Pull asides - Interview with AFP, Fiji Times, ABC, Fiji live. Subjects: Meeting with Prime Minister Bainimarama, Ministerial Contact Group Communique, relationship with Fiji, relationship with Indonesia, asylum seeker policy.
Transcript, E&OE, proof only
Meeting with Prime Minister Bainimarama, Ministerial Contact Group Communique, relationship with Fiji, relationship with Indonesia, asylum seeker policy
17 February 2014
Associated French Press
KASIM NAZEEM: [Following your discussions with PM Bainimarama], do you plan to fully restore your High Commissioner to Fiji?
JULIE BISHOP: We had a discussion yesterday. We talked about the steps that Australia will take to fully normalise relations. But I'm not making that conditional upon the return of our High Commissioner. This is a matter that we'll work through in discussion with the Fijian authorities.
KASIM NAZEEM: What can be expected from your meetings with Bainimarama and the Attorney General?
JULIE BISHOP: I believe that we will see more Australian engagement in Fiji. We have offered to send our public servants over here in areas such as the Treasury, Finance, Foreign Affairs – that was well received. Likewise, we've invited representatives of the Fijian public service to Australia in various areas and that seemed to be well received. So the steps will hopefully transform into reality over the weeks ahead.
TEVITA VUIBAU: Minister, we noticed in the outcomes statement of the MCG that you've emphasised the need for the elections to be open to international observers. During your discussions with the Fiji Government, have they showed any signs that they would be willing to let international observers [in]?
JULIE BISHOP: Yes, we had a positive discussion with the Attorney-General yesterday, who indicated that he understood our desire that the international media as well as local media be free to report, because it's in Fiji's interest that the international community judge the elections as free and fair. This is not something that Australia is suggesting in our interest, this is in Fiji's interest, so that the legitimacy of the result is not in doubt. We believe that the media should be free to report.
TEVITA VUIBAU: Ma'am as you already know, these elections will be the first single-day elections in the history of Fiji.
JULIE BISHOP: Yes.
TEVITA VUIBAU: How confident is the MCG in the ability of Fiji to produce these fair and free elections in that short space of time?
JULIE BISHOP: We understand that the Government wishes to hold the elections on a single day and that that hasn't occurred before; therefore, there are a number of challenges. But I believe that the Government recognises those challenges. The Electoral Commission will need to be well resourced; the Election Office will need to be well resourced. There are a lot of matters including voter registration and voter education. But that's my point about the number of people who have already registered. That to me indicates a wide degree of support for the holding of an election, and therefore voters are likely to be keen to vote. So the fact that it's being held on one day presents challenges, but it's certainly achievable.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: Minister, the Indonesian Foreign Minister said that he's going to raise Australia's policy of turning back the boats and the lifeboat policy with the US Secretary of State next week. What's your response to that?
JULIE BISHOP: Of course, it's a matter for Indonesia to determine the issues that it raises with the United States. I'm very pleased that two friends of Australia – Indonesia and the United States – will be meeting, and I certainly welcome the fact that Secretary of State Kerry will be in Indonesia, and they are two friends of Australia. I'm sure they'll have very broad-ranging and productive discussions.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: Are you worried, though, that this is being raised because the Indonesian Foreign Minister is not happy with it?
JULIE BISHOP: We have constant discussions with Indonesia and you might recall last year, Foreign Minister Natalegawa and I agreed on a hotline between our two governments – that issues of concern be raised through an agreed channel. And that's what's been happening ever since December. When issues of concern arise, we discuss them between our Ambassador in Indonesia Greg Moriarty and Yuri the Senior Policy Advisor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So we have constant discussions about these matters. And of course, Indonesia raises its concerns, just as we raise our concerns with Indonesia about the number of Indonesian boats with Indonesian crews that were leaving Indonesian shores and bringing people who paid people smugglers to try to get to Australia. So we share our concerns.
And it is an issue that affects both our countries and other countries as well. And if Indonesia wants to raise this as a regional issue with the United States, well then that's of course a matter for Indonesia. But we have open and strong lines of communication between Australia and Indonesia to resolve difficulties, address challenges, but overall ensure that our relationship will continue to be strong and will continue to grow.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: Are you concerned that the relationship though is deteriorating over the asylum seeker issue?
