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Transcript of press conference: Fiji: 19 December 2003

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E and OE

19 December, 2003


Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer

Press Conference, Fiji

Downer: Thank you very much Minister, and I appreciate the opportunity of being back in Fiji again. It’s a wonderful country, wonderful people and I’ve had a most enjoyable, although rather short stay here. We’ve had a very good series of discussions this morning as well. The relationship between Australia and Fiji is a very strong and a very close one, born out of history, born out of geography, born out of common economic and security interests. And on the economic side we have a very fruitful trading relationship, though not without its difficulties, particularly with the changes that have taken place that have effected the Fiji garment industry. And there’s a review now underway into the Fijian/Australian industries to see whether the current situation is the way to go or whether there are other things the two governments or the industries need to do to try to strengthen the industries. I went and visited a garment factory yesterday to get a sense from them of how the business is going. Though in their case it was going pretty well. My instinct is that there are going forever, to be very good niche markets in Australia for the Fiji garment industry. Australia’s not going to disappear as a market for Fiji. But how that’s handled is a subject that is of course under review now as a result of an agreement between our two Prime Ministers back in (inaudible). So we hope that that will be very fruitful. On the regional security issues, we very much appreciate the support of Fiji. Fiji always provides support for regional security problems. The Fijians were with us in East Timor. The Fijians were with us in Bougainville. And Fijians are in Solomon Islands as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. We very much appreciated the role of the Fiji military force, and the political support of the Fiji Government as well. It was Minister Tavola who chaired the meeting in Sydney of the Pacific Foreign Ministers, which built the consensus for what’s now called RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands. So Fiji’s played a very important role in that. And I can only finally say that, May 2000 was a bad time in Fiji, and it was a bad time for our relations with Fiji, but things have come back together again. And I’m delighted now that so many Australian tourists are coming back to Fiji. I think Fiji is a good country for tourists to visit, and it’s competitively priced. And Australians enjoy coming to Fiji, as I have done for years, since I was about twelve years old when I first came here. I stayed at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva and I congratulate the government on the initiatives its taken to rehabilitate that wonderful old hotel, and I look forward to coming to the opening of it. In any case I would just like to thank Kaliopate for his hospitality, and the most useful meetings we’ve had, and the enjoyable time overall that we’ve all as Australians had here in Fiji. Happy to answer any questions.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: Well, the Prime Minister of Fiji gave us an undertaking that he would adhere to the rule of law in decisions that the courts took. And when the Supreme Court ruled that

the Fiji Labour Party should be incorporated in the government, my understanding is that the Prime Minister then offered a number of places. There’s been a debate about the number of places that the Fiji Labour Party should fill. (inaudible) until that’s resolved and that’s also before the courts, and the Fiji government has assured me that whatever the final decision of the court, they will implement that decision. And we can’t ask for more than that. We support democracy and the rule of law. And we certainly don’t support the illegitimate overthrow of a democratically elected government, as happened in May 2000. But, things have come back together again, and if there are differences between the government and the Fiji Labour Party as long as they are not resolved in an unconstitutional or illegal way, then they are not obviously really a matter for us. And the government has followed the law, and followed the decisions of the courts, and it’s awaiting further decisions of the courts.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: Our expectation is that review will be finished by the end of February/early March. The review is well and truly underway. The study is well and truly underway now by the consultants. And then our two governments will obviously discuss the outcome of the review, with a view to implementing any changes that we agree on by the 1st of July next year, which is the beginning of the Australian financial year. So that is the schedule.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: I would only add to that by saying that we don’t so much look for tax concessions and subsidies as a way of getting investment flowing. We do as the Minister says, look for a successful (inaudible) environment. The rate of company tax here has come down in recent times, and it’s scheduled to come down a little bit more. The law and order situation is, we hope, gradually improving. And I would like to say how pleased I am with the work that the new Police Commissioner, who was a member of the Australian Federal Police, is doing in Fiji. But the other thing is that we agreed that what we would do is we would get some of our trade officials together, and have a look at areas where Fiji thought that there was a real need for investment, and see whether we can’t find companies in Australia that would be interested in investing in those areas. Not that we would give them a subsidy to invest in those areas. That would obviously cost us money, and in turn reduce the net benefit of the investment. But that rather trying to bring Australian and Fijian companies together, or the requirements of the Fijian economy to the attention of Australian businesses that might not otherwise think of Fiji as a destination for investment. I think the environment here is good. And I think obviously anyone would think it’s improved enormously over the last three years. And we should be getting Australian companies to think much more about what they can achieve in Fiji. And so we’re going to get officials together. And to work through the sorts of areas in Fiji where Fiji feels investment is needed and talk to Australian companies to see whether they’re interested in investing in those particular areas, and we hope that that will be fruitful.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: Nice resorts, nice golf courses, nice people, growing economy, a country growing in confidence and a central player in the economic and security affairs of the region. We have some problems in the South Pacific, as you know -particularly in the Solomon Islands. It’s good to come here, to a country which has been through a pretty difficult time in years past, and is getting on top of its problems and working quite

successfully. I’m just very encouraged by what I see here. And where there are problems, by the determination of the government and the community more broadly in Fiji to address and resolve those problems. And Fiji is a very good partner of Australia’s. We appreciate that as well.

