims, and is it still your expectation that those who are found to be refugees will be settled in PNG?

RIMBINK PATO: Well, that's the agreement we have with the Australian Government. But it's a long [indistinct] process in the sense that the issue of refugee status determination requires a legal and policy framework. And the issue of resettlement of those who are found to be genuine refugees also must act – must also take place in the context of a policy and legislative framework both of which – because PNG is new to this, we're working on them.

So as and when they are [inaudible] we're going to apply due speed to ensure that the arrangements we have with the Australian Government will take place.

QUESTION: So Minister Pato, are we to take from that reply – or that answer that no processing has been done? And separately, can I ask, there's been some [indistinct] dispute issues on Manus Island I believe, especially when it comes to expanding the detention centre. What has been done to resolve those issues?

RIMBINK PATO: To answer the second question first, in relation to any issues on the island, we're working very closely with the Governor of Manus, the Honourable Charlie Benjamin, and the local member for [inaudible] Ronnie Knight as well.

And it seems that those – there is a [inaudible] of information that has to be relayed back to the people of Manus Island and the Manus Provincial Government. Those issues are being addressed.

And before I left for this meeting in Australia I had the opportunity to have lunch and discuss some of these issues with both of those leaders, and those issues insofar as land ownership is concerned is clearly under control because one of the issues that concerned the Manus people and the local leadership was the issue of the split in funding; whether there was something over and above in terms of funding to Manus in particular for the facility that the Federal Government of Australia and the National Government of Papua New Guinea have agreed to establish on that island.

And that clarity has been provided today by Scott Morrison, and that's the information which I'm sure the Manus people will receive with a great sense of relief and excitement.

QUESTION: Mr Pato, I was just going to ask when you talk about legislation that was required before you could start processing refugee claims, when do you expect that to be passed by parliament, roughly speaking?

RIMBINK PATO: Well, one of the major exercises we have undertaken is an amendment to our constitution. There was some issue as you will recall from previous reports in the media whether the arrangements to establish the facility was legal, or in the sense that there was some breach of some provision in the PNG constitution. That issue has been addressed. In the last sitting of the parliament an amendment was sought which paves the way for – to enable constitutionality to demonstrate there's no legal issues arising from it. And once that's passed into a law, it should take place in February next year.

We are working on the police framework on the issue of re-settlement and determination of refugee status. It should be a flow-on from that. And because of our commitment I think, I can assure you that those are minor matters in terms of policy and the regulatory framework The major hurdle was the issue about whether it was or wasn't constitutional; that was a major hindrance as we saw it, but that's been addressed, and our commitment remains intact.

QUESTION: Minister, welcome to Australia, for your first official visit. Once you get those protocols in place and the legislation in place, how long – you said you'd like a speedy process, how long do you think it will take to process those claims? And also, there are reports of overcrowding and poor sanitation, and a lack of drinking water in some areas at Manus Island. Does that concern you? Are you concerned by that?

RIMBINK PATO: Well, to deal with those aspects first, I think the reports that have come is not a true reflection of what's happening on Manus, I think the report was out of date. At the present time I think we have a pretty good facility there. Australia and Papua Guinea are United Nations very active members. We are law compliant members, we are members and parties to the United Nations Convention relating to refugees, and we will show them as we have done so already, I will say that the report is clearly out of context and out of date. The facility is good, and as to when we will make those examinations, as I said, the [inaudible] constitutional amendment, that has just taken place in our constitution because it deals with a major provision of it, dealing with fundamental rights.

There's a two month space period – time period within which there must be alternative for debate, and that will expire in February when parliament resumes, and therefore it will become law straight after that as you have seen with a due speed with which we have brought about the implementation of the agreement. I can assure you things will take place relatively smoothly and very fast.

QUESTION: Minister, what have been the tangible benefits to the Manus Island people? What has happened to the $42 million that was provided by the Australian Government?

RIMBINK PATO: Well, as I have said earlier, there was a lack of clarity and some confusion as to whether the money was going or what was being done; and that has been clarified, and with excitement I'm going to take that news back home, I've got a written brief from the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, and there is a lot of funding – there is a lot of commitment by the PNG Government.

And the Australian support for which we are grateful is ongoing, and tremendous work has been done by our officials, as well as both governments it's the lack of information that is available to the people which I always have the burden because of the responsibilities of my office, I'm not there all the time in PNG. But when I do come on land, I always provide a brief so I'm very excited that the work that has been done in terms of translating funding, and to what extent these things will be clarified and people will be really, really excited about what's happening [inaudible].

QUESTION: Could you share with us what is in that letter, like where this money is going that is split between the mainland and Manus Island for example?

