Press conference with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-Cook Islands relations; Oa Tumanava partnership signing; climate change; Pacific Islands Forum.

Mark Brown, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands: Good morning, everybody. It's an absolute pleasure to be able to welcome to Rarotonga the Australian Foreign Minister, the Honourable Penny Wong for her first visit here to our country and also for us to be able to have some discussions on building our relationship that we have between the Cook Islands and Australia.

A key part of our meeting and our ceremony this morning will be the signing of our Oa Tumanava or the enduring friendship agreement between our two countries. This is a milestone in terms of the relationship between Australia and the Cook Islands. For the first time we have an agreement of this sort based around the five pillars of the areas that we are looking to develop as partners together. The people-to-people linkages of our two countries, enhancing security cooperation which Australia has been a part of in the Pacific and in the Cook Islands for a number of years through the support for the patrol boat program, and of course, the new Te Kukupa II which we just received a couple of months ago here in port. Greater prosperity, looking to find ways in how we can grow the economies of our two countries. A good, prosperous Cook Islands is always good business for its partners. That's been our theory and our motto and has proven to be the case over the decades as our country has grown.

The fourth area is in terms of strengthening our regional and international cooperation, and in that regard the Cook Islands will be taking on the Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, and we look to work with Australia in ensuring that our Forum meeting next year to be hosted by the Cook Islands will be success and that we do make the most of this opportunity as the of Chair of the Forum, moving forward into coming out of what has been some difficult times with Covid, with trying to regrow the economy and of course the ever present impacts of climate change. So a number of challenges there from a regional and international perspective.

And lastly, closer institutional linkages between our two countries. In the past, these were the sorts of things where Cook Islanders would be able to utilise the services of the likes of the Australian Institute of Sport for the development of our people here in those areas. We would like to also enhance the links to educational institutions to universities in Australia of which a number of our current senior public servants are alumni of. This is just the beginning, if you like, of this new greater engagement with Australia.

So, with those words, Minister, welcome, again, to the Cook Islands. It's fantastic that we have swapped headgear in this one – she's wearing the local Cook Islands' headgear and I'm wearing the Australian headgear in this interview here.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Look, thank you very much Prime Minister and can I say it's just terrific to be here with you and in your beautiful country. I thank you for the warm welcome. I thank you for the generous hospitality and what I would say is, as the Prime Minister said, this is my first visit to Cook Islands, and I am struck by the beauty, the natural beauty, of this place. I had the opportunity this morning to go for a walk along the beach. It was just really exquisitely beautiful and I can understand why you get so many tourists. It was great to arrive here last night and see the airport full. And I know from what you've said to me, Prime Minister, and what your ministers have told me, this country took a very big hit to your economy during Covid given the effect on tourism and you've come through it. All the people at the airport and in the resorts, that is prosperity and jobs for your country. So, it is a testament to your leadership, to your government's leadership and to the community – that the community has come through it together through such a difficult time. I'm glad that we swapped headgear, well actually that we – The Prime Minister looks good in the Akubra I reckon. He says he wants a horse to go with it, I don't know if we can arrange that really.

I'll just make a couple of comments, Australia is really, very pleased and excited about the next phase of our relationship with the Cook Islands. And this partnership is a really important step, it is a big thing for us. We have not had this sort of agreement before and the partnership arrangement that the Prime Minister and I will sign shortly, it means a lot to us. Not only because of the pillars that the Prime Minister went through, but it signifies a new and deeper phase in our relationship, much closer engagement with you which we are really pleased to be part of.

We, as you know are committed to the regional architecture. We are committed to working with you as Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum when you take over. We see the regional architecture always as important, but increasingly so at this time. And we know that the region faces challenges which we share – climate change is one of them. Covid, the economic impact of Covid which your country knows so well. And also, more competition and contest in the region and we navigate all of those things, all of those challenges better together. So we are committed to working together with you as Chair of the PIF as members of the Pacific Islands Forum and as partners in our Oa Tumanava partnership arrangement.

I'll say a little bit more about this later, but I was struck by the language of the partnership agreement. A word that means friendship and peace, times of peace and friendship in times of adversity. And that's the sort of friendship we want. We want to work together in good times and in hard times for our shared benefit. So I look forward to signing the agreement, I look forward to many more discussions and as I said thank you so much for the warm welcome you've given us.

Prime Minister Brown: Excellent, thank you very much Minister. We'll now open the floor if the media has any questions for us. Now is your opportunity.

