Source: Prime Minister of Australia
PRIME MINISTER: I’m pleased to be here at the Blackrock Camp which is training peacekeepers, people involved in ensuring we have civil law and order here across the Pacific. It’s a very important investment Australia is making here and it’s a very important partnership. And of course, I’m pleased to be joined by Foreign Minister Payne and the Minister for Women, as well as Alex Hawke the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Before we talk about the events of today and this trip over the last 24 hours just let me talk quickly but importantly about the bushfires and the terrible impact they’ve been having on communities. I can confirm, as you probably know, that the NSW Rural Fire Service has confirmed that the number of homes destroyed in the fires is 45. 45 homes. Five community structures, including one hall with a further 87 out-buildings have also been destroyed and the NSW Rural Fire Service expects these numbers to rise as the damage assessments continue. On the 10th of October, the NSW Police also confirmed the deaths of two Australians, a 77 year old man and a 69 year old woman who perished in the Long Gully bushfire and our deepest sympathies go to their families. A post mortem examination, of course, will occur under the normal processes. I can also confirm that a range of disaster recovery assistance is now being provided under the jointly funded Commonwealth-State Disaster Recovery Funding arrangements, and that includes help for people whose homes and belonging have been damaged, support for affected local councils to help with the cost of cleaning up and restoring damaged essential public assets and concessional loans for small businesses, primary producers and not-for-profit organisations and freight subsidies for primary producers and grants to eligible non-profit organisations. I can also confirm that the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Allowance has also been activated to provide additional support for people in the Richmond Valley LGA who have been affected by the bushfires, and claims for disaster recovery allowance can be made from 14 October, which is on Monday. The DRFA assistance is also still available for areas impacted by fires in August. That’s in the LGAs of Armidale, Bellingen, Clarence Valley, Glen Innis Severn, Inverell, Tenterfield, Uralla and Walka. I also want to thank the others from other jurisdictions who have been providing their support. Approximately 78 interstate emergency services personnel from South Australia, Victoria, the ACT, Northern Territory, have all been assisting those in New South Wales. And the New South Wales large air tanker is supporting firefighting operations and there are 36 additional aircraft available for tasking, water bombing, mapping and line scan capabilities. These are terrible events. They’re heartbreaking events. The loss of homes, the loss of life, even more significantly. Our response plan and capability that is done in partnership with the states and territories to get the assets where they need to be. Whether it was Canungra, where I was not that long ago, or indeed around Casino in the most recent time, those fires have now subsided somewhat, but nevertheless the risk is still very real. And the most important thing is to stand by those communities who are affected.
On the last 24 hours, it’s been very positive to be back here in Fiji. I was here earlier in the year, I was here on this site when we turned the first sod here earlier in the year. It’s great to see the progress that is being made here at Blackrock. It builds on the bilateral meeting I had with Prime Minister Bainimarama yesterday, where we ran through follow-up actions on the items that we were able to discuss in Canberra not that long ago. The Fiji-Australia relationship is in an extraordinary position, but it is so much more elevated by the constant and direct personal contact, whether it’s by myself or whether by Foreign Minister Payne or Minister Hawke, engaging directly with our counterparts. And it’s also greatly assisted by the many other programs that are part of the Pacific step-up, which include the sports diplomacy last night. Two good, solid wins. A fairly ordinary outing by the drafted water boy there in the third quarter. I think Axe’s job is completely safe, and the jobs of all other runners, whether it be in the NRL, the AFL, or for the Wallabies, they’re all in safe keeping. But it was fun to be there and to mix with the players last night. They were just so excited, not just to have put on the green and gold for themselves as professional athletes, but they were more excited about being able to be part of what is an important part of Australia’s engagement in the Pacific. They felt very special about that and I want to thank Mal and all those at the NRL, right across all the teams that we had, including the ADF teams that were also here and playing in competitions as well.
The Pacific Step-up is a comprehensive engagement with our region in so many ways. And so I’m going to ask Marise just to talk particularly about one of the most important messages that we have been involved in partnership with Fiji on, which is a domestic violence message, which is a message as important in Australia as it is in the Pacific. Thanks, Marise.
SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND MINISTER FOR WOMEN: Thanks very much, Prime Minister. I want to congratulate all of the participants in the events this week, from the NRL, and from our ADF teams, as the Prime Minister said. They travelled from Nadi to Suva, visiting schools along the way, and articulating that very important voice against violence message that is part of the NRL’s program, which we have supported this week with an additional contribution from the Commonwealth. That will enable advocates here in Fiji to take those messages outside Suva into regional and village communities in a way that is not currently the case. It’s immensely powerful to see the Australian Women’s Prime Minister’s XIII, the Australian Men’s Prime Minister’s XIII, run out with anti-violence messages on their jumpers. And we are very proud to partner with the NRL on the work they do, not only in Australia but importantly across this region. Our sports diplomacy program and our Pacific Oz Sports package focuses on rugby league, on rugby union, on football and on netball – all very powerful tools to engage, particularly with young people in the Pacific, on key messages around the way their lives are shaped, around education, around health, around nutrition, and the anti-violence message, as the Prime Minister has said.
