Joint press conference - Nuku'alofa, Tonga

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Tonga visit; Australian Government’s action on climate change; Pacific labour schemes; Pacific Engagement visa; development assistance to Tonga.

Siaosi Sovaleni, Prime Minister of Tonga: It is a great pleasure for me to welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga for the very first time Her Excellency Penny Wong, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia. Minister, once more allow me to congratulate you on your recent appointment. I asked the Honourable Minister to convey His Majesty's Government and my warm congratulations to the Prime Minister of Australia, Honourable Anthony Albanese, on his election.

I extended through the Minister an invitation to him to visit the Kingdom of Tonga in the near future. Australia and Tonga enjoy a deep and long-lasting friendship. Our respective diplomatic missions continue to maintain and enhance the ties between our two countries. The people of the Kingdom of Tonga and His Majesty's Government are deeply grateful for the helping hand the Australian Government extended to us immediately after the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcanic eruption and the tsunami. Australia's swift response came at a critical juncture. Thank you for the assistance, Minister.

When we were faced with the presence of COVID-19, again Australia extended a helping hand to us. Malo, Australia. This morning the Foreign Minister was received in an audience with His Majesty King Tupou VI at the Royal Palace. We also had very fruitful and frank discussions. She also had a bilateral meeting with her counterpart Honourable Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu. My cabinet and I have just been hosted to a cordial Talanoa by the Minister. The Honourable Foreign Minister Wong decided to visit us two weeks into her appointment. This is a clear sign of the Australian Government's strong commitment to strengthening our bilateral relations and engagement with our region.

We are particularly pleased with the Australian Government's recognition that climate change is an existential threat, including to the security of our islands. We are pleased to learn of Australia's effort to reduce carbon emissions and increase the share of renewable energy. We Islanders over generations know how it is making us strong. It is only through shared collective efforts, as bilateral partners and members of our cherished Blue Pacific region, that we can tackle the climate crisis and many other pressing challenges of our times. This includes COVID-19 and economic and social challenges ahead.

Australian aid has always played a significant role in the Kingdom of Tonga's development. Today the Foreign Minister reiterated the Australian Government's commitments towards its bilateral assistance to the Kingdom of Tonga.

We commend the size and the outreach of the program and look forward to our continued joint efforts to achieve our development priorities, including education, health, defence, trade, police and democratic governance.

The Minister and I had the opportunity to look at a range of renewed and strengthen areas for our partnership. These include the increased ODA to the Pacific, the extended opportunities for Tongan workers in Australia and improving trade through supporting our private sector to export their products to Australia.

I thank Minister Wong for the generous assistance of Australia to the implementation of His Majesty's Government recovery plan efforts from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcanic eruptions. Such assistance does underline Australia's commitment to the longer term recovery efforts of His Majesty's Government to build back better and to build a better future.

Yes, there are marked differences between our two countries. More importantly, though, there are common strength that bind us. They include respect for democracy, the rule of law and the rights and freedoms of others. These remain the important tenants of our relations. His Majesty's Government looks forward to continuing cooperation with the Australian Government and pursuing new opportunities.

We look forward to further strengthen our friendly and cooperative relations in the years to come for the benefit of our peoples. Malo ‘Aupito. Thank you.

Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you very much, Prime Minister. I appreciate, very much, your kind words. It is a real honour to be received by the King, and then the Prime Minister, my counterpart the Foreign Minister and members of the cabinet in this visit. And the Prime Minister is right – this is an early visit, and the reason is we wanted to be very clear about the importance of our relationship with the Kingdom of Tonga, its people and, more broadly, our relationship with the Pacific.

Before I go to some of the issues discussed and the broader bilateral relationship, can I say, in person, how saddened we were, and shocked we were by the volcano and tsunami that your people have endured. We have quite a number of Tongan Australians, the Tongan diaspora, who are very worried about family and friends. We had a lot of focus from Australia about what was occurring. Thank you for your kind words about Australian assistance. Can I just say we are glad that the assistance was of benefit to you, and we hope we can continue to work together on the reconstruction.

