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Transcript of interview with Philippa Tolley: Radio New Zealand International's Pacific Dateline Program: 11 October 2010: Fiji; Pacific Island Forum; Focus of Australian aid to the Pacific; regional processing centre

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The Hon Richard Marles MP Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs

Transcript of interview with Philippa Tolley on Radio New Zealand International's Pacific Dateline Program

Subjects: Fiji, Pacific Island Forum, Focus of Australian aid to the Pacific, regional processing centre

Transcript, E&OE

11 October 2010

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: If we could start off with what is probably the issue in the Pacific region that raises most difficulties at the moment, and that's Fiji. The election date of 2014 is the one that the interim regime has stuck to for some time. The United States now has come out and said that look, we'll work with that. How is Australia feeling about that election date?

RICHARD MARLES: I think that we don't accept what's been put forward by the Fiji regime. Look we want to see Fiji return to a democracy as soon as we can, and a return to the rule of law, but I think it's very important that Fiji make steps along that road at the earliest opportunity. 2014 seems to be a long way out there in the future from our point of view. But more to the point, we're not seeing the kind of expressions that we would like to see about a genuine return to democracy in Fiji, and I think that's the issue of concern for us.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: That hasn't changed for some time though you know, 2006 was when the interim regime took power. There haven't been any signs of movement and all the efforts on behalf of Australia and New Zealand haven't made any change there. What can you see as an approach that will see some change and some sort of interaction?

RICHARD MARLES: Ultimately, we do need to see some movement from Fiji but I think it is very important from the point of view of Australia that we make a statement against the kind of regime that we're seeing now in Fiji. Perhaps to put it in a more positive way, that we make a statement in favour of democracy and the rule of law in the region. Of course that's a statement that the region itself has made, through the Pacific Island Forum, and I think that's a very important statement. I think what we need to be saying as a region is that we do stand for democratic government. We do stand for the rule of law, we are opposed to a coup culture, and that that is not only a statement for all of us within the region but actually in a way a statement by the region to the rest of the world about how things are done in the Pacific. Now-

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: That statement has been out there for some time though, there hasn't been any change and the Commodore has said, look, if you don't work with us maybe we won't get round to elections in 2014. Isn't it better to say, okay, we'll work with you for 2014 rather than keeping on with something that hasn't resulted in any earlier declaration at this stage?

RICHARD MARLES: I wouldn't accept the proposition that there's no value in what's in the stance that's been taken and what's been done. I think it's an important statement for the region to make of itself and the statement that the region makes to the rest of the world, I think there is importance in that alone. And I think it is an important thing to say to Fiji as

well, that this is where the region stands. What would be of concern, in our view, is if we saw any conduct which sought - which could be taken in any way as undermining the position that the region had. Because I don't think that is going to result in any quicker return to democracy in Fiji, and I don't think that's going to see any quicker return of the restoration of human rights in Fiji. So I think it's not to say that, you know... we'd like to see things move quicker in Fiji, there is no question of that; but it is very important that the stand that we take, I think, is maintained.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: Does there need to be any variation though to make sure that the regime doesn't abandon that date and push things out further?

RICHARD MARLES: When you're talking about variations - let me go back a step. When you're talking about variations, the question that has to be asked at every point is whether or not any different course is going to give rise to any quicker return to democracy in Fiji. We're not convinced that any of the propositions that are put forward in that regard are going to yield a better result. And what is important is that we do maintain the stance that we've made, and what is also important is that in whatever behaviour we engage in going forward, that we're not seen to undermine, or give any comfort to the regime that undermines the statement we made. It's a very important principle that the region has established, that it stands for democracy and the rule of law, and I think that there is a great value in maintaining that.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: You've mentioned the stand of the Pacific Island Forum. The Commodore has moved to try and maybe divide the unity of the region and to focus more on the Melanesian spearhead group and that group of Melanesian countries that may be slightly more sympathetic to Fiji's point of view. We've had one major meeting where the Chairmanship was going to be handed to Fiji, has been abandoned. Next week we now have another summit, a special summit going to be held in the Solomons. Has Australia had diplomatic input with its allies in the region?

RICHARD MARLES: On this trip, we've been to three Melanesian countries within the region. The... what we understand from each of those countries is a - and sorry, they're Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and PNG - what we understand from each of those countries is that they are anxious about what they're seeing in Fiji, that they share our concern that there isn't any real movement in Fiji towards a return to democracy. The.. in fact if anything, there have been some concerning developments in the last month or so which would seem to indicate Fiji moving in a worse direction.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: Which ones are you talking about?