I also took the opportunity yesterday, not just to meet with my friend and counterpart, Minister Inia Seruiratu, who is here with us morning, but also with the Minister for Women Minister Vuniwaqa last night as well to talk about the work that Australia has done in our national action plan. And we will be sharing information on that with her, particularly when she’s in Australia, but also here in Fiji. So, we have been able to engage and inform and empower young people in Fiji through these visits this week, to talk directly in their communities about the effect that violence has on them. We know the effect that it has on women and children. It is a stultifying, dulling effect on families, on women’s efforts to engage in pursuit of economic security and leadership, and in protecting themselves. So, it’s very, very important. We also took the opportunity to provide some additional funding here, with Fiji as a priority country in terms of supporting women’s teams across all of those sports to improve and develop their administration, their management. We see them competing at an international level. They do that on a) the smell of an oily rag, but b) also on quite narrow administrative focus. So, we will be able to help them with that, with training and with support, so that when they’re running on to the field they are running on with full confidence in their preparation and full confidence that they are delivering for their country with the pride we saw displayed here in Fiji yesterday by both the Fiji RMFM women’s teams and by the Bulikula as well. Thanks, Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Marise. Here we are at Blackrock. When you look at Blackrock, and particularly when we have the great privilege to go and address those who are going to serve as peacekeepers over in Iraq. I mean, this engagement here, particularly with Fiji but with so many nations around the Pacific, and particularly that security engagement that we’re having here, it’s all about keeping the whole region safe and stable and secure. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re here. This has been a very quick visit. It’s a very 24-hour visit, not even that. But we want… that’s what we have the opportunity to do as Australia, is to be in constant contact with our Pacific family. And where those opportunities present, then we’ll take them. Of course, we have many pressing issues back at home, and I’m looking forward to getting back and addressing those again, as we always do. Starting out with the fires today. There are many pressing issues. But these are also important, and we will take the opportunity to address them when we can. And we certainly have today. So, happy to take questions. Why don’t we start with issues around the visit first? I’m sure there are other things. And particularly if local Fijian media also would like to raise questions.
JOURNALIST: Just on your visit, Prime Minister, you talk about wanting to do more with the military partnership. What about the idea of actually recruiting Fijians into the ADF for three or four years at a time and relaxing citizenship requirements for them?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s not something that’s in front of us at the moment.
JOURNALIST: Is that something that you’d be open to?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think our existing arrangements are serving the purposes. But that’s the purpose of having ongoing dialogue, though. I mean, you constantly are reappraising what you are doing together. What we’re doing here together is very significant, so there’s quite a bit on at the moment. And these are things that will continue to keep under advisement. But that’s the purpose of always being in contact with each other.
JOURNALIST: How much further is it possible to integrate the operations of the Australian and Fijian militaries? Is there a particular endpoint that you’re trying to reach?
PRIME MINISTER: It’s a sustainment, I think, of what is already a very high level of engagement. I mean, it’s the equivalent of finishing each other’s sentences. That’s how closely engaged we are here in supporting Fiji in terms of their training for peacekeeping missions. As I said to the troops up there, 52 Fijians have given their lives in peacekeeping operations. There’s a very moving memorial which Jenny and I visited when we were here earlier in the year down in Suva, and it’s quite striking. When we go and look at the honour rolls in Australia, looking at those who served in the First World War, Second World War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, when you go to the honour boards, you’re seeing the names of peacekeepers who have been killed in those. And, indeed, the President of Fiji has won a Military Cross in service as a peacekeeper. So, the peacekeeping role here in Fiji is one of great pride for their nation, and should be. And that’s why we have been always so pleased to support them in that. And we’ll continue to, as we have been doing most recently over the last several months to assist them in a number of areas here.
JOURNALIST: How much is the Australian Government putting into this project?
PRIME MINISTER: It’s around about $25 million. It’s going create about 550 jobs, as you heard in the briefing inside.
SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND MINISTER FOR WOMEN: It’s also important to recognise its value for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. We live in one of the most challenging regions in the world and the arrival of Tropical Cyclone Winston here in Fiji not that long ago was a very stark reminder of the challenge that we face from those extreme weather events. And humanitarian assistance and disaster relief focus that this facility will have – and this is my third or fourth visit to Blackrock in two capacities – will be a very important one. When we brought HMAS Adelaide, if I recall correctly, here to Fiji at the time and worked closely with the RFMF in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief support after Winston, that was a stark reminder for how well we can work together, to go to Melissa’s question, and importantly how much more that we can do. And Blackrock is a perfect example of that.
