Doorstop interview, Suva, Fiji

  • Joint transcript release with:
  • Anthony Albanese MP, Prime Minister
Subjects: Pacific Island Forum; visit to Fiji; bilaterals with Pacific Island leaders; relationship with the Pacific region; climate change; China; Vice President of the United States announcement; migration; Pacific Island workers in Australia.

Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister: Well, thanks very much. It's great to be here in Suva, and it is fantastic to be participating in the Pacific Islands Forum. We have a very senior delegation here, myself with the Foreign Minister and with Minister Pat Conroy. And I look forward to listening over the next two days to the concerns that Pacific Island leaders have. I will have a number of bilaterals today, first of all with the Prime Minister of Samoa, then with the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, then with Prime Minister Sogavare, and then with Prime Minister Marama, our host at this conference, as well as then going to a dinner, hosted by the PIF Secretary General. We have some real challenges in this region. There is no challenge more important than climate change. And the new Australian Government, of course, has adopted our nationally determined contribution of 43 per cent by 2030. But we also have engagement with the region, including increased funding and support for climate change infrastructure being a part of fisheries here in the region as well.

There is considerable increase in development assistance. We want to have more cooperation engagement between parliamentarians in the region and the Australian Parliament, to build those people-to-people relations. We also want, of course, to expand the engagement with Pacific labour in our own country, whether that be permanent migration, a specific program for the first time, aimed at the Pacific, or whether it be temporary labour, this can be an important way in which we not only have people-to-people relations but we benefit both the economies of Australia and the countries of origin of people either visiting or permanently migrating to Australia. We live in a period whereby we have strategic competition in this region. That's part of the backdrop of this conference. Australia looks forward to engaging in a positive and constructive way. We respect the sovereignty of nations in the Pacific. We want to engage with them in a respectful way going forward. Our support for this region does not come with strings attached. It comes because we understand that we have a responsibility as an advanced economy in the region to provide support to our Pacific neighbours. That is in Australia's interests, very much so, for that to occur. I would ask Penny to comment and then we will take questions.

Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, I won't take up too much time before you get to questions. It's been a really valuable couple of days representing Australia at this forum. We are proud members of the Pacific Island Forum. We deeply value our seat at the table. The forum is the heart of Pacific regionalism and the heart of the Pacific family. And the Australian Government takes our role and our responsibility seriously. We value the opportunity to listen to and have dialogue with Pacific leaders. I'm going to be leaving later today. The Prime Minister leads the delegation now that he's here. I wanted to express my thanks to Fiji and to the Prime Minister for his leadership in the region.

Journalist: Will there be assurance that there won’t be a permanent military presence and will you make a statement?

Prime Minister: I will have a respectful discussion with the Prime Minister respectfully. We've had discussion by phone. We know that our Foreign Minister, Minister Wong has had discussions on a personal basis. Our view about those issues, we've made very clear. We'd be concerned about any permanent presence there in the Solomons. So close, of course, to Australia. And we don't think that is in the interests of the region. But we will have very much a respectful discussion. We respect the sovereignty of nations in the Pacific. And I will be listening as well to what the Prime Minister has to say.

Journalist: On Vice President Harris’ announcement this morning about increased US diplomatic presence, can I get your reaction to that? And one of the things she said in her address to the conference was that America hadn't paid enough attention to the Pacific in recent years. Is that a critique that could be made of Australia?

Prime Minister: It is a critique I believe that you may have heard myself and the Foreign Minister make. That's as well as President Biden. We quite clearly said that we had a Pacific step-up. I described what occurred this year as a Pacific stuff-up. We had not paid enough attention. I know that the Biden administration said that as well. I welcome the increased engagement of the United States in the region. It is a significant support package that they've announced, increased diplomatic presence, increased support in the form of aid, increased support in the form of infrastructure development here. And it's consistent with the decisions that we made at the Quad Leaders' Summit in Tokyo a short time ago. When we met in Tokyo, the leaders of the United States, Australia, Japan and India launched an economic presence in the region. And that is important. The United States an important partner of the region. Australia welcomes their renewed commitment.

Journalist: America's step-up in the Pacific, a consequence of Scott Morrison and Donald Trump's failure?

