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Transcript of media conference: Perth: 18 August 2008



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON STEPHEN MR SMITH, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 18 August 2008

TITLE: Media Conference, Perth.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much; sorry I'm a bit late.

Three things I want to comment on this morning and I'm happy to take your questions.

Firstly, the seasonal workers pilot scheme which the Government has announced for the Pacific. This is a very good development for the Pacific and a good development for Australia. And I'm very pleased that the Government has indicated that a pilot program of 2500 Pacific Island seasonal workers will commence. And we'll see now that pilot program see workers in the horticultural industry from PNG, from Tonga, from Vanuatu and from Kiribati. Three of those countries, of course, have been involved in the New Zealand seasonal labour pilot program.

The Government came to office with an election commitment that it would examine the New Zealand scheme with a view to establishing a pilot program in Australia. And in the course of my travels to New Zealand, I have spoken to New Zealand officials and made an assessment of the success of the New Zealand pilot program. So we're very pleased that we were able to introduce the pilot program as announced yesterday by Agriculture Minister Tony Burke.

This is something that the horticultural industry has been calling for, for some considerable time. Indeed, in 2005, from memory, there was a Senate Committee report which called jointly on a bipartisan basis for the capacity for workers from the Pacific to come to Australia for the purposes of our horticultural industry.

So we very much look forward to the pilot program commencing. The program, of course, will be subject to very rigorous standards, both in terms of the assessment of workers who come, and also the conditions under which they are employed in Australia. And they have been outlined both in the published materials and by my colleague, Tony Burke.

Secondly, Georgia. Can I again make it clear that the Australian Government very strongly expects that Russia will withdraw its forces from Georgia to the positions that they occupied prior to the commencement of the recent hostilities on 6 and 7 August. That is absolutely essential. It's absolutely essential that Russia and Georgia honour the terms of the ceasefire that they signed, and the conditions of the ceasefire that they signed under the auspices of President Sarkozy from France, chairing as he does the European Union at this point in time.

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So it's absolutely essential that Russia return its forces to the positions they occupied prior to 6 and 7 August. This will enable a ceasefire to be effective and also enable the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to commence its peacekeeping and monitoring role, both in Georgia itself and also enable peacekeeping and monitoring roles to occur in South Ossetia.

Finally, Zimbabwe. Can I say that I'm disappointed that over the weekend we still haven't seen an agreement arising from the talks conducted with the Southern African Development Community Organisation chaired by President Mbeki of South Africa and attended by both Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai.

We very much hope that an agreement there will go some way towards reflecting the rule of the Zimbabwe people. But I again make the point that any settlement of that issue which doesn't involve a significant role for Mr Tsvangirai will effectively be a farce. Mr Mugabe comes to this with no electoral or democratic credentials whatsoever. And it's absolutely essential that Mr Tsvangirai play a leading role in any political settlement which emerges from these talks.

I'm happy to respond to your questions on those matters and anything else of interest today.

QUESTION: What about the Niue countries from around the Pacific which aren't included? And that's going to cause us consternation anywhere?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's a pilot program and it'll be reviewed after 18 months. As I've gone around the Pacific, very many of the Pacific Island countries have indicated their interest to me, as they have to others of my colleagues.

But I think there are two points to make. One, it's a pilot program and, as a consequence of it being a pilot program, the capacity is there for us to give consideration to other countries down the track. That will depend upon the success of the pilot program.

I've also seen, closer to home, domestically, requests that we give consideration to other areas; areas that have been mentioned in terms of where this work might be conducted include Swan Hill and Griffith.

I note, for example, that the Western Australian horticultural industry today indicated that they would like consideration given to south-west areas. We're currently going through the demands for needs in these areas, and so it's open to other regions who believe they have the need to put their names and their regions forward.

But any pilot program is necessarily restricted. And so what we've done here is to build on the work done by the New Zealanders; so three of the countries that are involved in our pilot program are involved in the New Zealand pilot program, the three with the exception of Papua New Guinea. But we will review it.

I don't think it will cause any, to use your phrase, any consternation at Niue. I think the Pacific Island Forum will see this as a positive development, building on the New Zealand experience.

QUESTION: Is it the Pacific today and Asia tomorrow? The CFMEU is worried about that.

STEPHEN SMITH: No, no, we've made it clear, as we did in the run-up for the last election, that we would examine the New Zealand pilot program, which is a Pacific Island Forum pilot program.

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We've had very strong representations from Pacific Island countries that this would be of great assistance to them, that it would be of great assistance to them in terms of giving some of their young men - and men in particular - the chance to acquire skills, the chance to get some work experience and also the remittance of their wages to their own home countries of considerable benefit to those Pacific Island countries.

So this, we think, will be of benefit to Pacific Island countries, and we hope, of benefit to the horticultural industry, which have made the point over a number of years that they have acute seasonal shortages. But we are certainly not proposing to go beyond the ambit of the Pacific Island countries, so far as this pilot program is concerned.