JOURNALIST: Of course, China’s military is also offering additional assistance to the Fijian military, where Australia is providing boats, so are the Chinese. Does that affect… does any introduction of Chinese involvement affect Australia’s ability to increase its interoperability with Fiji?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the first thing I would say is who Fiji works with is a matter for Fiji. They’re a sovereign country and they make their own decisions, as they should, as all Pacific nations do. A key part of the Pacific Step-up, a key principle, a value of the Pacific Step-up is recognising the independence and sovereignty of each and every Pacific Island nation. And we do. We deeply respect that and we want them to be able to preserve that independence and sovereignty. And we encourage them always in that way and provide whatever support they need in making any decision that is they make. But I’ve made no secret of the fact that we welcome the involvement of other parties and partners in the Pacific, which is about reinforcing that principle. That’s the principle we all get around – the independence and sovereignty and the stability of this region. Anyone who’s contributing to those goals is warmly welcomed.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you agree with Minister Dutton that the Chinese Government policies are inconsistent with Australian values?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that’s not what Peter said. What Peter was talking about was the fact that there are differences between Australia and the People’s Republic of China. Of course there are. We’re a liberal Western democracy, based on Western liberal democratic values. China is a Communist Party state, and that’s their country. And we recognise the sovereignty of their values and their systems, and that that is what is promoted and celebrated in China. And in Australia, we celebrate the values of liberal Western democracy. And whether it’s in our universities or in ensuring that we’re able to do that with primacy in our own country, I don’t think there’s anything terribly surprising about that. So, I would warn against any sort of over-analysis or overreaction to those comments. Because I think they just simply reflect the fact that we’re two different countries. But more importantly, through our comprehensive strategic partnership, there is much we share in common. That’s what we’ve always focused on. That’s why I think our relationship with China will always remain positive because it’s focused on the things that we agree on and that benefit each country, not on the areas that I think there are clear differences. Of course, there are clear differences. I mean, they’re different countries with different systems. And there are many countries in our region which have different systems. So, in Australia, of course, we’ll promote the values that have built our country and our country is established on, and China will do what they do in their country. And we respect that too.
JOURNALIST: There is another thing, though, that Peter Dutton said that I would like to check with you. He’s saying we should be calling out China when they’re the ones that are clearly responsible for doing the wrong thing, particularly in reference to cyberattacks. Now, that’s something we’ve seen some increasingly high-profile cases in Australia. Is it the right strategy to call out and name China if we’re confident they’re behind cyberattacks?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we did in December. And I’m sure that’s what Peter is referring to. In December of last year, we were part of a multilateral assignment and that was a statement we made at the time. And that wasn’t… we certainly didn’t do it in isolation. I don’t think there was anything remarkable about that. But we certainly have not undertaken any public attributions since then.
JOURNALIST: Does it make it hard to keep the relationship positive when the Chinese Embassy called Minister Dutton’s comments irrational, shocking, baseless and a malicious slur?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, I tend not to overreact to statements. I think I’ll just look at the context in which the Minister made his comments. And I think he was, you know, I think I have been pretty clear. I think about the points that I believe he was making and I think that speaks for itself. So, I think the best way that we’ve always managed our relationship is moving through these events and just focusing on the things that are actually important to both countries and that is our comprehensive strategic partnership. You know, Australia has always been very consistent in our approach, and we are. We’re just quite consistent and I will always seek to be respectful of pursuing that.
JOURNALIST: Do you have any update for us on progress between the US and China, on their trade issues?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, you’ve seen the report, I’m sure, and the press conference from the President today. And we welcome what has been somewhat of a breakthrough. And as you know, I have been encouraging both the United States and China to, you know, get on and get this done. And I was pleased to send a message to Secretary Mnuchin this morning which he responded back to favourably. I particularly think he’s done a wonderful job.
JOURNALIST: What did you say to him?
PRIME MINISTER: I said, “Congratulations.” I’m very pleased that he’s been able to get this done. Because I see Steven quite regularly at various events that we’re at. We were at the White House recently. I’ve always said – and sometimes people have been critical of me for this – but I’ve always been optimistic about this, because I’ve always known that what has been tried to be achieved here, what people are trying to achieve here, is to secure a deal. To secure a new agreement that recognises the modern economy and modern nature of the trading relationship that should be in existence. So, you heard today some pretty important things that I have also been talking about being included in this arrangement when it comes to particularly technology and IP and things of this nature. This is a good thing. And I think there has been a lot of negative talk about this. But, you know, Australians always remain optimistic and certainly I do. And everything that I have had relayed to me in my discussions, particularly with the United States, has been a willingness and a keenness to resolve these issues. And I commend both China and the United States on where they’ve got to. We’ll obviously look at the detail. But it is phase one. I understand they’ll look to be concluding that when we meet in APEC later in the year, and that will be great to have this happen on the sidelines. But let’s not put too much pressure on it. Let’s see them reduce it to writing and get on with it. But it’s a very welcome development.