Prime Minister: Look, I'm not a commentator. I will leave that up to commentators to remark. We welcome the Biden administration's increased presence in the region, just as the new Australian Government have made considerable effort. The Foreign Minister has been throughout this region, I think three or four times, can't remember. A lot. That's throughout this region, on a personal basis. Personal relations between leaders are important. The Pacific Way, as it's called, is one in which you sit and you listen and engage on the personal level. That is very important. That is why my presence here as the Prime Minister, I made comments during the election campaign that I was quite frankly stunned, that despite briefings and foreshadowing of events in the region, all we saw was the former Senator Zed Seselja make a visit far too late. We did haven't that presence at the prime ministerial or ministerial level. I think that was an error of judgement on Australia's judgement at the time. We're about looking forward and developing the positive relationships. And I've had a number of discussions with Pacific leaders. I look forward to developing those relationships on a personal basis going forward.

Journalist: What message does it send to China about the recent US commitment made by Kamala Harris this morning, considering that the US is Australia's closest allies?

Prime Minister: Well, the message is clear, that the United States has a presence in the Pacific and has for a long period of time. They go into the Pacific in terms of their coastline and the state of Hawaii. And the presence of the US in the region is important. And we welcome the US engagement.

Journalist: Prime Minister, Minister Conroy says Australia is open to partnering with China on infrastructure projects in the Pacific. What is your view on that?

Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, let’s talk about what we want to do and the first it point I would make is that we as a general principle, we have said we're open to collaboration with all partners, provided they meet certain principles, and you would know them, transparency, the projects reflect the Pacific priorities, equality and you heard me use the from phrase ‘no strings attached’. That's the approach Australia takes. Obviously, we have collaborated through multilateral forums, health measures, but there is nothing in contemplation on the infrastructure front at this time.

Journalist: Prime Minister, is there any pressure for Australia to rejoin the Green Climate Fund? And what is your Government's position on that?

Minister for Foreign Affairs: We have a set of policies announced in the election as you would be aware in relation to climate, not just domestically, but internationally. On the issue of the Green Climate Fund, I think Minister Bowen will work through it with me. We have not made a final decision.

Journalist: Prime Minister Sogavare has said some pretty strong and pretty negative things about relationship with Australia, including that it has soured. How would you characterise it and what can be done to repair it?

Prime Minister: It is historically an important relationship and will be better after this afternoon.

Journalist: Prime Minister, can I clarify. You said you would have respectful discussions with Prime Minister Sogavare. Does that mean you will directly raise Australia's concerns about the security agreement between Honiara and Beijing with him in the meeting and what will you tell other leaders about that agreement, what it means?

Prime Minister: I mean what I say. I will have respectful discussions that will put forward Australia's position, including on that agreement. Our position has been outlined consistently. When I meet with international leaders, what I will do is treat them with respect. What do I mean by that? It means that I will be honest with them, develop a relationship of trust with them, and that means not necessarily agreeing with each other the whole time, but means being able to have an open dialogue.

Journalist: It is obviously significant Australia secured the speaking spot. How much of a role did Australia play and how do you expect China to react?

Prime Minister: I give Prime Minister Bainimarama, he's the host of this conference, and I give him credit for ensuring that the Vice-President of the United States, a very significant figure, has been able to address this conference. That is something Australia supports.

Journalist: Prime Minister, on Kiribati, one Opposition figure alleged China may have been a driver behind its decision to leave the forum. What's the Australian Government's assessment of the drivers here? Do you see any sort of role from China? Or is it primarily about tensions within Kiribati and within Micronesia and the broader forum?

Prime Minister: We know there's been issues with the Pacific Island Forum, the structure. It hasn't met for three years due to COVID. We know that the Prime Minister Bainimarama has done a remarkable job getting together the Suva agreement, to try to ensure that the nations of Micronesia are able to fully participate in the forum. What I bring to this forum is positive energy and I will be doing all I can to bring nations who are members of the forum together. That's what I want to see. That's what I think clearly our host, the Fijian Prime Minister, wants to see.

Journalist: There's been prevalent opinion and some think-tanks supported by the Australian Government that speaks to a need for a change of philosophy in the way your Government engages with Pacific communities. There's criticism that previous governments were transactional in the nature of the way they worked with the Pacific. How will your Government, as you say, work with respect and in work in a meaningful way tone sure a change in the way you engage with the Pacific and the way the Pacific perceives your engagement?

