Transcript of MCG press conference with MCG members at PIFS conference

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

15 February 2014

MCG Chair, The Hon Murray McCully: Ladies and gentlemen, I don't think we need to make any introductions, we'll just open the floor for questions.

Cheerieann Wilson (Fiji TV): Mr McCully I note in your statement you noted the logistical challenges facing the Elections Office is the Contact Group in any way indicated some support in that regard?

Mr McCully: Yes, we've really done three things today over the last 2 days, first of all, we've recognised the very substantial progress that has been made with preparations for elections. Not just the Constitution and framework, but also the substantial electoral enrolment program and all of the work that's gone into getting the Electoral Office ready to prepare for elections. A number of countries present have already contributed particularly in the form of technical advice to that process. So we welcome the work that's been done, we've reaffirmed our commitment to ongoing support as that process moves forward but we've also noted that it's pretty challenging and demanding, you shouldn't take the logistical challenges for granted and I think that's a good, balanced approach to it.

CW/Fiji TV: Noting that we only have about seven months to elections, was there any indication from our Government as to a timeline on the appointment of a Supervisor?

Mr McCully: Look, it's not for me to announce dates, but what I can say in relation to the election rules and the appointment of the Elections Supervisor, we were given very strong assurances by the Attorney General that those matters would be dealt with imminently. So, we were satisfied with his response.

Dominique Schwartz (ABC): The Labour Party Leader Mahendra Chaudhry said that he is concerned there are still not conditions conducive to free and fair elections. Did he convey that to you and what are your comments on that?

Mr McCully: He said that and so did some other groups that we spoke to and that's something we've heard on previous visits as well. What we've done in our report is welcomed the progress that is being made so far, in terms of creating the space for elections, things like freedom for the media, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, but more intention for those areas to be enhanced going forward if we're going to see elections that are going to meet the free and test as assessed by the international community. So yes, there's been since our last visit, an improvement to that environment and those improvements need to be continued in our view.

DS/ABC: And how will you assess whether there is that environment and is there a deadline cut-off?

Mr McCully: Well, no, this is not a matter of applying the MCG guide-stick to things, it's a matter of us coming on an occasional basis and talking to the players and trying to give an honest assessment of where things are at and what this report does is give very significant credit for very significant progress. It tries to honestly look at the challenges that lie ahead and it's honest about the areas where we need to see ongoing improvement, given the need for the international community to see the election outcome as free and fair, for the result to have legitimacy.

Matilda Simmons (Business Melanesia): Has it been a worthwhile tour as far as the Contact Group is concerned?

Mr McCully: Yes, it's been some time, we were last here in April last year and my colleagues and I have greatly appreciated the very positive encounters that we've had with everyone here. I think it's important that we are able to conduct these exercises on a reasonably regular basis and this snapshot that we've taken now as we're getting so close to the September deadline makes this a very important visit and we've treated it as such.

Stanley Simpson (Business Melanesia): Ratu Inoke Kubuabola said last night that he thinks this will be the last visit of the Contact Group to Fiji. Is this your last visit?

Mr McCully: Well, we certainly hope that is the case and we've, as you've seen in the statement, looked at how we might conclude our mandate in that respect, so we'll just wait and see as we get a little bit closer to the time, but if things work out we would certainly hope that this is our last formal visit here. We may well be able to do that next stage, which is to come back after the elections, based on the observer missions that are here. That would be our preference.

Xinhua News Agency: Recently the PIDF was established, led by Fiji, so what is the comment from the PIF towards the establishment of the PIDF, and my second question is will New Zealand and Australia join the PIDF as well?

McCully: We did not discuss those matters. This is the Ministerial Contact Group, that's not within our mandate.

DS/ABC: If I could direct a question to the Australian Minister, Dominique Schwartz from the ABC. Minister Bishop, I know that in several reports, there are reports saying that you would like to normalise relations ahead of any elections, I'm just wondering if you can confirm whether that's your plan or whether...

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop: Most certainly, we want to normalise the relationship between Australia and Fiji. Whatever the outcome of the election, we want to ensure that Australia and Fiji are deeply engaged. We've offered capacity building, we've offered the ability for public servants in Fiji to come to Australia, Australian public servants to come to Fiji, to build capacity, share expertise and share our experiences. We want to enhance our trade and investment ties, and also, we want to look at normalising the defence relationship. These are matters that we think will work positively in Fiji's favour, we don't put deadlines on these matters, but we're certainly encouraged by the enthusiasm with which our change in foreign policy has been received in Fiji. And it's a matter I've shared with our family here in the Pacific Island Forum and there seems to be support from my MCG colleagues that Australia engage to support Fiji in its transition back to democracy. And that's what we're here to talk about over the last couple of days. Australia wants to play its part in supporting Fiji and its people as a strong democracy within the Pacific family.

