Press conference, Funafuti, Tuvalu

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Visit to Tuvalu; Australia’s engagement with the Pacific; Labour mobility programs; Climate change; Visit to TCAP site; COP 31.

Simon Kofe, Tuvalu Minister for Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs: On behalf of the Government and the people of Tuvalu, I'd like to formally welcome you again, honourable Minister, to Tuvalu.

We had a welcoming dinner last night for the Honourable Minister, she's had a few meetings with our Ministers, and had the opportunity to also see the different parts of the Island of Funafuti, and we're very happy to have the press conference this morning and give an opportunity to the media, if you have any questions you'd like to ask myself or the Honourable Minister. But from our side, we're very happy to have you here, Minister, and welcome.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thank you very much, Minister Kofe. If I may just make a few remarks. The first, I want to thank Minister Kofe, and the Government of Tuvalu for the warmth of their welcome, for the wonderful celebration last night.

I want to thank the Minister personally, who hosted me so generously for the dinner, but also for hosting me at his house for breakfast this morning. I really deeply personally appreciate the warmth of your engagement, and the way in which we've been able to have, I think, important conversations.

I want to just make two points. The first is about family, and I've spoken about that a lot around the Pacific in this last year. Australians, our Government wants to be a better, more engaged, more helpful member of the Pacific family, and we recognise that families, as I said last night, they're about love and care, but they're also about duty and loyalty, and we see in this time of so many challenges, strategic competition, climate change, as well as COVID, the importance of the Pacific family. We've seen it over the last few years, and we see that as central to how we envisage the region in which we live and the ocean we share.

But I want to particularly focus on climate, particularly given where we are, the northern‑most tip of Tuvalu and the location of Minister Kofe's very famous speech or message to the world, and it's fitting that we should be standing beside you, because that's how I want to think about it; and how Australia thinks about it. We are beside you in this, and it is an existential change.

Peoples of the Pacific, peoples of Tuvalu are confronting a crisis not of their making; confronting a crisis, a challenge to their existence, to their culture, to their art, to their sovereignty, that they have not chosen, and we see as Australians it is our responsibility to stand beside you in your fight to preserve your identity, your sovereignty, and your call to action to the world, to all countries of the world to do more when it comes to the fight against climate change.

We know that climate change cannot be confronted unless all countries take action; all countries, and I open that the work that we can do together with our different voices and our different perspectives will add weight to the call for more action, which, of course, is most exemplified by our desire to host a conference of the parties, co‑host with the Pacific conference of the parties in the future. I'm happy to take questions.

Journalist: Honourable Minister Wong, would you kindly share the purpose of your visit to Tuvalu at this particular time of the year and what are the outcomes that you desire to achieve at the end of your visit?

Foreign Minister: Closer partnership. Closer partnership on climate change, the economic aspirations of Tuvalu, and to work together in the region. That's what I think we seek.

This is ‑ we were elected just than a year ago, and I made a commitment to myself that I wanted to try and visit every member of the Pacific Island Forum in my first year as Foreign Minister, and I wanted to listen, to engage, to engage with respect, and humility. The reason I wanted to do all of the visits to and with, engage with all members of the Pacific Island Forum in the year was because we are a member of the forum, because we share an ocean, we share a region, we share a future.

But it also was a statement of our priorities as a new Government. And our priority is here; our priority is the region in which we live; so the Pacific and also Southeast Asia. I want it to be very clear, these are our priorities, and we're going to demonstrate that by engaging, by listening and by being there.

Journalist: What particular areas will be the focus after this visit?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think that's really a question of priorities for the people in the Government of Tuvalu. We want to be guided by Pacific priorities, and we want to be guided by your priorities, so I don't see ‑ we don't come here to ‑ we come here to listen to your priorities and to have the discussion about how we can work this together, and obviously climate is, and climate resilience is important, but as you know, Australia has traditionally focussed on health and education as well as infrastructure.

Journalist: When will Australia open its Pacific Engagement Visa?

Foreign Minister: Yes. Look, I want to make a point about not only the engagement visa, but also labour movement, and it's a point I made at the Pacific Islands Forum.

We want those arrangements, those schemes to work for the sender countries as well as for Australia. So we want to have a dialogue with the countries of the region who want to participate, or who are participating, about how we make sure they work well together.

On the visa that you describe, that will require legislation to get through the Parliament, so we're engaging with the Parliament about making sure we can work through that. But we will work with Tuvalu and other countries of the region about how the scheme might operate, and when it would commence.

Journalist: What is your impression after visiting the TCAP site yesterday?

Foreign Minister: Yes, Australia is a contributor to that, and has put additional funds bilaterally, as well as being obviously part of the green ‑ historically being part of the Green Climate Fund.