JOURNALIST: Is it clear for what it will mean for Australia at this stage, this limited deal?
PRIME MINISTER: At this stage, based on the information we have, it’s difficult to make those broad assessments. But we’ll take a good look at that. But I think what this sees is a bit of a breakthrough and let’s just hope that that is consolidated and then once phase one is put in place, well, I wish them well for phase two.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of the idea of expanding the so-called big-stick powers to other sectors, like banks and supermarkets? It’s not just something Wayne Swan has mentioned today, key crossbenchers are also calling for this.
PRIME MINISTER: Look, I’ve never had a habit of taking economic advice from Wayne Swan. I apply the George Costanza principle to the economic advice of Wayne Swan. If Wayne is saying you should do it, there’s a pretty good argument you should do the opposite. You only have to look at the budgets when he was running them, and compare them to our budgets today. It’s taken six years to get the budget back into surplus. As I’m sure Wayne’s advice is well-intentioned, I’m not inclined to follow his economic advice.
JOURNALIST: So you wouldn’t be looking to put these divestiture powers into…
PRIME MINISTER: The legislation is dealing with what we believe are the necessary powers that are there to restore some balance in the energy market.
JOURNALIST: We have seen some pretty rapid changes and developments in the Middle East, thanks to the actions of the US and Turkey. How is Australia viewing this situation?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, Marise Payne and I this morning had the opportunity to have a hook-up with Secretary Mike Pompeo. I have been exchanging messages with Secretary Pompeo the other day, and of course Minister Payne has been in contact with the Turkish ambassador. It was good to have a further briefing from the US on those events. Let’s be very clear – what we are dealing with here is the unilateral – unilateral – action of Turkey. They are the ones walking across borders for no other reason than that is what they seek to do for their own purposes, and Australia has condemned that. That is not something that we support and it has certainly been spoken against by many of our like-minded partners around the world. And so this is a very concerning – very concerning – act by Turkey. And it is certainly one that has no endorsement elsewhere, I think, from our partners. And so what we will do is continue to liaise closely with all of those who have been involved for a very long time in the coordinated action against Da’esh and to work with those like-minded partners. Our resolve against Da’esh has not altered and I do not believe it has altered among any of our like-minded partners when it comes to addressing this issue, including the US. So we will continue to engage with all of them on this issue, monitor it carefully, urge restraint, particularly in Turkey’s case. But at the same time, let’s not indulge in any of these other narratives. I don’t think they hold water at all.
JOURNALIST: By other narratives, do you mean suggestion is that if the US had stayed in Syria it could have provided ongoing protection?
PRIME MINISTER: This is the unilateral action of Turkey. We want to deal with this. That is what we have to focus on.
JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to the Turkish administration again?
SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND MINISTER FOR WOMEN: Well, DFAT and officials have been in consultation, both in Canberra and Ankara, and we have continued to raise our concerns. The Prime Minister has very clearly outlined what they are. This is going to contribute significantly to instability and to danger, quite frankly, in the region. And the flow-on effects from that are very, very concerning.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just finally, there has been desecration of Commonwealth war graves in Israel, obviously very concerning, this is happening. What can Australia do here?
PRIME MINISTER: Well we act in concert with the War Graves Commission. But this is disgusting, it is appalling and it is nothing other than just hate-filled desecration of our own diggers, our light horsemen. And it is terribly upsetting. Not just obviously for the families, and the descendants of those brave Australians, but, you know, we are seeing too much of this. I mean, we shouldn’t see any of it. But, you know, if we kid ourselves that we are only seeing this over in war graves in another part of the world, well, have a look at some of the graffiti you see around Melbourne or Sydney these days. What we are seeing with that anti-Semitic commentary and aggression and graffiti and being directed towards the Jewish community, I just find absolutely appalling, absolutely appalling. What should we do? We have to make sure that we act in concert with those who are responsible for our war graves and to support them in the actions they are taking. But it should be a reminder that in our own country, we can have zero tolerance of this sort of anti-Semitic conduct which is happening in Australia. People have been targeted, including our colleagues, as members of Parliament, have been targeted with anti-Semitic trolling on their Twitter accounts, defacing of their images. We are seeing in our own country, so let’s not kid ourselves. It is close to home, and it has got to be stamped out. Thanks very much.