RIMBINK PATO: There's a whole range of activities that are there which.. the report itself is very comprehensive, and we're going to make that available, because that will become a public document because I intend to table that in the Parliament of Papua New Guinea.

QUESTION: Given the reported hostility of many people on Manus Island towards the centre, what are the chances of the – any refugees who eventually receive refugee status being integrated into that community? I mean, can you see them being welcomed eventually?

RIMBINK PATO: Well, as I said, we are a United Nations systems compliant nation, and [indistinct] United Nations process and procedures. And we're a great friend of Australia; we will make sure that insofar as settlement is concerned, or re-settlement is concerned, that will take place within a positive framework which we are putting in place, and not [indistinct] because this is a joint effort. Australian expertise will be involved in formulating that process of all of these issues of concern to the public at large, to those seeking asylum in Australia also will end up on our regional processing facility there So we are mindful of all of the issues, so we are going to work together on them.

QUESTION: How do both of you respond to the accusations that the [indistinct] detention of these asylum seekers is in breach of international law?

JULIE BISHOP: That's not the legal advice that we have received. I will leave the minister to answer, but that's not the legal advice we have.

RIMBINK PATO: I will confirm that. We haven't done anything which is illegal or in terms of breach of breach of any international law, domestic legislation. As I said there was a potential for some argument that such a facility could run contrary to certain provisions of the PNG constitution which we have addressed to eliminate the potential altogether so that this facility can work and people's rights can be respected. Because what we are really concerned with, the bottom line issue is the lives of people are being lost by – at sea by people who are engaged in human trafficking and people smuggling and transnational crime.

So that's the issue we are addressing. And these people who are there on Manus Island are not there because they want to be in Australia; they want to be in Papua New Guinea. They're there because other people are profit from the vulnerability of these human beings. And therefore we will ensure that all systems; all conventions applicable under the UN systems or under Australian law, under PNG law will be complied with. And that's the progress report I have given you.

QUESTION: Minister Pato, have you sought assurances from Australia that we haven't been spying on Papua New Guinea, similar to the relations we have seen from the Edward Snowden intelligence papers that have been leaked out?

RIMBINK PATO: Well, Australian and Papua New Guinea are very strong and constructive bilateral relationship, and as I said to the media when I was asked the very same question some time ago, I have said that Australia would not do anything that which will harm PNG's interest, because PNG's security interest are intertwined with the security interests of Australia. And I said that I would not be responding to some allegation in the media that certain things have happened. We must face the evidence in respect of which I can deal with in specific terms.

But moving away from that's a matter which we have addressed in our forum today, and that's an issue that we need to work together. Not that there is an issue, as far as I can see it's a non-issue. It's an allegation. We reject the allegation. To ensure that this kind of issue does not arise in the future because of a way forward nature of our relationship and the outlook that we are going to bring about, we're going to deal with these issues together.

QUESTION: Mr Patu, Prime Minister O'Neill said last month that he wanted you to raise the spying allegations and come to a firm agreement with Australia. Was there an agreement?

JULIE BISHOP: Perhaps I had better answer at this point. The matter was raised. The matter was discussed. Not only between Minister Pato and me earlier, but also in the forum. And as the members of the press gallery well know, Australian governments past, present and I suggest future do not discuss intelligence and security matters in that kind of detail.

What we did reassure our friends from Papua New Guinea is precisely what Minister Pato said, and that is we would not – this Australian Government – we would not use our resources, this includes our intelligence resources that would in any way harm PNG. And that was the assurance we gave; it was accepted, and we move on.

QUESTION: Are Australia's lucrative rice exports to Papua New Guinea coming to an end?

JULIE BISHOP: This was also a matter we discussed, and I am writing to Foreign Minister Pato so that we can seek clarification. There was some media reports that I understand were not correct ,from the Minister Planning indicated that those media reports were not correct. But just to ensure absolute clarity, we have undertaken to write to Foreign Minister Pato, and he has undertaken to respond to us.

QUESTION: What are the new accountability measures attached to Australia's half-a-billion dollar aid program to the PNG?

JULIE BISHOP: These are in fact accountability measures that will attach to our overall aid budget. Our aid budget will continue to be $5 billion and growing each year. What we intend to do is attach accountability measures to our aid budget more generally, and we will deal with the specific measures on a case-by-case basis and we will be sitting down with officials from PNG to discuss a whole range of aid issues.

We have said, and it was part of our election promise in 2010 and again in 2013, that we would put in place performance benchmarks for our aid budget as recommended by the independent review into aid effectiveness.

