Press conference, Nadi, Fiji

  • Transcript, E&OE

Subjects: Aircraft crash in Philippines; Blackrock Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Camp in Fiji; Partnerships for a Healthy Region; Kiribati returning to the Pacific Islands Forum; Papua; Pacific Engagement Visa; the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific.

PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: Good morning all. Can I thank Minister Tikoduadua for hosting me here at Blackrock and my thanks to the Brigadier General also and his officers for hosting me here. This is a wonderful facility. I have some comments to make, but if you don't mind, I'd like to first make some comments about some sad news that we received overnight.

Can I confirm that overnight search teams have reached the site of a light aircraft that crashed in Albay Province in the Philippines. Sadly there are no survivors. So on behalf of the Australian Government, I wish to extend my deepest sympathy to the families of the two men, Simon Chipperfield and Karthi Santhanam both from Adelaide, my home town, as well as the Filipino Nationals involved.

I think we all understand that the families of those who we have lost will be grieving, and I express not only our sympathy, our condolences, but to say to them our hearts go out to them in this time of great grief.

I also wish to acknowledge and express condolences to the families of two soldiers who were killed during the search and rescue.

But now to Fiji. It is wonderful to be back here again in Fiji, and this was the first country in the Pacific that I went to after becoming Foreign Minister. I hope I've learnt a few things in the last nine months, we'll see how we go, and it's a privilege to be here representing Australia and representing the Prime Minister for the Pacific Islands Forum being held here, and I acknowledge not only His Excellency the Minister, but the new Government of Fiji and congratulate them on their election.

Australia regards its relationship with Fiji as of paramount importance here in the Pacific. We understand how important Fiji is to the region, and the way in which it can play in many sectors a leadership role, and one of the areas in which it can play a leadership role is in its capability and capacity in peacekeeping and in humanitarian work, and what you see here in this facility is that on display, and that on display in partnership, in part with Australia.

This facility, as you know was a joint collaboration between Australia and Fiji in particular, it's a world‑class facility, and it has as its purpose, the promotion of peace internationally, and to be able to support response operations in times of need, particularly when natural disasters strike. And I would say it was also a very important economic project during COVID‑19 supporting the economy in the Nadi area, creating over 1,000 jobs and injecting a million into the economy each month; many local jobs, which obviously was important at that time.

The work that can be supported out of here is demonstrated by the deployment that you saw, and those personnel are deploying to Auckland, to New Zealand, that's right, and we'll be supporting our Kiwi friends, our New Zealand friends at this very difficult time for them.

I had the opportunity, and I said this to the Minister and to the Brigadier General, to engage with Fijian peacekeepers, and there's a very proud tradition of peacekeeping in this country, including from the Minister, and the Prime Minister, I think, from memory.

But I had the opportunity to engage with Fijian peacekeepers in Solomon Islands recently, and they were fantastic. Their engagement, their capability, the trust that they clearly had in the local population was really impressive.

I'd also like to speak a little about the announcement that was made overnight by Australia for the Partnerships for a Healthy Region.

One of the things we understood during the pandemic is the way in which health outcomes in our countries matter to all of us, and they matter to those communities, they matter to national economies, and they matter to regional stability.

Now, we take it as a key objective of our Government to do what we can to strengthen the stability, the security of our region, and in doing so we're not only doing something that is good for those countries, we're doing something that's good for Australia. Because we do better in a world where we are more secure, we do better in a region that is more stable and more secure, and part of that is health.

We saw during COVID‑19 a lot of health resources diverted to meeting challenges that the pandemic presented. That often came at the expense of underlying health systems. So I have announced overnight a $620 million program over five years, the Partnerships for a Healthy Region, which will support a range of initiatives, things like making sure kids catch up on their immunisation routine, make sure that their routine immunisations are up‑to‑date, that matters a lot for health outcomes, access to maternity care and a focus on significant diseases, including HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. And we're inviting proposals from third parties for funding under that program.

I'm happy to take questions, and after that I'm heading back to the Pacific Islands Forum for a range of bilaterals before the leaders' dinner tonight. Happy to take questions. Hello, how are you? 

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct].

FOREIGN MINISTER: I know. I remember you from last time.

JOURNALIST: I hope you are happier this time round here? 

FOREIGN MINISTER: Was I not happy? Oh. I don't know what you're talking about. I might have been not well, I remember that.

JOURNALIST: My question is to do with your visit to Kiribati. We're happy to see you back.

FOREIGN MINISTER: It's great to be back here. And it's great to not be unwell.

