Press Conference, Suva Fiji

  • Transcript E&OE

Subjects: Meeting with Prime Minister Rabuka; visit to Fiji’s parliament; Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting; 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent; climate change; climate finance; immigration; Fukushima wastewater; Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thanks very much for being here. It’s wonderful to be here again in Fiji, as Foreign Minister. This is my fourth visit as Foreign Minister, which demonstrates the importance our government, the Australian Government, places on our relationship with Fiji but more broadly on our close ties with the Pacific.

And I was very honoured again to meet with the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Rabuka, and to have further discussions with him about regional issues as well as bilateral issues and how we can continue to work together. I thank him for his regional leadership as well as for his friendship and partnership, along with his government and country, for the people and country of Australia.

I also had the opportunity to visit your parliament this morning, which was fantastic. And I observed that you probably could give us some lessons on being both respectful and good-natured in your contest of argument.

Australia is a friend and partner of Fiji. We’re also a committed member of the Pacific Islands Forum. And as you know, tomorrow is the foreign ministers meeting, and I look forward to attending that and to engage with our Pacific family, with our friends and partners from across the Pacific, listen to the Pacific family about priorities, issues and the way forward.

I had the privilege of engaging with Pacific leaders about the 2050 Strategy – the North Star, as it’s described. The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. So, we do see the Pacific Islands Forum as an area, an arena, in which we can talk about how we take that strategy forward.

There are a few announcements I wanted to make in relation to climate today. One of the areas that I know is so important, we understand is so important to Pacific island nations is, of course, climate change and the access to climate finance. And we know how challenging it is, particularly for smaller nations to engage with larger funds, larger financial institutions. So Australia will fund climate finance experts in eight Pacific Island countries. These are people who can work with those countries to access climate finance through funds such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Green Climate Fund and so forth. So we will be funding that. We hope that that will enable the mobilisation of many millions of dollars for this region in additional climate finance from global sources.

I’m also pleased to announce that we will continue to support the Leaders’ Climate Champions Program, which will allow it to keep running for a further three years. And I also spoke to your Prime Minister today to respond positively to his request to embed someone in his department, his office, to work on climate change policy issues. So, in those ways, we are seeking to respond to what we know is the most important national security challenge for the Pacific – and that is climate change.

I’m happy to take questions, if there are any.

Journalist: Foreign Minister –

Foreign Minister: Hello.

Journalist: How are you this afternoon?

Foreign Minister: Very well. No ball to throw at you now.

Journalist: No ball. Foreign Minister, the Pacific civil society movement in the Pacific region continue to ask with increasing commitments from Australia in the area of climate change, will there be corresponding commitments to reduce your oil extraction, coal extraction, fossil fuel projects in Australia?

Foreign Minister: Look, we were elected with a very clear mandate to – on climate. And we’re pleased that the election of the government, the election of the parliament means that Australia’s position on climate is back to where we think it should be.

We are a country that has a lot of resources and fossil fuels, and we know what we have to do is transition our economy, just as countries of the Pacific are also seeking to transform and transition their economies, you know, from the use of diesel to the use of clean energy. Same in Australia, but obviously we have a big job to do.

I think we’re at 30 per cent, 30-plus per cent renewables now. We want to be at 80 per cent in just a few years. It’s a very big transition. If we are at all serious about responding to climate change – and we are – we have to deal with both supply and demand and we have to transform our economies. And Australia’s committing to – committed to doing that.

Journalist: Foreign Minister, Fiji’s current minister - Finance Minister talked about advancing communications with the Australia and New Zealand governments in areas for better, more favourable immigration conditions for the citizens of Fiji, such as maybe visa-free entry. How are things going in that regard, particularly in the context of those who work in the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme.

Foreign Minister: Okay, so a couple of points there. First, in relation to visas, we have heard the representations and the views of Pacific leaders. We understand how important facilitating travel is to many countries. Australia doesn’t have a visa-free system with any country except I think New Zealand. So obviously – but we are aware that we need to work to improve processing times and make those logistical barriers less so.

I’m really pleased that we’ve managed to reduce our processing time for Fijians visiting Australia from I think 36 days to 8 days, so from about over a month to about a week. So that’s a good start. And that’s been as a result of, you know, responding to representations and the views of the Pacific.