RICHARD MARLES: In terms of Chaudhry, in terms of the developments with the Fiji Times. Both of those don't give us a sense of confidence that this is a regime which is seriously engaging in a move down a path towards an active electoral politics at some point in the near future. They seem to be actions which in fact are not about electoral politics at all. And the implications they have for human rights are a concern. Now I think the concern we have is shared by the countries that we met. And of course they have a sense of wanting to see a return of Fiji to the fold and to be honest that sentiment is shared by everyone, and it is

shared by Australia. But they understand that for Fiji to return to the fold in circumstances other than a restoration of democracy would have profoundly negative effects for our region.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: I understand though that there were meetings between these leaders in New York when the.. last month, when the General Assembly was on, and the plan is to hold a reconciliation ceremony and to discuss giving the Chairmanship of the MSG to Fiji. Which will be giving exactly that message.

RICHARD MARLES: Well let's see how it all plays out. But I can only say what has been said to us, and there is a definite concern on the part of each of the countries with whom we met about the situation in Fiji. And I don't... There is no sense that we're picking up, that there is any sense of being relaxed about the circumstances in Fiji. There is an enormous amount of concern throughout Melanesia.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: From some of those Melanesian countries.


PHILIPPA TOLLEY: They would then see though the sentiment has been expressed that it's better to work with Fiji than to put them on the outside. Would Australia be concerned if for example the Chairmanship of the MSG was handed to Fiji?

RICHARD MARLES: Ultimately that's of course a matter for the MSG, and I don't think that I want to venture an opinion on.. I don't want to be telling the MSG what it should or shouldn't do. But we would be.. the stance that the Forum has taken in relation to Fiji, I think, is a really important statement for the region and I think it's important that the integrity of that stance is maintained.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: If the MSG does go forward and say the Chairmanship is given to Fiji, would you think that'd be giving succour to Fiji and the Commodore's attempt to maybe sideline the Forum and possibly divide the region, have a Melanesian/Polynesian split developing?

RICHARD MARLES: It's very important that we maintain a unity within the Forum, and that's probably the simplest way to answer that question. I absolutely think it's important that we maintain the unity that we had around the position which we had in the Forum. All the conversations and discussions that we've had in the last week suggest to me that the unity we've had within the Forum, that we can be confident in expecting it to continue.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY:You don't think there's any threat to that?

RICHARD MARLES: No. What we're hearing from the Melanesian countries is one of support for the position that we've maintained within the Forum. Now you know, what the MSG does is ultimately a matter for the MSG, Australia is not a part of it, and we don't seek to influence it, but we think that the important regional statement that has been made is that which has been made by the Forum; and I can only say that in the conversations that I'd had with those Melanesian countries which we had during the last week, there is support for the position at the Forum.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: In your tour around these various nations, what is the feedback you've been getting about Australia's involvement in the region. Do people feel it's too much, too heavy handed as a metropolitan power? Not enough? - for example your Prime Minister

wasn't at the Forum despite holding the Chairmanship.

RICHARD MARLES: I think there is an enormous amount of goodwill towards Australia and New Zealand within the region. We were in Samoa for example, and the feeling of goodwill in that country towards both Australia and New Zealand, and for that matter of course the rest of the region about the contributions that we've made in the restoration of that

country after its really devastating tsunami is overwhelming. There is a deep affection, I think. And I reckon that that characterises the relationship more than any other sense. And I don't mean just with Samoa but throughout the region. With Papua New Guinea I think there is a deep affection between Papua New Guineans and Australians and New Zealanders, as I

think there is in reverse. So I do think there is a very strong foundation in the relationship that is had between Australia and the Pacific Island countries. And for what it's worth I would make that observation in relation to New Zealand as well.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: There has been criticism in the past though about Australia's attention on the region, and maybe at times the focus has not been there, it's been seen more important to focus on Asia and the rest. How significant is it and how much attention needs to be put on what indeed is the backyard?

RICHARD MARLES: I think you characterise that exactly right in terms of it being our neighbourhood. We will see trade deals done around the world, we'll see various conflicts in the world, we'll see powers emerge and others fall. Whatever we see in the rest of the world and however that goes, this will always be our neighbourhood. And that is one thing which

will be always constant in our relations going forward. And for that reason the Pacific is fundamentally important to Australia's national interests and to our foreign relations. It's why I was so keen to get out on a trip within the Pacific as soon as possible having been appointed to this role - and of course as soon as possible having seen the formation of the Gillard Government.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: So will you be advocating the new government changes in any way its interaction with the region?