More broadly, in terms of the new Australian Government, we were elected less than two weeks ago and we were elected with a very clear position that we would put in more energy and more resources, bring new energy and more resources to our relationship with the Pacific. We also were elected with a very clear position on climate change - and I speak as someone who was once the Climate Minister for Australia many years ago - that the Australian people have voted for a government and a parliament that is supportive of more ambitious action on climate change. And that is what we will do at home and in the world.

But I do want to say to you that the experience of your country and the experience of Pacific Island nations, the real, present national security, economic and existential risk and threat, which is the climate change that you are experiencing, gives you a powerful voice in the world and in the region on this issue. And we have heard that, and we will work with you.

We also have announced a number of other policies which the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister and other ministers and I discussed, and I'm happy to deal with them in questions, but in terms of our new energy and more resources into the Pacific, we are keen to build on what is already a deep and strong relationship with changes and improvements to the Pacific labour schemes, which I know are of relevance to Tonga, as well as climate resilience – that is infrastructure, recognising the risk of climate change that we're dealing with.

I want to say I've learned a lot in this time I've been here. I'm trying to work out how I get a Talanoa in the Australian Parliament. Maybe not so possible. I also was very privileged – and I thank them publicly – to be an audience for, was it three haka?

Prime Minister Sovaleni: Haka.

Foreign Minister: Haka. It was a really wonderful, warm, colourful Tongan welcome. And I thank your people and your Government for the welcome we have received. We have a deep friendship. It will continue. Thank you very much.

Journalist: Thank you for the opportunity and welcome to Tonga. Congratulations on your recent appointment, Minister Wong. Besides the issue of climate change and other policies discussed with the Prime Minister, my question is, most of the people in the Pacific, and Tonga is included, are seeking opportunities to work and live in Australia. But filing and completing paperwork for residential visas is quite expensive. Many of our people are overstayers in Australia. How would Australia help our people and enable them to file their residential visas or permits while in Australia?

Foreign Minister: Yes, that issue has been raised with me and we're happy to look at are there ways in which we can assist people with the existing processes. But I did want to emphasise a couple of changes to our labour schemes and migration arrangements which may be of interest to your readers – or listeners, sorry. Viewers? Everything. Listeners.

The first is we want to put in place a Pacific Engagement visa, which would be an annual intake for permanent residents from the region. So they could permanently migrate with rights to go backwards and forwards obviously. It's modelled on a similar New Zealand program. And it is about building the people-to-people links we share with the Pacific. Now that is for the whole Pacific. I said to the Prime Minister and his Ministers that we would work with the Government of the Kingdom of Tonga and other countries, other governments, around how those engagements – how those details can be designed to best serve the interests of both parties.

We've also said on the Pacific labour schemes for the longer visa that we will make changes to allow families to accompany, which obviously is something that's been raised with us by many stakeholders. So, we will work through that. Obviously, that was an election policy. It's a Government commitment, and we'll work through the details of that.

Journalist: Welcome to Tonga, Minister.

Foreign Minister: Thank you. I'm waiting for – are you going to give him a question?

Prime Minister Sovaleni: I think they're tired of me.

Journalist: I just want to follow up on your statement. I take it you are a newly elected minister. But just at this stage what are some changes that Australian Government is looking at addressing or assisting the Pacific region in two forefront issues which is climate change and regional security?

Foreign Minister: Thank you. Yes, you're right, we were elected less than two weeks ago. But we did go to the election with quite a detailed policy in relation to the Pacific – additional development assistance over and above what had been budgeted for, an additional visa class and more I suppose you'd call more generous labour scheme places. We also went to the election with a commitment to use some of our existing infrastructure funding for climate resilient infrastructure, recognising that the reality of climate change, the reality of extreme weather events – I think this is something Tonga understands – the prevalence of those will increase. And so, one of the things we can do is work with you on more climate resilient infrastructure.

In terms of the security of the region, you know, we – we're very blessed to have a partnership with your Government on these issues. As a member of the Pacific family I think what we would say – and I think it's the same position that your Government has articulated – we want regional security to be dealt with, to be the responsibility of the Pacific family, of which we are a part. And, you know, we will continue to engage with our friends, our partners, in the region. We will respect and we will encourage others to respect the regional architecture.

