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Transcript of doorstop: Opening Ceremony, Pacific Islands Forum, Nuku' alofa, Tonga: 16 October 2007: bilateral meetings; Fiji; RAMSI; East Timor; China; Commodore Bainimarama.

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DATE: 16 October 2007

TITLE: Doorstop - Pacific Islands Forum, Nuku’alofa, Tonga - opening ceremony, bilateral meetings, Fiji, RAMSI, East Timor, China, Commodore Bainimarama.

DOWNER: Well I don’t have a lot to say. We had the Opening Ceremony of course this morning which was a very fine ceremony. And during the course of this afternoon some presentations from Associate Members and Partner Organisations. So it’s been quite a good start. I've had a bilateral meeting with Helen Clark and also with Prime Minister Sevele, and had a good discussion with Sir Michael Somare. So it’s a great opportunity to get together

with a lot of the different leaders here and talk through bilateral issues and other issues that we might have to deal with, as well as the issues that’s on the agenda, you know, a number of issues that we’re particularly focused here on doing what we can through the Pacific Islands Forum to encourage Fiji back to the path to democracy but to also get a continuation of support in the Pacific Islands Forum for the Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands. But anyway on those issues I’m getting pretty positive messages but we’ll see how it goes.

JOURNALIST: What are your impressions on how other leaders are thinking in terms of the Fiji issue?

DOWNER: Well my guess, you know I haven’t spoken to them all, I’ve spoken in the margins to a few, my sense is that they believe in the fundamental principles of the forum which are laid down over many years but were drawn together in 2000 after the coups in Fiji and Solomon Islands at that time with the Biketawa Declaration. But I think there’s strong support for RAMSI, a continuation of RAMSI, and there’s strong support for Fiji to return to the path of democracy. And we hope that during the course of tomorrow when we have the retreat up at Vava’u that we’ll hear from the Fijians about how they are getting their country back on the path of democracy. Of course Commodore Bainimarama said some time ago that in principle he would support the return of Fiji to democracy by early 2009 but we’ve not heard anything more about that since that statement. So I think we’ll all be very interested to hear what the Fijians have to say tomorrow.

JOURNALIST: Are sanctions helping them on the path to democracy?

DOWNER: Well I hope they are. See we have with New Zealand smart sanctions which I think are being pretty effective actually. I think they put a lot of pressure on people in Fiji because, you know, Australia and New Zealand are the kind of metropolitan powers as they

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like to say in this Forum of the South Pacific. And not being able to visit Sydney and Brisbane or Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, or Adelaide, it’s obviously a great disadvantage to people. So I think they have been effective. But, you know, everything takes time in diplomacy in my experience. I tell you, I just want to say this, I spoke with the European Commission representative here as well. I think the European Union has been very helpful. I want to say that. I think the European Union in its insistence on sticking with the Cotonou Agreement and making it clear to Fiji that the way forward in terms from aid from the European Union includes a return to democracy that’s really helped because Fiji’s very dependent not just on access to the European market for its sugar industry but restructuring funds from the European Commission.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] because the speeches we heard this morning from Tonga and PNG was they seem to be opposed to punitive approach and Australia and New Zealand have been very forthright in their opinions…..

DOWNER: Well of course Australia and New Zealand have the leverage don’t they, that other countries in the Pacific don’t have. So we turn to Pacific countries to help us in our encouragement of Fiji back to the path of democracy and they’ll do that in their own ways.

But I think what Australia and New Zealand is doing is effective and I hope that the support of people like Sir Michael Somare in encouraging Commodore Bainimarama to return to democracy will help as well. They’ll do things in their own ways. We don’t lecture them about how they should handle the relationship.

JOURNALIST: On RAMSI, do you think this Forum will push for some changes how it runs, how it operates?

DOWNER: I don’t think this Forum will, no, because at last year’s Forum meeting it was agreed to set up a review of RAMSI. That review committee’s now completed its work. I think it’s a very constructive review and I hope, well they’ll note the review here. I hope they’ll do more than that. I hope that they’ll express positive views about the review because I think they’ve done a very good job. You know, the fact that the Solomon Islands government has decided to boycott the meeting is a matter for them. I personally don’t really see what virtue that brings. From Solomon’s point of view I can’t believe for a minute it’s in their interest to boycott a meeting when all 15 countries that are supporting them are getting together to inter-alia talk about the support they’re providing for the Solomon Islands. I mean I would have thought it would be a great opportunity to come a long and talk about the review and talk about the issue. But they don’t have to. There’s nothing that’s compulsory in this

world. It’s good to be wise but if they’re not then you can boycott the meeting and then of course you can’t contribute.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] unwise?

DOWNER: I think they’re unwise not to have attended the meeting. I think that is unwise.

JOURNALIST: Do you acknowledge though that there are problems [inaudible] that the Solomon Islands government feels so out of the loop on it?

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DOWNER: No I don’t actually. I think you should talk to a wider range of people in the Solomon Islands to get a better perspective. I don’t think, you know, somebody like the Attorney General, so called Attorney General of the Solomon Islands, Mr Moti, is someone I would take advice from to be honest with you. He’s somebody who’s wanted on child-sex charges in Australia. He’s somebody who should be before a court in Australia. He’s an Australian citizen. Any advice we might be getting from him or advice he might be giving to others isn’t really a matter of great interest to us and we don’t take it terribly seriously.

JOURNALIST: But surely the Prime Minister himself has some standing in the matter?