RICHARD MARLES: I actually think that in terms of the significance of the region within Government and foreign policy thinking, I think the significance is there. I guess where I would agree in part with what you're saying is that I do think that the significance of the region within the Australian public debate, within the media and within the community, its profile certainly needs to be raised. For me that is a really important objective in my time in this role - to try and raise the public consciousness within Australia of the significance of the

region to our foreign affairs and to our national interest.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: And aid? That's going to remain on a steady course?

RICHARD MARLES: Yes. It will, and of course we have committed to... are committing .5% of GDP to aid by 2015. That's going to see a really significant increase in the amount of aid over the next few years. Over the next 4 to 5 years, roughly speaking, we're going to see the Australian global aid budget almost double. Inevitably, one would imagine, that is going to mean an increase within the Pacific. Although of course, the specifics of that will be a

matter for bilateral negotiations between our partners in the Pacific and one which is based on need. But aid certainly has a significant role to play. Now in saying that I think it's also really important that we have a sophisticated and intelligent approach to our aid, so that we're absolutely getting the best bang for our buck within the region and so that there is a sense of satisfaction I guess on the part of receiving countries about the use that aid is being put to within their country. It will remain a very important part of our relationship. We're hoping to hone it, improve it and have it give rise to a greater impact.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY:You were just talking about aid before we had that pause then. Whatever the amount that's going in there, the criticism often is that it becomes boomerang aid. You put in consultants, you pay your own people to be there, and then it comes back, and when it comes away, actually not much has gone with the country and it's not always been that successful. You talked about tinkering; are you going to look at refocusing? New Zealand has changed its aid focus, there's some work to be done with what New Zealand's chosen to fund and now, what Australia funds...

RICHARD MARLES: It's a very good question that you ask. You'd be aware that there was a joint review by both PNG and Australia of the Development Cooperation Treaty with PNG which of course is the largest recipient of aid within the region, and really one of the two big recipients of aid that we provide. One of the conclusions that came out of that review was related to the point that you've made, and the amount of technical assistance and the amount of technical advisors, the proportion of that in terms of the total overall budget to the country. And we are having a review of that issue specifically in relation to PNG. That review is in the process of being completed but what I expect would come out of that is a decrease in the amount of technical assistance that we provide as a proportion to the overall budget - and therefore of course a reduction in the amount of technical advisors. It would be important to say however, in making that point, that I do think that there is a place for technical advice and technical assistance. To take PNG as the example, actually Australian technical advice - not just Australian technical advice but technical advice funded by the Australian aid programme - is in high demand from a range of those ministries. So often it's the request coming from the PNG side. But particularly as they go into the LNG project which is such a big thing for that country, they are looking for technical assistance in the lead-up to the implementation of that project. And so it's going to be important to provide that through aid.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: So that specifically quite technical project aside though, if you're changing it away from technical help, from consultant support, where is the money going to go? Into the Government, into grassroots, how are you going to refocus that?

RICHARD MARLES: If you look at the review that was done in relation to PNG there was a view that the aid that we're providing PNG should be more focused. In other words at the moment that to put in the negative way, that it's being spread too thin. In general terms that's a proposition that we think has some validity. Again, the Government, both governments actually are in the process of having a joint response to that review. So we are minded to be thinking about how we can have our aid focused on some particular areas. Education is obviously a key. For example in PNG, there are certain service delivery aid projects that

we've had, for example the provision of textbooks in relation to education which have had some really positive outcomes. And I think, looking at those programmes that have been successful and building upon them is a pretty important principle.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: -quite a pragmatic approach -

RICHARD MARLES: I just think that it's an important principle to have regarding our aid now. Obviously I'm talking about the situation in PNG and there is more work to go in finalising our response to that review. But I think it was actually a really good exercise, I think in drawing some lessons more generally about the way in which aid is provided in the


PHILIPPA TOLLEY: Just finally, when it comes to immigration we've had the Pacific Solution, that's been rode back on, obviously your current Prime Minister has approached East Timor looking at some options. Are you likely to go back to Pacific countries again and ask them to become involved in dealing with the problem of asylum seekers?

RICHARD MARLES: Our focus is on East Timor, is the short answer to that question. We've made it clear that this is a large regional problem, that it needs a regional solution. That we want a solution which does have the involvement of the UN and a solution which involves a country which is a signatory to the Refugee Convention. Of course I understand there are countries in the Pacific who are signatories to that convention as well, but East Timor is where our effort's focused, and we are working with them quite closely. There is obviously water to go under the bridge in terms of whether or not East Timor ultimately agrees to having the processing centre there, but that's where the focus is at.


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