JULIE BISHOP: It is a challenge that we both face. But the deterioration in any relationship surely occurred when there were 50,000 people making their way through Indonesia, over 1,000 deaths at sea as a result of the people-smuggling trade within Indonesia. I know that troubles the Indonesian Government. It troubled the Coalition. And it troubles us in Government. That's why we're doing all we can to stop people getting on boats, stop them putting their lives at risk, stop the deaths at sea, and return to a situation where Australian borders are secure, and we can have a welcoming humanitarian and refugee process. We welcome immigration to Australia, but it has to be done in an orderly fashion, where people aren't putting their lives at risk.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ: You've spent two days in Fiji now. After your meetings and after having a look around, what will you be taking back to Australia?
JULIE BISHOP: A very positive view of the steps that have been taken by Fiji since 2006 and beyond. I'm hopeful that an election will be held this year. Indeed, I'm sure that an election will be held this year as the Fijian authorities said it would. They had a roadmap in place and they're certainly proceeding along that path.
There are challenges, and I'm sure that Australia will want to do more to assist Fiji in holding a free and fair election. We've made the offer to provide support through expertise, through financial support, through volunteers and we stand ready to assist. It is a beautiful country and there's a very deep affection between Australian people and the Fijian people, and we want to ensure that Fiji and Australia remain the firmest of friends. It should be a relationship that endures for all time.
PECELI ROKOTUIVUNA: Well, this is your first visit as the Foreign Minister, now what is your overall view of the meetings and of course your stay?
JULIE BISHOP: I came here to take part in the Ministerial Contact Group and the group has been very pleased with the significant improvements that we have seen and the progress towards a free and fair election to be held later this year.
From Australia's perspective, I came here also to meet with Prime Minister Bainimarama, to talk about ways that Fiji and Australia can normalise our relationship. And some very positive steps were discussed. We want to engage more deeply across a whole range of areas including trade and investment areas, military and defence and the people-to-people links, through a seasonal workers program, through student exchanges and the like.
So it was a very positive meeting, very constructive and I look forward to the relationship between Australia and Fiji deepening and strengthening over the weeks, months and years ahead.
PECELI ROKOTUIVUNA: Were sanctions discussed?
JULIE BISHOP: Yes, we discussed the issue of travel sanctions and as I indicated to the Prime Minister, since we came to Government we have made considerable exemptions. In fact, I think we've granted 56 visas. All visas that have been applied for have been granted, except in one instance – it was a technicality. So we want to see deeper engagement between the Australian people and the Fijian people, and our travel sanctions are always under review.
PECELI ROKOTUIVUNA: What about as we head towards elections? What type of support can we expect?
JULIE BISHOP: Australia has already provided training and expert advice to the Electoral Commissioners and we have offered to continue to support not only the Electoral Commission but also the Election Office in whatever assistance it might require. So we'll wait for the Supervisor to be appointed, I understand that appointment is imminent, and then we stand ready to work with Fiji to support them.
Australia would offer election observers, we could offer technical assistance, and we want to do what we can to help Fiji hold free and fair elections that reflect the will of the people of Fiji. We're delighted that so many people in Fiji have registered to vote. I think that's a very positive sign that the people are ready for an election and looking forward to it.
PECELI ROKOTUIVUNA: And about the further comments with regards to the Forum as discussed, as decided? Any further comments you'd like to make?
JULIE BISHOP: I believe that the CommuniquÃ© sets out very well the extent of our discussion. We not only met with members of the government, but we also met with members of the opposition parties and also the non-government organisations. So we've had very broad-ranging discussions. But I think [it gives] us a very good idea of what progress has been made, what still needs to be done, what challenges lie ahead, so that we can report back to our respective leaders and the Pacific Island Forum as to the likely success of these elections. We're encouraged by the progress we've seen to date, we recognise there's still more to do.
PECELI ROKOTUIVUNA: We believe you also heard from the trade unionists here in Fiji.
JULIE BISHOP: Yes.
PECELI ROKOTUIVUNA: There were submissions from other political parties as you had stated. What are your comments?