Prime Minister: Thanks for the question. And it is an important one. It goes to the heart of the way countries deal with each other. And I've spoken today about the Pacific Way and treating countries with respect. That means not just talking but listening. We have, as human beings, two ears and one mouth for a reason. We should use the ears twice as much as we use our mouth. If you do that, you will learn from each other. We want to listen to the priorities of the Pacific from the Pacific. That's what we want to hear from these nations. We want to provide assistance, based upon their needs going forward. And that assistance shouldn't be matter of transactional arrangements. I've said very clearly what it should be is one of support as the end in itself. It's the right thing to do. And Australia has a responsibility to support our Pacific Island friends. So, that is the way that I deal with people in general. It's one of the characteristics I hope I have which made me here as the Australian Prime Minister, having this great honour. And I will bring that way of operating to this forum. And I look forward to listening in the discussions I have this afternoon.

Journalist: Vanuatu's priority at the summit is to stay an advisory at the International Court of Justice, supported by the leaders. Would you like to see that endorsed by leaders at the summit and would you like to see it progress to the UN General Assembly?

Prime Minister: Well, we're supportive of the broad concept. Of course, we have not seen the details of what a proposed reference might be. So, it's hard for any nation to just sign off sight unseen. But with regard to the general principle, we understand that it's a reasonable principle being put forward.

Journalist: At your election campaign you made a reference for migration to be permanent non-temporary. You started to walk that walk with New Zealand in your announcement last week, something popular in New Zealand and amongst Australians, New Zealanders in Australia. Is the time right to consider that on a broader Pacific level and do the right thing by the Pacific family?

Prime Minister: We have it with the Pacific. We announced, in the election campaign, a specific Pacific Islander migration program on a permanent basis, the first one that Australia has ever had. I think with the announcements we made or discussions with our New Zealand brothers and sisters, it was well-received because the idea that people should just be temporary migrants for a long period of time is something in my view not in the interests of individuals but also not of our nation. I want people in Australia to have that sense of ownership. I want them to be citizens, to be able to participate in all forms of Australian life. Australia with the exception, the notable exception, of our First Nations people, who have been there for 65,000 years, a source of great pride, are a nation of migrants, sons and daughters or descendants of migrants in one form or another. We're standing here with a Prime Minister with a name Albanese and a Senate Leader with the name of Wong. That's the nature of modern Australia. And we should, where possible, ensure the paths to permanent migration are available where appropriate. That's why we have that specific policy for Pacific Islanders.

Journalist: Prime Minister, do you anticipate China will make specific announcement to counter the US announcement from this morning. Do you think this power struggle has overtaken climate change as the dominant issue here at PIF?

Prime Minister: I'm responsible for Australia's foreign policy. I will leave other countries to run theirs. The dominant issue in the discussions I had with Pacific leaders in the lead-up to the PIF was overwhelmingly climate change. One of the things that occurred is that Australia's position, just like it's been welcomed in North America, Europe and Asia, has been very much welcomed in the Pacific. Our changed position when it comes to climate change. And I look forward to having those discussions.

Journalist: Will Australia urge Fiji to commit back to the University of the South Pacific?

Minister for Foreign Affairs: I think you asked me this last time I was here. It wasn't you? Pretty sure someone did. Look, we would like that worked through in the region. We understand there are strong differences of views between parties. We would simply say this is a matter in which consensus ought be reached and given the number of people we heard this this morning, I think, and yesterday, how many young people enter the labour market each year across the Pacific, it is imperative we invest in their skills. So, we would hope that we can find a way through on this.

Journalist: How would the program work for the workers?

Minister for Foreign Affairs: There were three category announcements with the Pacific labour movement. First one is a category of permanent migration. The second is we focus the labour movement schemes on the Pacific, not on South-East Asia. The third is the one you identify, which is we listened to workers, who had come and representatives from those nations whose citizens come to Australia to work, about the scheme and how it worked, including problems under the previous Government we need to resolve. One of the issues consistent raised was on the longer term visa, people found it hard to be without their family, understandable after four years. We're still working through how that will work and obviously Fiji is keen to get those issues resolved and dealt with and to have that rolled out, as are a number of other Pacific nations. We will do that with each nation bilaterally.

Prime Minister: Thank you very much.

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