But my observation about it is this, you know, this is one of the ways in which we can try and work together to manage the real and present risks that climate change presents. It's quite an impressive project, and I was really pleased to go there with Minister Seve and to see the way in which we've collaboratively worked to try and reclaim that land.

SPEAKER: [Indistinct].

Foreign Minister: Sure. To me? He's very eloquent. You should ask him a question.

Journalist: Climate change remains the number one threat to the people of Tuvalu. What is your view on the vulnerability of Tuvalu?

Foreign Minister: Yes. I mean it is the number one threat. The relaity of and the enormity of what climate change means to the peoples of the Pacific, and particularly those who live in atoll countries, is something I'm aware of, but you can't ‑ of course I'm more moved to speak with you in person about it.

I was thinking last night as I was part of the dance and the singing, what is it is for a people who are obviously so proud of who they are and their culture, how it is to feel that this is happening to their country with – and how hard it is that they cannot stop that happening.

So it made me, I suppose, even more focussed on the importance of working together on some of the projects and the strategies that Minister Kofe is seeking to do, to protect your sovereignty and to preserve your sovereignty going forward, but I think the next thing we really need to work on together, apart from all the things we do, is to make sure the confidence of the parties, that COP 31, yields even more ambitious outcomes.

Journalist: My last question, what would be your key message?

Foreign Minister: We come as friends and we come as family, and we want to work with you.

You didn't get a question. How is that –

Simon Kofe: I'll quickly respond to some of the issues that you've touched on, but let me just say that we came into office at the end of 2019, just before the COVID‑19 out break, so our borders have been closed for the last three years, and finally opened in December last year, and so this visit is a significant one, and it is the first Foreign Minister that we've received during our term. So I think it speaks volumes to the effort, to the commitment from Australia to building our relationship and deepening our cooperation.

So I just wanted to commend you, Honourable Minister, for that; I know you hit the road running when you came into office, was it last year, and so we appreciate the effort to come up to Tuvalu, and as I said last night, it is my hope that your visit will help deepen our diplomatic relationship. In the Pacific, we like to do face‑to‑face meetings, you know, we've had COVID‑19 for the past three years, and everything was online. But I think having that face‑to‑face meeting, it's just different dynamics, and it really helps us to get a feel of the issues of our partners and find ways to move forward.

So we really appreciate your visit, and as I said last night, our foreign policy focuses very much on the global wellbeing and focussing on the responsibilities of nations to achieving that wellbeing, and our policies obviously developed from our values that are enshrined in the Tuvalu Constitution.

As I mentioned also last night, Tuvalu is a community‑based society. We value the wellbeing of the community and we emphasise the responsibilities of individuals. And so we've tried to bring that into the – into our foreign service, and tried to be consistent in our actions and in our outreach to global leaders, and I think we're living in a time where we need to really promote these values, the interconnectedness of the world, the vulnerabilities of countries to each other's actions, really requires us to look at the bigger picture.

And I know it's natural for leaders and for countries to pursue their own national interest, that's very natural, because we are only humans and we're driven by that, but I think Tuvalu has an important role to speak and to try to draw the attention to the bigger picture, and climate change. I think is a perfect example of an issue that requires everyone on board. And I shared with you last night about the importance of building bridges. I understand that there's political, geopolitical tensions in the region, and obviously Tuvalu is not here to point fingers at anyone. We think that if peace is the objective for anyone, then we should be looking at what is our responsibility to achieving peace. And so that's the message from Tuvalu.

As I also said, this Sunday will mark 80 years since the bombing of this island that we're on, and not far from here there is a concrete block that used to hold a gun, and it's just a reminder of the devastations of war, and Tuvalu wants nothing less than peace and stability for the region, and I know Australia is ‑ we look up to Australia as a bigger brother, a bigger sister, and we were certainly happy to work with yourself to bringing that to our part of the world.

Journalist: What outcomes would you desire from the visit form Minister Wong?

Simon Kofe: Well, I think this visit was to really have the opportunity to have a face‑to‑face meeting with the Honourable Minister Penny Wong, but also an opportunity for her to see first‑hand Tuvalu and the vulnerabilities of our islands and what is really at stake for Tuvalu when we're talking about issues on climate change.

I know that the Albanese Government have taken positive steps in the right directions to address that, but I also recognise that there are also challenges internally that you need to deal with, and looking at how you can transition your economy. We fully understand that, and I think the approach that Australia has taken has been a very diplomatic one, it's been one of respect and humility, and I wanted to commend yourself for that, Minister.

So in short, it's basically just to touch base, and have this opportunity which we did not have in the last three years. Thank you.

Foreign Minister: Thank you very much. This is one of the best locations I've had for a press conference. Thank you.


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