QUESTION: Is there any guarantee that you can get these seasonal workers to return home after they've finished their work?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we don't have any worries that they won't return home; that's certainly been the New Zealand experience. And certainly, we will be very rigorous in terms of an examination of those individuals who put themselves forward. And we will also be very rigorous about the regime which applies in Australia, both in terms of meeting the visa requirements, but also meeting by both employers and employees any obligations that are placed on them.

The New Zealand experience has been that returning home has not been a problem, largely because on the basis of my conversations with New Zealand officials, the people who come regard it of considerable advantage to have had that opportunity and they don't want to squander the opportunity in the future.

So we're not concerned about overstaying, but we are ensuring that very rigorous procedures and requirements will apply; both in terms of the assessment of people who come and the conditions that both employers and employees satisfy when they're here.

Some are rightly sort of criticising this plan [indistinct] the race card. [Indistinct] use that further to say that, you know, these people are coming in and taking, you know Australian jobs.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've made it clear that they won't be taking Australian jobs. We've made it clear that this initiative is at a consequence of Australian industry, particularly the horticultural industry, saying to government - not just our government, but our predecessor - over a considerable period of time that there are acute seasonal shortages that

they need this capacity to get rotting fruit off their trees. And that's what we're doing.

QUESTION: Are you worried that that race argument could be used though as a way to criticise the pilot?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, people who want to mount that argument can mount that argument. I think that the Australian public will view the success of the pilot program after they've seen it in operation for a period of time. That's why we say firstly, it is a pilot; secondly, that we will review it after 18 months to ensure its effectiveness.

I've seen a range of criticisms about the proposed scheme; none of them have had any impact on my thinking. And I certainly don't respond to anyone who makes a point which is a racist point.

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But I've seen a range of suggested criticisms of the Government's proposal. I haven't seen any criticism come from the relevant industry. What I've seen from the horticultural industry is firstly welcoming the scheme, secondly, sections of the horticultural industry, including in

Western Australia, pleading to be part of the pilot program, and thirdly, the National Farmers' Federation out there saying they very strongly welcome it. I have seen the Liberal Party out there trying to mount some criticism in what, frankly, to me, has been a very confused way.

We've seen Liberal members of Parliament party to a Senate committee report which effectively unanimously supported the road the current government is going down. We saw recently former Foreign Minister Downer indicate that he took this proposal to the previous government on a number of occasions, from memory two occasions and was unsuccessful. But he strongly supported it.

You know, I am quite frankly unsure what Andrew Robb, the Shadow Foreign Minister, is seeking to say. Last week he seemed to be saying there hadn't been enough time to give it consideration. Well, this is something that has been under consideration for a considerable period of time, as I say, for a number of years the horticulture industry has been making these points to us. So I am not quite sure what the Liberal Party are saying, or standing for, or believing, on this particular issue.

QUESTION: So if it is a successful, what sort of numbers are we talking about? The Farmers' Federation is saying 22,000 workers.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we're currently content with the pilot program that we've put forward - 2500 over a three-year period from four countries and we will review it after an 18-month period. That review will obviously encompass the effectiveness and the success and can also give consideration to whether it might be appropriate in the future for other countries from the Pacific to join and whether other regions who are calling out for the scheme because of seasonal shortages. But we believe it was very important in the first instance, not to introduce a scheme across the board but to have pilot program to gauge its effectiveness. So, the only sets of numbers we're talking about at the moment are the 2500 and we'll be content with that for the present.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] today that you promised to do more with less, in terms of government staff, are not working, you've got a couple of very good parliamentary secretaries in Bob McMullan and Duncan Kerr. Can Penny Wong benefit from greater staff?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I am certainly not going to make any comments about things other than in my own portfolio area, so far as ministerial arrangements are concerned, but you've raised Duncan Kerr and Bob McMullan respectively, our parliamentary secretaries for the Pacific and for development assistance. Both Duncan and Bob have played a key role in the assessment and development of this program and they've done very good work and we're very happy with the arrangements in my portfolio.

QUESTION: Could you manage your portfolios without?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I am very happy with the arrangements in my portfolio - they're both doing very good work.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've made it clear when I announced the government's decision, so far as the IAEA board of governors meeting a couple of weeks ago was concerned, that we

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would approach the meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group in a positive and constructive frame of mind. The meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group is scheduled for the 21st or the 22nd of August and as we did with the IAEA, we'll give consideration to the government's position and Australia's position in the run-up to that meeting.

There were very many people who said that having made a decision in respect of the IAEA, it logically and naturally followed, the same position would be adopted so far as the NSG is concerned and I don't aver from that. I simply make the point, it's a separate meeting. We will give consideration to what other countries’ views are and what the view of the secretariat of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group is but we are approaching that in a positive and constructive framework bearing in mind the strategic importance of that arrangement for both India and the United States.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, the ethnic community's [indistinct] here and in other states have said that schemes like you're proposing here today ignore large blocks of immigrants with high unemployment that we should be taking more advantage of that rather than getting in outside workers.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I simply make this point; that for at least five or six years we have had representations from the horticultural industry that on a seasonal basis they have very severe shortages of workers. We've also made it clear that we won't allow this pilot

program to be effected in a manner which excludes someone currently in Australia from having the chance of employment.