JULIE BISHOP: We note the concerns that have been raised by the trade unions and other organisations. That's why we've encouraged Fiji to ensure that it adopts laws and practices that encourage freedom of speech, freedom of the media, freedom of association, freedom of assembly. These are the fundamental values of a democracy. And we feel sure that Fiji would want to embrace these freedoms as underpinning the return to democratic rule in this country.
MIKA LOGA: How do you see Bainimarama stepping down as Commander and contesting the elections?
JULIE BISHOP: He did inform me that he would be stepping down as the military leader in order to contest the elections and that a new military leader would be appointed. I believe that's appropriate and I'm sure that he'll do that in the timeframe that he's indicated. But we stand ready to support Fiji – the people of Fiji – in having this election and giving them an opportunity to have their say.
MIKA LOGA: You said before coming here that you were looking forward to having talks with Bainimarama. Now you've actually held talks with him. Are you satisfied that you were able to communicate what you were bringing along to him?
JULIE BISHOP: I feel sure that I was able to present the Australian Government's view that we wanted to normalise relations, we're very keen to engage, that we support the steps towards democratic rule – that's fundamental and that we want to be there as a partner of choice in trade, in investment, in overseas development assistance, in educational exchanges, in private, in public sector exchanges.
So I hope I was able to convey my enthusiasm for a deeper engagement between Australia and Fiji with Prime Minister Bainimarama. He was very engaged, he was very fulsome in the discussions that we had and I hope that it was a productive meeting for him as well.
MIKA LOGA: Do you see a different man in him when you were talking to him face-to-face?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, it's always good to meet people face to face, and I hope he felt the same way.
MIKA LOGA: Fiji's stepping up in its efforts towards its 'Look North' policy. Does that worry Australia?
JULIE BISHOP: Not at all. Australia, likewise, is always seeking to develop new friendships, new networks, new alliances, new partnerships around the world. And we would expect a strong regional power like Fiji to develop relationships with other countries.
But of course, Australia and New Zealand have longstanding relations with Fiji. We have very strong historic ties, military ties, trade and investment ties. Hundreds of thousands of Australians come to Fiji every year as their choice of a tourism destination. So while all countries should be seeking to forge new relationships in the interests of peace and greater prosperity, at the end of the day your friends and your family are what count. And Fiji, and Australia and New Zealand, should consider themselves as family.
MIKA LOGA: So Australia is fully behind Fiji's efforts in the international level?
JULIE BISHOP: Yes, we understand why Fiji would want to develop relationships elsewhere. That's what Australia does. Your contacts are not static. You don't maintain the status quo. We're always looking for new markets, for example, for our exports. We're always looking to develop free trade agreements with other countries. But at the end of the day, we remember who our friends and our family are.
VUNIWAQA BOLA-BARI: Just your meeting with the PM and the AG what were some of the concerns that they raised?
JULIE BISHOP: I've already been through this in the press conference. We had a wide-ranging discussion about deeper engagement between Australia and Fiji as we seek to normalise relations ahead of the elections that will be held this year.
We discussed many positive aspects of the relationship, including increasing business and trade and investment ties, and military and defence engagement, student exchange and exchanges between representatives of our public sector. So it was a very positive discussion. Likewise, with the Attorney-General, we had a positive discussion about how we can engage more deeply in the months ahead leading up to the election and beyond.
VUNIWAQA BOLA-BARI: He was raising something on the double taxation agreement before you arrived. He said he wanted to raise that issue with you.
JULIE BISHOP: Yes, the Attorney-General raised the double taxation agreement, and I said that we would look at any concerns he had but he didn't tell me what they were, so I invited him to send us a letter outlining whatever concerns he had. As far as I can see, the double taxation agreement works well for Fiji, but if there are any problems, we're certainly happy to look at them. And so I'll wait to hear from him as to any issues.
VUNIWAQA BOLA-BARI: In conclusion, what do you think of the meetings with the government, NGOs and the political parties?
JULIE BISHOP: They've been very positive. The meetings with the government gave us an indication of the steps that have been taken towards holding an election. Concerns were raised by the opposition parties as to what more needs to be done. Concerns were also raised by the NGOs and the unions. And that's what we've set out in the Ministerial Contact Group CommuniquÃ© the details of areas where we believe more needs to be done, particularly in terms of freedom of association and assembly, freedom of speech and giving political parties the freedom to campaign and engage fully in the electoral process.