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Transcript of interview with ABC Radio: Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial\nContact Group: 15 July 2008



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M IN IST ER FO R FO R EIG N A F FA IR S H O N ST E PH EN SM ITH , M P

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 15 July 2008

TITLE: Interview with ABC Radio - Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group

JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, what was said behind the closed doors?

SMITH: Well obviously I’m not going to give a running commentary on the meetings we’ve been having. I’m a member of the Ministerial Contact Group and Mr Tu’a the Foreign Minister from Tonga is our Chair and he’ll be speaking at the relevant time.

I think it’s fair though to say that we’ve had productive conversations, frank exchange of views and it’s certainly helped us to form our views about whether there is a political will and commitment to have an election before the end of March 2009 and also whether they’re in a prepared state to conduct such an election. We’ll be coming to a conclusion about that in the course of the next day or so.

JOURNALIST: So you do think that progress is being made and they’re moving in the right direction, but how?

SMITH: I’m not going to comment on my assessment preliminary though it may be, about their progress towards an election, that’s a matter for the Contact Group. But I think it is important to make this point, I think the mere fact of having the talks is useful. I think having the dialogue is of itself constructive.

No-one wants Fiji to be outside the Pacific Islands Forum or not a fully fledged member of the Pacific, and so our aspiration is to encourage Fiji to meet the commitment it gave. But we’ll be making our conclusions, coming to our conclusions about that at the end of our time here. But I’d also make this point: that will be the subject of our report to the Pacific Island Forum leaders, the report we make to them for their consideration is not necessarily something we will make public.

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JOURNALIST: What did you think of Frank Bainimarama?

SMITH: All the conversations we had were civilised and personable. The phrase I’ve heard by others is that they were conducted in a gentlemanly fashion. I think that’s right. They were frank exchanges of views, they were serious issues, and there were serious issues where there were differing views, and views strongly held. But the conversations were held in a polite, professional and constructive manner.

JOURNALIST: Are you still worried about Fiji though if democracy is not restored? Do you hold grave fears for the country’s future?

SMITH: Absolutely, I mean our very strong view, both Australia’s and the Pacific Islands Forum, our very strong view is Fiji should meet the commitment it gave to the Pacific Islands Forum in Tonga in October 2007, and conduct an election.

Fiji returning to democracy, returning to respect for the rule of law, returning to respect for human rights is absolutely essential, that’s in Fiji’s interests, it’s in Australia’s interests, and it’s in the Pacific’s interest.

But those general points are points that we will make tomorrow when the Ministerial Contact Group meets with the deposed former Prime Minister Qarase and the deposed former Opposition Leader Mr Beddoes. So tomorrow we’ll extend our talks from the Interim Government to people who were on the adverse end of the military intervention. So I think we will also find our conversations with deposed Prime Minister Qarase and deposed Opposition Leader Beddoes very helpful to our deliberations.

JOURNALIST: Did you come away from today’s meetings feeling more optimistic or less optimistic?

SMITH: Well, it’s not a matter of feeling optimistic, it’s a matter of carefully coming to a conclusion about what our report should be. We’ve had one day of meetings, we’ve got another tomorrow and we will deliberate carefully and come to a conclusion which we will report to Leaders at the Forum in Niue in August.

JOURNALIST: You’ve now met the Commodore, you’ve sat down with him, are you less convinced or more convinced that Fiji is on the right path.

SMITH: I’m not going to be drawn on that because that will draw on the content of what our report might ultimately be. That’s not a matter for me to say, that’s a matter for the Contact Group. But I do make this point

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that the mere fact of having the conversation is of itself beneficial is of itself useful, so I thought the talks we had with Commodore Bainimarama were frank, civilised and dignified but also constructive and worth while having.

JOURNALIST: There’s now been the announcement of the two people filling the diplomatic appointments by Fiji in Australia. Do you see any contradiction in having travel bans on people associated with the military government here and at the same time accepting their nominations to fill those very important diplomatic roles?

SMITH: There’s no contradiction at all. We’ve made it clear that our attitude as a nation, Australia’s attitude to Fiji, very much depends on its progress towards an election. I made it clear publicly and privately that if the Interim Government made genuine progress towards the holding of an election that would factor in our thinking.

Our response to it, and appropriate response to it, was to say to Fiji you’ve appointed an Election Supervisor it’s now appropriate in our view for you to take up the prospect of diplomatic representation in Australia through a Consul-General in Sydney and an Acting High Commissioner.

JOURNALIST: It’s one step forward and two steps back though and now they announced the Electoral Commissioner at the same time, now they say that the elections aren’t going to happen now until they get the changes they want. The elections aren’t going to happen if the SDL party are going to be standing.

SMITH: I will not personally be drawn on your own analysis, but I specifically make this point, I’ve made the point publicly and privately to the Interim Fiji Government that our travel bans are directly related to their progress towards democracy. Travel bans are there because Fiji is not a democratic state. If and when Fiji moves, genuinely makes progress towards a democratic state, conducts an election then it will return to business as usual.

Travel bans are there to send a message and a signal that Australia as a member of the Pacific Islands Forum does not like military intervention. Disputes, disagreements should be solved democratically in nation states in the Pacific and not via the use of military force.

[Ends]