The second thing you asked about what is the Pacific labour movement schemes, and what I’d say to you is, you know, we – participating countries make a sovereign choice about whether they want to have a Pacific labour movement arrangement with us and how they want to do it. And that’s as it should be. And we’re very happy to work with countries of the region, participating countries, about how they want the scheme, those arrangements, to operate for them.

Journalist: Fiji is backing Australia in the bid for host COP31, how is that coming along? And is Australia getting backing, from other Pacific countries?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, we’re very grateful to Prime Minister Rabuka and others for supporting our bid. We are genuine in our desire to elevate the voices of the Pacific. You know, we understand climate change isn’t abstract for Pacific island peoples. So one of the things when I was Climate Minister that I tried to do – this was a long time ago; I had less grey hair – but we did try to work with Pacific island nations to elevate their voices and listen to their perspectives in the context of global negotiations. And we want to take the same approach.

I appreciate that, you know, it’s a contested spot and I appreciate that some countries in the Pacific have different views about this. What I’d say to them is we’re genuine in our reasons for seeking this.

Journalist: My question is based on the recent Japanese nuclear waste dumping in the Pacific. There are concerns with NGOs and civil society organisations that Australia has not done enough to condemn the Japanese. Also, a recent video uploaded on Twitter of the Australian Ambassador to Japan enjoying a plate of fish and chips from Fukushima waste water dump. So, is this something that Australia can communicate with the Japanese in terms of safeguarding nuclear radiation?

Foreign Minister: We are committed, like you are, to the protection of the Blue Pacific. And I want to say that I also am very respectful of the history in the Pacific. And, you know, I’ve now visited more than – every member of the Pacific Islands Forum and I’ve spoken to people for whom the history of nuclear testing in the Pacific is part of their family history. And I understand the weight of that. I understand why the people of this ocean have the reaction that many do to anything associated with the nuclear industry.

What Australia has said is we want this assessed on the basis of science. And, really, our position is really very similar to that articulated by Prime Minister Rabuka and also Prime Minister Brown of Cook Islands, which is this should be determined by science. And, you know, we appreciate that Japan has sought to be transparent and sought to engage, and we certainly have encouraged that and we would expect it to continue.

Journalist: Just a follow up on the PALM Scheme. The Fijian Minister for Employment had earlier indicated they are working with the Australia Government in trying to address some certain issues under the PALM Scheme in Australia such as minimum working hours and deductions. Could we have some solutions?

Foreign Minister: Sure, well, you know, we were elected are a very clear mandate to improve the conditions for workers in this scheme. And we want to. It isn’t right for people to get exploited – to be exploited in any way. And it’s certainly not right for a labour movement program that the government runs for workers to be exploited. So, you know, we can’t fix everything, but we are working to make sure that the arrangements under which workers come to Australia and the protections that they have when in Australia are improved because we don’t want there to be exploitation. As I said, we want it to work for participating countries, we want it to work for Fiji, just as we want it to work for Australian employers and the Australian economy. So we want it to work for both of us.

Journalist: The increased geopolitical interest in the militarisation of the Pacific in terms of Australia, the military alliance with the US, and the United Kingdom, and talks of New Zealand also joining this Alliance. But obviously there are some concerns as to the safety of the Pacific. Pacific islanders are fearful that this once peaceful region is now becoming increasingly militarised.

Foreign Minister: I’m happy to respond to that, and I thought it was interesting how you phrased your question, if I may. Because Australia always seeks peace. And whilst, you know, from some countries’ perspective we may look like - we certainly have a large continent. In global terms and across the Indo-Pacific or the Asia Pacific region, we are not one of the great powers. And any capability we seek, and we are seeking replacement capability, is to keep peace and stability. Because, in fact, we share an interest, don’t we? We all want peace, we all want stability, and we know both of those things are critical for what we also want, which is prosperity and continued development.

So that’s how we come to this discussion tomorrow, how we come to the discussion at the – in the Southeast Asia – ASEAN, which I was at last week with the Prime Minister. That’s where – that is our motivation. And I think we do live in a time where there’s greater competition between great powers. And one of the things we all I think should be doing is to encourage, urge the responsible management of that competition. We all have an interest in that. Thank you very much.

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