JOURNALIST: With regards to your visit to Kiribati, can you tell me your conversation with President Maamau with regards to the rule of law and concerns that the region had in regards to their relationship with China that was happening around about the time they withdrew from the PIF? 

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, you would understand I don't go into blow‑by‑blow details of private discussions that I have as Foreign Minister with counterparts and with leaders in this case.

But I would make three comments. The first in relation to the rule of law, Australia's position on the separation of powers is clear, and it is well known. Secondly, in relation to security, it is a very clear view, not only of Australia, but of Pacific Island leaders that we believe that security should be provided for within the Pacific family. And our logic for that is we are benefitted by looking after each other.

Prime Minister Rabuka actually put it well to me, and also in a speech he did, where he talked about the region as being, and the regional forum as being a regional house, you know, we're all part of the same regional family house. But we think the family is best when we make sure its house is secure.

What was the third part of your question? The broader issue of, that was obviously something I talked about publicly, and I want to publicly again acknowledge Fiji's role in this, as well as the leadership shown by the other Micronesians is we really are very pleased that Kiribati is returning to the PIF, we think we're stronger together.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] I just wonder what your position is on that [indistinct].

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, Australia under successive Governments has made its position clear. We recognise Indonesian sovereignty in relation to Papua, and that’s a position that reflects a bipartisan position and a position that reflects our undertakings and commitments under the Lombok Treaty, and we remain committed to that.

JOURNALIST: Minister, with regard to the agreement that the Special Leaders’ Retreat is going to talk about implementation, there is a lot of questions around money, who will pay for all the goodies in this agreement. Is the Australian Government in a position to support requests for funding? 

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, yeah, we will work through that with our partners. We already contribute a substantial amount to the regional architecture, and that's right that we do so. We would want to work through that with our partners going forward, but, you know, we think it is a good thing that the Forum now has its full complement, and look forward to the discussions including with President Maamau in the coming day and a bit. Yes.

JOURNALIST: Could you talk about the Pacific Engagement Visa and how it will be distributed across the region?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Sure, so the Pacific Engagement Visa is a visa that we announced as policy prior to the election, and it is a change. It is modelled on these arrangements that New Zealand has with some members of the Pacific. We propose to do it by ballot, and we propose 3,000 visas, but I would make this point, we want to, just as we do with the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme, make sure we work with countries to the region around the design.

I've heard that there are some who are very keen on it, and there are some who worry about it taking people out of their countries, who they want to keep here, to keep in the region because they're going to be important contributors to the country.

So can I just be very clear. We want this to work for everybody, and we will work with other countries, with those who wish to send people on the design, on the arrangement of this and on our other labour mobility schemes to ensure that it works for everybody, it works for the person, it works for the country you're sending them, and it works for Australia. We want this to be a net benefit to the region, that's how we'll seek to apply it.

JOURNALIST: Minister how much of this new visa is in response to climate refugees and the drag to -- 

FOREIGN MINISTER: No, look, that's not the driver. The driver is this: we are a substantial economy in the region. We know that part of what many Pacific Island countries want from us is access to our economy, and that's why we have the labour schemes, and they provide, remittances are a significant part of some countries’ revenue. And the logic of this is to try and do what we think we should do, which is to bring us closer together, ensure that people have access to opportunities in Australia but maintain their connection with their country of birth. So it's about being closer.

JOURNALIST: Minister, going back to your announcement on health.


JOURNALIST: Is there a [indistinct]? 

FOREIGN MINISTER: No, the infrastructure needs of the region are substantial, which is why we have our financing facility, we have an infrastructure financing facility for the Pacific which does provide a streamlined way of trying to ensure high‑quality infrastructure projects can be approved. Obviously there's always more projects than we can fund, but we have structured that in a way that tries to streamline that process so we can assess it.

These are grants which we would see primarily going to partners for delivery, so less infrastructure than how we might deliver programs.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Last question. You get a lot. Has anybody else got a question? Do you have any other journalists, do you have a question? 

JOURNALIST: The question is on the ‑ will you also include the response - the region's response and the COVID response? 

FOREIGN MINISTER: So I can tell you what we have. We have, money will go to communicable disease prevention and control, that will include, immunisation policy, planning, infection prevention, and disease surveillance and modelling. So that means making sure people are vaccinated; if there's an outbreak, working out where we need vaccinations rolled out really quickly, so this is non‑COVID. Non‑communicable diseases, sexual and reproductive health and rights, health systems, which is about making sure our health information systems, and workforce development can be strengthened, and then a range of other minor projects. But the vast majority of it is in communicable disease prevention and control. Thank you very much everybody.


Media enquiries

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