Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Australia more Engaged with Pacific Than Ever

Radio Australia News - 28 September 2011

Hon Richard Marles
Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Affairs, Richard Marles, says Australia is now more engaged with the Pacific than ever before.

In a speech to the Lowy Institute in Sydney, he says accusations that Australia does not take the Pacific seriously are simply not borne out by the facts.

He tells Bruce Hill that while the situation in Fiji is very challenging, he's confident that people there realise that Australia's conflict is with the coup installed military government, not them.

Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Affairs, Richard Marles
MARLES: We want to make it really clear that our beef is not with the people of Fiji, in fact quite the opposite. We want to stand with the people of Fiji in what is a very difficult time for them. Our issue is with the interim regime in Fiji and in fact what it is doing both to the country of Fiji and its people. I mean what we're seeing is the economy of Fiji is going backwards when the rest of the Pacific economies are going forward. We're seeing more people living in poverty now than have ever lived in poverty before in Fiji and we're seeing that in a context where human rights are being removed. There isn't the freedom of the press, there isn't freedom of association. Church organisations have their meetings banned and we're seeing ILO Conventions being flagrantly breached, that's what's going on and the people who are affected by that are actually the people of Fiji who we want to stand with. The people who are doing that are the interim regime of Fiji and they're the people we've got an issue with.

HILL: Is the Australian government coming under pressure to soften its stance on Fiji? We hear often business groups and also the Lowy Institute that you were giving the speech to came out with this poll showing that most Fijians support Commodore Bainimarama's coup?

MARLES: Well, I think the first thing to say about the poll from the Lowy Institute and I say it with all respect of the Lowy Institute. They do fantastic work and I really appreciate the interest that they've shown. But obviously doing a poll in Fiji now is absurd. If you're sitting at home in a country where human rights are being repressed and somebody comes and knocks on the door and asked you what you think about the government. I mean what do you think people are going to say. So I don't think there's any sense in which we can treat the outcome of that poll with any credibility. I think, in fact, the stand that we're now seeing around the world in relation to Fiji is becoming more and more firm. People, countries do understand that what's happening in Fiji is a concern, that the interim regime needs to be moving to a democracy as soon as it can.

HILL: One of the things in your speech, which was pretty striking was the tone I think almost of annoyance. There's a perception that Australia is ignoring is in disengaged with the Pacific. You seem to really take very strong issue with that idea?

MARLES: Well, I think we have never been more engaged in the Pacific than we are at the moment. Certainly from my point of view, I've visited every country and territory of the Pacific, at least all of them that have a runway. I haven't as yet been to Pitcairn but it's on my bucket list and it's not just me that's visiting the region, nor is it just visits to the region, but there are many other ministers and members of the executive who are also visiting the region and that is evidence of a very strong relationship that exists. But if you look at what we're doing in RAMSI, where we've restored a long with the other nations of the Pacific, peace and security to Solomon Islands. They now have experienced economic growth in five and six per cent over the last couple of years. That's a fantastic situation compared to what existed in 2003, if you look at the work we're doing in Papua New Guinea, around seeing more children attend school, more children being immunised against disease, working with PNG in relation to the LNG project, which is a giant resources project in PNG to really try and see the benefits of that project go to everyone in PNG and I might say we are doing that very much with the strong commitment and cooperation of the PNG government itself. If you look at what we're doing in education across the region with the University of the South Pacific, but not just that, the Australian Pacific technical colleges, what we're doing with Australia awards, where we're 500 people across the Pacific in the last year had the opportunity to study under one of these awards and these are the future leaders of the Pacific.

I think what all of that shows is that there is a greater engagement in the Pacific, in terms of our foreign policy than there has ever been. Actually, when you look at what we're doing, it's pretty impressive.

HILL: And yet like Rodney Dangerfield, Australia doesn't seem to get any respect, why?

MARLES: Well, first and foremost, it's not about us getting respect, first and foremost, it's about us doing good in the region and I hope we do that and I think actually the respect does come as a consequence of that. It follows the work that we do. But I think that as I travel around the Pacific at least, the sense that I get from the countries of the Pacific is one of incredible warmth to what Australia does and to the way in which we engaged. We've just come back from the Pacific Island Forum in Auckland, and one speaker after another from the countries of the Pacific talked about the projects that were being undertaken in their countries through Australian support and there was I think enormous well respect, but thanks that was being given to Australia for the role it played.


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