Journalist: Inaudible -re Nauru.

Downer: Well I’ve spoken to President Harris of Nauru about our concern. Under the MOUs that we’ve had with Nauru, we’ve provided useful financial support to the country, but I’m concerned about the long term situation. And I think we need to work on a long term solution. I wouldn’t get too carried away with too many fanciful ideas about Nauruans becoming Australians or whatever it may be. I think at the end of the day, Nauruans probably will remain Nauruans. They love their country and its part of their way of life. But, we do need to find a medium to long term solution to the difficult financial problems that Nauru has. For example, it’s Christmas -and in Nauru they’re just unable to pay their public servants. So we are now providing $1.2 million today to Nauru to help the government of Nauru pay the fortnightly wages of public servants. This is a very difficult kind of situation for a country to be in. We want to help, but the decision we made a couple of days ago to provide this financial support -look I would be the first to admit it’s an ad-hoc decision, there’s no question of that - President Harris has asked for help, and this is an ad-hoc decision to give them help, given that it’s Christmas time. But, we do need to find medium to long term solutions to these difficulties that Nauru is facing -the financial difficulties that it’s facing. And they are quite substantial difficulties, believe me. And so, we are having a look at all of the options that we could possibly discuss with Nauru. Now there’s nothing we would do unilaterally. I’m not proposing to do anything unilaterally about it. We’re proposing to put together some ideas and discuss those with the government of Nauru.

Journalist: Inaudible- re Nauru.

Downer: You would sort of have to ask the Nauruans that question. You would have to ask ultimately the Nauruans. We all would have to ask the Nauruans. Would they be interested in any other relationship with another country, (inaudible) with Australia or with another country in the region, or wouldn’t they? But my guess is that the answer to that would probably be no. That the Nauruans are much more likely to want Australia to work with the government of Nauru to come up with a plan which would provide for the long-term viability of the country. But it is worth noting the reason this is a bit of an issue, and it seems a curious thing to be discussing, whether the citizens of another country would want to be incorporated elsewhere into another jurisdiction, be it Australia or anywhere else -the reason this comes up is that in the 1960’s there was a proposal that the Nauruans move from Nauru to an island off the coast of Queensland. And there was quite a lot of interest in Nauru at that time, in that proposal. But apparently the reason it fell through was the Nauruans wanted sovereignty over the island, and the island was an Australian island. And the then Australian Government, not surprisingly, wouldn’t surrender Australian sovereignty over that island. But the Nauruans haven’t put that proposition to me in the time that I’ve been the Foreign Minister. And I would be pretty surprised if that was the sort of solution that they wanted. But they definitely do need a medium to long term answer to their problems. And at the moment we don’t have a medium to long term answer, and we need to work on finding a medium to long term answer. Because Nauru was of course a country that earned a great deal of revenue from its phosphate mine -the level of production is now very low compared to what it used to be. And it doesn’t have very much potential left. It has some, but it doesn’t have very much potential left. And when the phosphate mine is finally gone, Nauru is still going to

have to generate income for people to be able to exist there.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: I just want to say something about that because we’ve had a discussion about this. And I appreciate what the Foreign Minister has said. We’re obviously trying to work in cooperation with our partners in the region. And I’ve been making that point in relation to Nauru, as much as I would anywhere else. But let me make this point -I said today at the meeting, there was a time when the political class in Australia seemed only to be able to focus on one foreign policy issue. And that was engagement with Asia. Now engagement with Asia will be an enduring component of Australian foreign policy. And it’s always been there. (inaudible). But I think that Australia went through quite a long period of benign neglect of the Pacific. I think the Pacific became unfashionable, and I don’t just mean by Australian governments, but amongst the broader political and intellectual class in Australia. The number of academics who focused on the Pacific declined, the number of journalists based in the Pacific has declined. Very few media outlets have anybody based in the Pacific at all. And yes, we ran substantial aid programs in the Pacific, but we were passive rather than active in terms of our engagement with the region because the political class were just focused on the one thing. That one thing was a very important thing to be focused on -engagement with Asia. But Australia’s a bigger country than that. Australia’s a big enough country to be able to focus on many things in its foreign policy. To have a series of different emphases -the importance of our alliance relationship with the United States, the importance of our engagement with Asia, our relations with the Middle East and with Europe and so on. And a very fundamental component of Australian foreign policy must be to do everything Australia can to help with the successful economic and political development of the Pacific. And if we don’t make that effort, I’m not quite sure who is going to. And I think what’s happened in the last year particularly, but go back a little further than that, has been a very important evolution of Australian foreign policy. And it simply illustrates the point that as a significant country we can do a lot of things. We can help the Indonesians counter terrorism, we can help bring freedom to the people of Iraq, we can sell automobiles into the Middle East, we can build up education and scientific relations with the European Union, and we can make an enormous contribution to helping the Pacific overcome some of the specific problems that it has.