DS/ABC: Has there been any discussion about a timeline of possibly having Fiji back as an active member of the Pacific Islands Forum?

Ms Bishop: You will see in the Communique that the Chair referred to that we are constantly in discussion with the Secretary General and others, but of course, we want to see the outcome of the election. We were pleased by the assurances from various Ministers that we met with about the progress being made,particularly, I think, as the Chair mentioned, the level of voter registration that is being established and achieved and that's certainly encouraging. It indicates that the people of Fiji are ready for an election.

Tevita Vuibau (Fiji Times): How was your meeting with the Prime Minister?

Ms Bishop: It was a very positive meeting, it was a very warm environment. It's my first visit here to Fiji as Foreign Minister of Australia and I thought it was important for Australia to lay out the steps that we want to take to normalise our relations with Fiji. That includes a focus on trade and investment and tourism, on the Seasonal Workers Program, we'd like to enhance that to include Fiji, on military and defence ties, so it was a broad-ranging discussion and it was very positive.

Journalist: Travel sanctions? Did you discuss that also?

Ms Bishop: Yes, we discussed that. I indicated that the travel sanctions have been under review since we came into government. And I also pointed out that since we came into government, there have been about 56 applications for visas and they have all been accepted bar one that was rejected on technical grounds - but we keep that under constant review. The Australian people have a very deep affection for the Fijian people. They come here as tourists in their droves - about 300,000 Australians come to Fiji every year as tourists - so we want to normalise the relations that exist between the people of our two wonderful countries. We want to normalise that at a Government-to-Government level, and also ensure that business, trade and investment can continue to engage in a very positive manner.

DS/ABC: Was there any discussion about the Ambassadors?

Ms Bishop: No, we discussed a whole range of matters, but that's not a matter that I raised, nor was it raised with me.

DS/ABC: And Commodore Bainimarama, did he make any requests of you and the federal government?

Mr McCully: No, we just talked generally about the positive steps that Australia proposes to take, we discussed the issue of travel sanctions, we discussed ways that we can more deeply engage. So it was a very positive two-way discussion.

Mika Loga (FBC): We understand from the meeting that you had with the Government delegation this morning at the Plaza, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola made it clear that Fiji is not pleading to re-join the organisation? How do you respond to that?

Mr McCully: I think you might have heard my response at the time that no pleading is involved. Our mandate as the Ministerial Contact Group is to report to leaders on the developments that have taken place towards the holding of elections here and give them any advice on the relationship that we should do so. We've made it very clear that we're not asking for Fiji to seek membership, plead for membership – there is a process by which we report to the leaders and they make a decision. It's as simple as that.

CFL News: Mr McCully, anything on the travel sanctions to New Zealand?

Mr McCully: I think it's no great secret that we do talk to our Australian neighbours from time to time and that's one of the matters that we talk about. We work pretty closely to ensure that sanctions are being relaxed in a coordinated way. Most recently we've just seen one of the members of the Fijian 7s team that wouldn't have been in New Zealand last year playing in the 7s tournament in Wellington last weekend - he's a member of the military. Interesting there were frank text messages from Ratu Inoke after Fiji beat New Zealand in the first match, but we saw two very senior figures from here come to study public sector reforms in New Zealand a couple of weeks ago, who wouldn't have been able to come in a year ago. But there's a gradual process of using these to recognise the significant progress that has been made and accordingly reflects the sort of steps that Australia has been taking as well.

Journalist: Just a question for both the Ministers, just how soon will the travel sanctions be stopped? Or any date?

Ms Bishop: As I indicated, this is a matter under review, because we want to see Fiji return to democracy as soon as possible. We're buoyed by the fact that progress has been made and that's why travel sanctions are under review, but as I pointed out, we have been providing visas for members who otherwise would not have received a visa to Australia had we not been relaxing this travel sanctions regime over a period of time. So very positive steps forward between all of our colleagues representing their countries. Collectively, we are encouraged by what we've seen and we very much hope that by September of this year Fiji would have held an election that is deemed by the international community to be free and fair. That is our wish and we're encouraged by the steps that we have heard about over our two days here.

Journalist: In your discussion with the Government and other stakeholders, have you discussed the potential scenario that the current government doesn't win the election?

Mr McCully: No.

Media enquiries