And so anyone who's out there who wants to engage in seasonal working activity in the horticultural industry seems to me that there's a good opportunity there. What the horticultural industry's been saying to this government and saying to our predecessor is that on a seasonal basis region by region there are acute shortages.

The reason they have welcomed introduction of this scheme is that they see it as solving a problem which has been ongoing for a number of years. If anyone is out there wanting to work in the horticultural industry on a seasonal basis on the basis of what I've seen and read and heard from the horticultural industry, it sounds like there's a good opportunity there for them.

QUESTION: What sort of numbers are involved in the New Zealand [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the New Zealand scheme, and I am happy to stand corrected from memory the New Zealand scheme, they cover more countries than we do. They have the three that I've referred to plus Samoa and Tuvalu. My memory is the New Zealand scheme is

about 5000 but I am happy to stand corrected but I am also happy for my office to provide that factual detail.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, with your [indistinct] relationship, if I could put it that way, with Condoleezza Rice, have you heard from her at all or [indistinct].

STEPHEN SMITH: No, I haven't had a conversation with Secretary of State Rice since she was last in Perth. Of course at officer level and at officials' level discussions are held. The Australian view on Georgia and South Ossetia is quite clear. I made our position clear last week when the hostilities commenced which was that we wanted hostilities to cease, we wanted there to be a cease-fire. We were very concerned about the violence in the adverse humanitarian consequences which was why at the end of last week I announced $1 million

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assistance from Australia for displaced people in Georgia and we welcomed very much the cease-fire.

We are very concerned that the Russians have ignored the terms and conditions of the ceasefire, which is why we again call on Russia to withdraw its troops to the positions that they occupied prior to the commencement of hostilities recently on the 6th and 7th of August.

QUESTION: Do you agree that Georgia may have been a contributing factor in the outbreak of hostilities in the first place?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there has been tension between Georgia and Russia for a considerable period of time. That's one point.

Secondly, there has been tension over South Ossetia also for a considerable period of time, really since the 1990s.

Australia has made it clear that we respect Georgia's territorial sovereignty over South Ossetia, and that longstanding view continues.

Some have made the assessment that Georgia's military activity in South Ossetia on the 6th and 7th of August enabled Russia to respond. Whatever people's assessment of that, it's quite clear that the Russian response was massively disproportionate, massively disproportionate. It has not been limited to South Ossetia; it has extended to Georgia proper. And that is why officials, at my request, both in Canberra and in Moscow, have made the points that I have made to you, made those points strongly and privately to Russian officials.

So whatever people's view as the cause of what has been longstanding tension between Georgia and Russia, and longstanding tension going back nearly two decades over South Ossetia itself, whatever people's view of the cause of the recent hostilities, one thing is crystal clear: the Russian military response into Georgia proper was disproportionate and they need to immediately return to the positions they occupied before the 6th and 7th of August to enable the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to engage in international peacekeeping and monitoring role in Georgia itself.

QUESTION: How did you decide - with the countries which you selected compared to the New Zealand ones which missed out - how did you decide that Samoa and others would miss out?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we simply made a judgment. I mean, there is a lot that Australia is doing in the Pacific. We are, for example, initiating or have initiated discussions with a number of countries for what we describe as a Pacific Partnership for Development. Samoa is one of those countries.

So there are a range of things that we are doing by way of our development assistance in the Pacific.

We chose the particular countries on the basis of the experience to date looking at the New Zealand experience, so those countries which had some experience in the New Zealand program. We thought that would be of assistance in our own program.

Papua New Guinea has been making representations for a considerable period of time of the importance that they see and attach to a program of this nature.

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So we made our judgments looking at the New Zealand experience and also looking at the array of countries in the Pacific.

But it was always going to be the case - and I made this point to my counterparts over the period that we've been in office - that we're examining a pilot program, and any pilot program is of itself necessarily restricted both in terms of the countries from which you can source prospective workers and also the regions in which it might be conducted, which is why we've said we'll effect a review of the pilot program after 18 months to satisfy ourselves of its effectiveness.

That will necessarily involve consideration as to whether we might want to look at other countries or other regions of Australia for the pilot program to be conducted.

QUESTION: Did Samoa press you to be involved?

STEPHEN SMITH: Samoa was one of any number of countries who made the point to us that they were interested in taking part in any program that we might establish. And at the end of last week, through officials in our department and in our posts overseas, we indicated to relevant Pacific Island countries the nature of the pilot program.

So there may well be some disappointment that countries haven't been included, but I make the same point now as I did then, which is a pilot program is of itself necessarily restrictive.

QUESTION: Just on the other hand, do you think you could do more if you had more parliamentary support or the staff support?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm happy with arrangements in my portfolio. I'm very happy with the work that my two parliamentary secretaries are doing, and I'm very happy with the work that my staff and department do.

QUESTION: Do you think it keeps you [indistinct] I mean, it was a key, a big part of the election, we can do more with less. Do you think that's still the case?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm very happy with arrangements in my portfolio. I'm very happy with the good work my department does. I'm very happy with the good work my staff do, and I'm very happy with the very good work that my parliamentary secretaries do.