Foreign Minister: You can probably just talk loudly. I can probably hear you.

Journalist: Minister Wong and Prime Minister is there any money exchange in the partnership?

Prime Minister Brown: We haven't given Australia any money, no.

Foreign Minister: Look, we've discussed a number of areas where we see mutual benefit in Australia providing some further support. One of the areas the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are very focused on, and rightly so – is how you invest in the economic development and economic resilience of your country and there are a number of infrastructure projects which people are keen for us to partner on, including Penrhyn Wharf. Which the Prime Minister raised with me when we first met. Was that in June? When was that?

Prime Minister Brown: In June.

Foreign Minister: June, yes, in Australia, June. So, we understand the importance of that. And the benefit of infrastructure, of course, is it's not just an operating, a grant for a program, but you're investing in economic resilience and in, frankly, greater earning capacity. So, we've got some people, some officials coming to scope that, and that is consistent with the partnership we talk about this sort of assistance.

Journalist: Great, I got told I have to speak through this sorry. Apart from Penrhyn Wharf, is there any other projects that you are keen to work together on?

Prime Minister Brown: Well, I think from our perspective we welcome Australia's renewed engagement in the climate finance space. We certainly as one of the countries that are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change will be discussing and engaging more with Australia in how their support for climate initiatives in the region can trickle down to the Cook Islands, but also from our perspective how it can really get out to the grassroots level where the impacts are acutely felt on some of our more remote islands. So, these are discussions that are taking place. We have both come out of elections, new governments that are in place now. So, our engagement at this stage is the starting point and starting block for how we see this engagement moving forward over the next few years.

Journalist: And, Minister Wong, on the climate adaption do you think it's large countries' responsibility to help Pacific Island states adapt to climate change?

Foreign Minister: I think climate isn't a political debate, it's not a diplomatic debate. Climate change is a reality that we're all facing. Different countries have different capacity to respond to the challenges of climate change and we understand the importance of working with our Pacific family to help with the burden of adaptation and to make economies and countries more resilient. We were elected with a much more ambitious platform on climate, we intend to deliver that. It's challenging but we think it is the right thing to do as a member of the global community, but its also the right thing to do for our economy. One of the things the Prime Minister and I did talk about is how we make sure we work more effectively within the Pacific region on things like adaptation or climate finance. And we're very open to making sure that the structures of funds work well for Pacific countries.

Journalist: Prime Minister, you spoke before the strengthening people‑to‑people links with Australia. Are you happy to talk more about that and what that could look like?

Prime Minister Brown: I think it's – already we've got a large diaspora of Cook Islanders that live in Australia. They're part of Australia; some of them are now Australian citizens. So we can see the importance of having those connections between our two countries; we're demonstrating that already with our people engaged in Australia. But we see at the level of government‑to‑government interaction and linkages being very important to develop now that we're at this stage of partnership with Australia. Australia have opened up their High Commission here in Rarotonga. The next steps we would look at is to establish our own mission in Australia as well. But it can go even further beyond the government‑to‑government level. We were talking about things like sporting links, links to Australian educational institutions, where some of our people have graduated from before. It's building those relationships, if you like, that we find for a small nation like us is the most effective way of moving things forward and engaging. Already this is the second meeting that I've had now with Minister Wong since my first one in June and I anticipate more discussions over the next few years as we face the challenges that our region will have before it. So, establishing those people‑to‑people links, what we're talking about here, is I find the most effective way of getting that engagement moving forward.

Foreign Minister: Yeah, so we'll look at ways in which we can facilitate that. And if I can also just to follow up on what the Prime Minister said about our post here. We're really pleased to open a High Commission – have a High Commissioner here in Rarotonga. With this and a number of other decisions, I think we are now the only country that has a diplomatic post in every Pacific Island Forum nation and that is – that's something we're proud of and we're proud of it because it demonstrates a commitment to resources and engagement across the region, including here. The Prime Minister does want a few more sporting links. I've said that he – and I understand he did very well in the Cook Islands Games just recently, so we can possibly make it a parliamentary level as well.

Prime Minister Brown: Absolutely.

Foreign Minister: But that won't be me.

Prime Minister Brown: Okay, any other questions? If not, we'll wrap it up here. Thank you very much. We'll now make our way outside for the formalities of the signing ceremony.

Foreign Minister: Excellent.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555