This was not done by the previous government. It was a recommendation, that was not completed by the former Labor governments, and we undertook to the Australian people that we would put performance benchmarks in place, and we will.

But we also need a buy-in from the recipient countries. We want to see a mutual accountability in terms of the investment and the results from our aid program. And that's what we will be discussing with PNG in the first part of 2014 in relation to the 14/15 aid budget.

QUESTION: Sorry, just to clarify, there will be a separate framework for PNG but you do, your making changes across the board?

JULIE BISHOP: The changes will be across the board, and performance benchmarks, mutual accountability principles that will apply across the board.

QUESTION: Minister Pato, a couple of months ago PNG signed an agreement with Israel, including on matters of defence and intelligence sharing. Have you made an agreement with Australia that you won't be spying either and is this a move to become less reliant on Australia in the future?

RIMBINK PATO: No. Well, PNG, because of where we are and what we are doing, and the economic growth that is taking place, so many countries are courting our country. And therefore, this is a consequence of one of those opportunities that exist for Papua New Guinea. But I've said earlier that look, Australia's relationship with Papua New Guinea is – and the bond that they have enjoyed together is long-lasting.

It needs to be continued and fostered under the new agreement that the Minister [inaudible] has just signed. So that doesn't mean that we're going to move away from Australia. Australia is going to be far more engaged, and we're looking to reinforce that relationship. And we're looking forward to it. Obviously we want to engage where it is necessary with other countries of the world, but that is not going to impact in any way the core values and the strategic alliance that Papua New Guinea has with the government and the people of Australia.

QUESTION: Minister Pato, are you confident that the Australian Government's realignment of its aid priorities, and the relation there with PNG, are you confident that the vulnerable people in PNG won't – perhaps miss out on key aid priorities such as health or schooling in areas where Australia has traditionally distributed aid?

RIMBINK PATO: Well, what we're trying to do is to make aid programs and delivery and outcomes more tangible, but under the ministerial foreign [inaudible] communique that we have signed, there's a team which will work on all of these issues going forwards. So it's not as if work has just finished now and there's a document which is going to be filed. So it's an ongoing exercise.

And the relationship has matured, and the areas of concern to both of us – both countries – is such that we will work through them to ensure that there is accountability – proper accountability – mechanisms in place as delivery problems arise, vulnerability issues are addressed, there's transparency and accountability in relation to the delivery of medical supplies to the rural communities, delivery of books, classrooms in the rural areas of Papua New Guinea.

But we want to ensure realignment in terms of focus, but, look, it's an ongoing relationship. Technical people are working at it, and my counterpart is going to visit Papua New Guinea early in the year; that's a commitment that she has made, and I have assured her that I will remain on the ground to receive her. It has really been my fault that I have not been there to receive her, but this time around, after the new communique and the new commitments that we have made, I will remain on the ground to receive her, and I hope that lots of good things will come from it if there is any further clarity that is required.

JULIE BISHOP: I think this is a recognition of the growing accountability of the PNG Government for the welfare of its own people, and also the maturity of the relationship between Australia and PNG. The PNG Government wants to take primary responsibility for the care of its citizens, as any sovereign government would wish to.

Australia wishes to continue the support that we have provided over the years to ensure that the people of PNG can lead prosperous stable lives, and it's a question of aligning the aid budget to meet those objectives, but we have to take into account the growing economy, the opportunities that are being presented to the PNG Government, the leadership role that PNG is taking regionally, and not just in the Pacific, but also its engagement in Southeast Asia.

And that changing nature of our relationship as it matures, as their economy grows, should be reflected in the way we deliver aid. One would expect that, and I'm delighted that this arrangement has been welcomed by PNG. It has been – the priorities of the new PNG Government under Prime Minister O'Neill it certainly fits with the new Australian Government's approach to overseas development assistance.

And the fact that we're talking about each other as economic and strategic partners underscores the strength of our vision for the Australian-PNG relationship into the future. Now, we must go. We've got ministers waiting for us, so thank you very much for your time.

QUESTION: Sorry, Minister, just one question: in Indonesia, there's reports the country's agricultural minister is threatening a boycott of Australian beef exports. Have you sought clarification about whether or not this is going to happen, that they will stop Australia mine exports?

JULIE BISHOP: That was a question to me?

QUESTION: Yes, correct. Sorry, yes.

JULIE BISHOP: The discussion I had with Prime Minister Natalegawa on Thursday confirmed that there were only three areas where there was a temporary suspension of engagement, and the areas that would continue as normal included trade, education – a whole range of other areas was specifically excluded from the three areas discussed – and not only from the Foreign Minister, but a message from the President of Indonesia.

Thank you.

Media enquiries