There was a reason why my first speech and my first visit – I'm sorry it wasn't to Tonga, Prime Minister – was to Fiji to the Pacific Islands Forum. And I did that deliberately to make a clear statement about the centrality of that forum and the centrality of Pacific architecture to dealing with a world that is more challenging.

And what I'd say is, you know, my side of politics in Australia, we believe we are stronger together. And we will bring that to our foreign policy as well.

Journalist: Thank you. Just a question – and thank you for making time to meet us, Honourable Minister. When does immigration to Australia for Pacific Islanders become easier? For instance, it's far more easier to apply for a visa to the USA and get multiple for 10 years than Australia, no matter how many times we've been, we have to go through the process. Malo.

Foreign Minister: I think you're colleague here asked me a question where I touched upon those issues. But just to say again, one of our policy commitments is to a Pacific Engagement visa – 3,000 permanent residency places per year from the region – because we're conscious of the deep, personal and familial ties between people not just the Tongan diaspora but the Pacific diaspora more broadly and the region. And we see that as one of the ways – not the only – but one of the ways in which we can facilitate that and build on that.

I would also say I think the labour schemes, the longer term labour schemes, people bringing their families to Australia, that doesn't deal with all of the issues you're raising, but it does deal with some of them because it does mean that people's families won't have to keep coming backwards and forwards through the pathways you're describing.

Journalist: Just a question, Honourable Minister Wong. There are some major areas of concern affecting trade development for Tonga, such as shipping, energy cost and decreasing of local labour force due to the seasonal work scheme, which a lot of our workforce have and still seasonally work in Australia. What will Australia do differently in the short term to assist? Malo.

Foreign Minister: Well, the first thing we'll do is listen. Because I think each Pacific country, Pacific Island nation, will have a set of issues it wants consideration of in the context of the design of those labour schemes. And the Prime Minister has raised with us – if he doesn't mind me saying this – you know, you've got a number of economic and social objectives. You have the economic and social objective of reconstruction and development, but at the same time there's an immediate economic benefit to remittances for your domestic economy. And designing the scheme in a way that reflects the balance – I think was the phrase the Prime Minister used – you've got to balance those objectives. We're very happy to engage with your Government on what that looks like, just as we will engage with Samoa and Fiji on, you know, their perspective about the best way to design those programs.

Prime Minister Sovaleni: I've shared with the Minister the challenges that we face, like what you raise, some of the social issues due to the separation of families and so forth. And the commitment, the new commitment, from the new Government, especially about the new visas, hopefully that will address or mitigate some of that issue, so that families doesn't have to be separated for six or nine months. They can be together in Australia and return a number of times.

At the same time I believe it's not what Australia should be changing but what we – both Tonga and Australia should work together and find what's acceptable for them and us. As you raise, too, we're having some issues with reconstruction because we don't have the workers. Most of them are somewhere in New Zealand or Australia. But, again, I believe it's both governments need to actually work together to actually see why – not only the balancing act but also looking at what is acceptable for both Tonga and Australia.

Journalist: Honourable Wong, you have come to Tonga at the right time because we just heard the Prime Minister outline our budget for 2022-23. And there are so many issues there that depends on the bilateral programs between the two governments of Australia and Tonga. But you mentioned something about the resource energy. Is there a specific area that you are going to help Tonga in the resource energy?

Foreign Minister: Well, the point I'd make about development assistance and the areas of cooperation is that the approach we will and should take is one where we are guided by the priorities of the nation and we work through those priorities together to work out where it is we can assist or support or facilitate - whether it's renewable energy, which is, you know, obviously there's an energy policy that the Government has which, you know, we provided some support for renewables previously and whether or not we can do more there.

So, we will work through the various priorities that the Government has articulated and see where we are able to work together and how, you know, a support or assistance can be structured. I would say, I think this goes to the nature of the relationship, as much as to the outcomes. I think we are not a Government or a country that wants to come in and tell you what you should do. We see it in our interests and as part of our responsibility as a member of the Pacific family to work with you. And that's the approach we'll take.

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