DOWNER: Well has standing in the matter but so does the Cabinet, so does the Parliament, and so do the people of the Solomon Islands. I’ll tell you this - the vast majority of the people in the Solomon Islands, over 90% in a recent survey, support RAMSI and the work that RAMSI is doing. And I think on a day to day basis RAMSI has been going extremely well. I’ll tell you this - I think for the people of the Solomon Islands, the greatest thing that RAMSI gives them is security. It gives them security that they didn’t have before 2003 when RAMSI came in and they don’t want to lose that security and that’s understandable. It also has made a major contribution in many respects to improving the quality of governance in Solomon Islands. You’ve seen significant increase in Solomon Islands GDP, much better quality public administration since the RAMSI operation was launched. It’s been a great thing. Sure it’s criticised by Mr Moti, Mr Oti, and Mr Sogavare on a pretty regular basis, I accept that. But I don’t think most people share their view, most people in the Solomon Islands share their views.

JOURNALIST: Mr Downer, does Australia have plans to draw down its troops in East Timor and could we see those troops heading off to Afghanistan?

DOWNER: No. We have no plans to increase the number of troops that we have in Afghanistan. The issue of troops in Afghanistan, let me quickly just clear this up, the issue of troops in Afghanistan is this: the Dutch who are our partners in Afghanistan in Tarin Kowt are considering drawing down some components of their force there and they are looking for partners in NATO, and so is NATO itself, looking for partners to fill those gaps left by a smaller Dutch force. But we are not proposing to fill those gaps with Australians. As far as East Timor is concerned, look we always say with these deployments they’re conditions based. We have reduced by a very, or in the process of reducing by a very small number troops there but we still have at the top of my head over 800 I would say, around 800 left and we haven’t got any immediate plans to reduce those numbers any further. You know, we take the advice of the commanders on the ground in terms of the actual number of troops involved. And in terms of the need for a deployment - I think there is still a need for that deployment. I think the situation in East Timor is still fragile. I was there myself on the 30th of August. My take out was that they’re making strides forward, they’re doing good things. But there’s still an underlying instability there I’m afraid so they’ll be needed for a little bit longer yet.

JOURNALIST: What do you think about the cheque-book diplomacy [inaudible] this region, especially the increasing influence of China? China is saying donor countries shouldn’t tell what to do [inaudible]

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DOWNER: Well look, I think we often talk to China about their involvement in the South Pacific. They for example built this conference room that we’re having a meeting in. That’s part of China’s aid programme. I don’t have a problem with that and we all know though that there is competition between China and Taiwan in the South Pacific. It would be futile to pretend that wasn’t a fact and that competition is a concern for us. I don’t mind anybody being an aid donor in the South Pacific. But it is important that those donors support the process of good governance and don’t do anything that would undermine that. Now I’m not claiming that China do, I’m not making the assertion that China does undermine that. But I’m just making the point that anybody who is a donor, an aid donor, in this part of the world; it’s true of course everywhere, but in this part of the world shouldn’t behave in a way which undermines the enormous amount of effort that is made by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, by Australia, New Zealand, European Union, Japan, and other donors to improve the quality of governance in this region. There have of course been problems of governance. We were talking about the Solomon Islands. I mean there have been enormous problems of governance in Solomon Islands. That’s why the country collapsed. We don’t want to see any donors coming in, or any donors who are already in undermining the stability of that country and efforts made to try to restore its effectiveness and its credibility so that’s what I’d say about that. But I don’t have a problem with China being an aid donor in the Pacific. I mean why not, it’s good that they provide support.

JOURNALIST: Mr Downer, what did you make of all the applause given to Frank Bainimarama when he came to the Opening Ceremony today? Compared to other leaders he was getting wolf-whistles, cheers….

DOWNER: From the children?

JOURNALIST: From a lot of other people there…..

DOWNER: I didn’t particularly notice that. I thought the children cheered…you obviously weren’t there when I arrived. The children cheered lustily.

JOURNALIST: I noticed you didn’t shake hands with the Commodore.

DOWNER: Well I look forward to him doing something to bring his country back to democracy. What he’s done is wrong and he should move to bring that country back to democracy. Its GDP is shrinking. This year its GDP will shrink by around 3%. Tourism is down. Industry is not doing well. The people are demoralised. This coup has not worked. This coup is not good for the people of Fiji.

JOURNALIST: Are you ready to meet with him? Because he’s saying he’s ready to meet with you [inaudible].

DOWNER: Well I want to hear how he’s going to bring his country back to democracy and I look forward to hearing his plans tomorrow. And when I’ve heard his plans I’ll see what I can….

JOURNALIST: So you will meet with him?

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DOWNER: Well I’ll be at the meeting. I’m not going to have a bilateral meeting. I said that to you last night.

JOURNALIST: The political situation here in Tonga, some people we talked with [inaudible] one of the villages here are trying to make pushes for change saying they want to implement to ability to change next year instead of [inaudible]. They said they wanted the Forum meeting to make a contribution [inaudible]

DOWNER: Look we appreciate Tonga hosting the meeting and I think all the people of Tonga want the meeting to be a success. It’s very important to the country that their hosting the meeting is a success for their country. When I was in Tonga in July I had plenty to say about that issue then and if you want to go back and check what I had to say then that’s what I still think today. I haven’t changed my mind since then. But I think this is an occasion where we support our hosts who are undertaking a massive logistical task, and I think Prime Minister Sevele has shown himself to be a very adept and able Chairman.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the Forum meeting will help them to implement the change next year?

DOWNER: Look I don’t think that’s going to be an issue for the Forum this year. I mean we had riots here in November last year, we’ve sent some troops, New Zealand sent some troops, we sent some troops, we’ve tried to help stabilise the situation here in Tonga. The situation has stablised and now working through the process of political reform. I would say this, that my knowledge, my visit here in July, I think the government here and other relevant parties are all committed to reform. I think reform is happening.