Doorstop interview, Suva

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia's relationship with Fiji; Pacific labour visas; Chinese influence in Pacific.
27 May 2022

Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you very much for coming. Well, I was sworn in on Monday of this week and obviously the Prime Minister and I attended the Quad meeting in Tokyo. We left immediately after the swearing in. I got back to Australia, and I came straight to Fiji, and I wanted to come here because it was important to underline and emphasise the importance of our Vuvale Partnership, the importance of the Pacific family and to underscore that for the new government our relationship with this region and your relationship with us matters.

It is a new government in Australia and our message to the Pacific is clear – we're listening, and we've heard you. And one of the areas in which the new government is determined to make a difference is on climate. I'm very pleased that so many Australians voted for stronger action on climate, and I recognise that that has been something Fiji and other Pacific Island nations have been saying for many years. I remember when I was Minister for Climate Change between 2007 and 2010 that the voices of the Pacific were so strong and so authentic and spoke with so much power because for you climate change isn't abstract, it's not a political argument – it's real.

So, we have put on the table as the new government a much stronger policy on climate change, not only the net zero emissions by 2050 but a strong 2030 target of 43 per cent reduction, which will lead to the majority of Australia's energy in its electricity grid being renewables – around 82 per cent renewables by the end of this decade, so that's a good thing.

We've also put a range of other policies on the table, for the Pacific, which are about recognising that we want to build stronger relationships, stronger links. So, reforms to the Pacific Labour Mobility schemes, additional infrastructure funding as well as additional ODA. So, these are all part of our suite of policies which we can talk through in detail with governments of the region in terms of implementing them. But what is at the heart of this is a strong desire to play our part in the Pacific family and to build stronger relationships.

So, I'm happy to take questions now on the issues that people want me to address.

Journalist: My question is with regards to a difference maybe in the foreign policy of Australia with regards to how you work with specifically the Government of Fiji. Can you tell us about some of the changes, if any, to the way your administration is going to work with the Fijian Government and some of the focus areas that are going to be relying on, but also more importantly, what was the result of your bilaterals with the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General today?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, I don't want to say in terms of the program, first, can I talk about that, I actually haven't met Prime Minister yet. I think I'm doing that later today. I've met with the Attorney-General. Obviously, I've met with Secretary-General Puna, and I met with some Pacific workers this morning – I think it was this morning, everything's blurring into one - and talked to them about the opportunities that they have under the current scheme but also how we might build on them.

So, you talk about what are the differences. Look, a lot of – a lot of the ballast in the relationship is bipartisan and a lot of the – you know, I came to the Pacific a number of times with Julie Bishop when she was in government – when they were in government. And one of the reasons I said to her we should do this together is because I do believe in bipartisanship wherever you can and that we could say together as the Minister and the Shadow Minister regardless of who's in government, our relationship, Australia's relationship, with your nation matters.

But there are some differences, and the two ones that I would go to are climate and also the Pacific scheme. So, we obviously want to do more with the Pacific Labour schemes. We want people to be able to bring their families with the longer-term visa. We have a Pacific engagement visa which would allow permanent residency that we want to put in place.

And, of course, on climate. Regrettably the previous government for nine years, we have a lost decade on climate action. We're determined to make up for it. Anyone else?

Journalist: You mentioned this morning that those will be longer contracts – seasonal workers - on more than six months will be able to take their family over. I'm just –

Foreign Minister: So, it's for the longer-term visa, which I think is up to four years. And look, this comes out of actually our engagement with workers on the current program, that people were saying there were a lot of benefits for them, but it was pretty hard to leave their family for that long. So as part of our announcement we said we would allow people on the longer visa to bring their families. We've obviously got to work through the details of that, including with the providers and with your government. But we will do that. We think it's a good idea, so…

Journalist: Madam, you speak of Pacific solidarity and the need for all Pacific nations to come together.

Foreign Minister: Yes.

Journalist: And at this point in Micronesians are not really that happy after the appointment of Mr Puna, although he is very capable. Australia did vote for Mr Puna. How are you proposing or thinking about solidifying the Pacific?

Foreign Minister: Well, ultimately the unity of the Pacific Islands Forum is in the hands of Pacific Islands Forum members. And to find a way through to that unity would I think benefit the forum and all of its members. I think it would benefit the region, particularly at a time when there are a lot of challenges – covid, climate, obviously the strategic circumstances in which we live in this world. So, I would encourage forum members to work together to find a path to unity. Certainly, it's not for me to tell people what to do; it's a decision for the Pacific Islands Forum members. But we would encourage a path to unity. And Secretary-General Puna and I spoke about that.

Journalist: Madam, the timing of your trip to Fiji coincides with the trip of the Chinese Foreign Minister. Was it a planned trip?

Foreign Minister: No.

Journalist: You could have waited a week or two, or was it –

Foreign Minister: No, I was very keen to come to the Pacific as soon as I became Foreign Minister, and this is my first bilateral visit. I was a few days late because I had to go to Tokyo. You'll forgive that, I'm sure.

Journalist: So, this was always in the plan and not reactive to the announcement that the Chinese were coming?

Foreign Minister: No, I mean we've been – look, I don't know how much you watch Australian elections. You probably don't – it's not that interesting, is it? But we did a lot of work on Pacific policy, and we thought when we did it, we'd have an announcement that would probably get picked up and in the Pacific precinct. But it became quite a big part of our foreign policy during the election. We understand how important this is. And we understand that Australia has more to do, and we wanted to put out there the things that we wanted to do.

And one of the things I wanted to do is have a Pacific trip as my first trip, and Fiji is a very important partner. You know, we have a Vuvale Partnership and the chair of the PIF. So, we thought it was appropriate.

Journalist: Madam, there's been some criticism of previous Australian administrations – the accusation is they've relaxed some of their stands on democracy, on human rights in order to keep Chinese influence away from Fiji in particular. Is this – what is your reaction to this? What is your stance?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'm not sure what you're referring to. I'd just say as a general principle obviously we have values. They define who we are. There are universal principles that Australia will always assert. We also recognise it's not for us to tell every country how to behave. We recognise that we're not perfect. So our view is you try to adhere to universal principles, and you also try and work respectfully with other nations.

Journalist: Is the new Australian Government concerned about China's growing influence in the Pacific? They've been helping us economically and through developments, but they've now slowly shifted to security.

Foreign Minister: Yes, look, it's for Pacific nations to make their own decisions about who they want to partner with and in which areas. And we respect that. We want to be a partner of choice. We want to demonstrate to your nation and other nations of the region that we are a partner who can be trusted, who can be reliable. And historically we have been. I think you've seen a lot of Australian development assistance. We want to work with you on your priorities. We want to work together as part of the Pacific family.

Obviously, we've expressed our concerns publicly about the security agreement between Solomon Islands and China. And the reason we have is we think there are – as do other Pacific nations - we think there are consequences. We think that it is important that the security of the region be determined by the region and historically that has been the case, and we think that's a good thing.

Journalist: You mentioned last night that the region is faced with a triple threat – you mentioned Covid, climate and the strategic context. Will you be able to clarify – give specific examples –

Foreign Minister: I think we all know that the world has changed, that there's a lot more strategic competition. There's a lot more disruption of international norms. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a demonstration of that. And we all have to find our way through that, and we hope to find our way through that with you.

Journalist: Madam (inaudible) 3,000 Pacific Islanders to be granted permanent residency.

Foreign Minister: Yeah, the Pacific Engagement visa.

Journalist: So how will they be chosen and when will this start?

Foreign Minister: Yes, so that is one of the policies we announced during the election campaign. It's modelled, actually, on the New Zealand visa, which I think you'd all be familiar with. We've got to work through with our department and your governments how that will work, how to make sure we maximise the positive benefit and manage any of the downsides. So, we'll do that, and I'll make those announcements in due course.

Journalist: Madam, can you talk to us about some of your agricultural exports, market access for some Fijian agricultural exports which our government has been asking for for a couple of years? Where is that in your list of priorities?

Foreign Minister: Well, I can tell you that I think the kava export issue has been resolved, I understand. So that's a good thing. Because when I was last engaging with your government in opposition that was an issue which was raised with me, so I pleased that's the case. But look –

Journalist: Fiji will be having its own elections. Will the –

Foreign Minister: Sometime before – what is it – the 9th of January?

Journalist: I'm just wondering if the Australian Government will support initiatives that it has announced. Will they remain intact even if the Government – the Fijian Government – changes?

Foreign Minister: The Government of Fiji is a matter for the people of Fiji. We obviously are – I'll be very pleased to meet with the Prime Minister later. He's obviously been a great friend of Australia's. But ultimately, we deal with your nation. Anyone else?

Journalist: Have you had discussions around assistance towards Fiji's (inaudible) elections?

Foreign Minister: No, we haven't. We haven't been – that hasn't been sought as far as I'm aware. But obviously – you know, we're always happy to assist if people wish us to.

Journalist: Australian academics have said –

Foreign Minister: Which ones? This is always interesting when people start a question with, "Academics have said".

Journalist: Yeah, they've asked the new government to stop the colonist attitude when dealing with the Pacific nations.

Foreign Minister: Well, I can tell you, I was born in Malaysia, and my grandmother was a servant of the British. So, I have a very, very personal understanding of what you're talking about. And I hope I will not speak to you in that way.

Journalist: Thank you, madam.

Foreign Minister: Thank you.

ENDS.

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