A powerful and reasoned rebuff to the Rudd Government's PNG Asylum Seekers Plan by Fiji's Foreign Affairs Minister at the 20th Australia-Fiji Business Forum yesterday:
20th Australia Fiji Business Forum,
July 28-30, 2013.
The Honourable Matt Thistlethwaite, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs
The Honourable Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
The President of the Australia-Fiji Business Council, Mr. Greg Pawson
Members of the Australia-Fiji and Fiji-Australia Business Councils
Ladies and Gentlemen
Ni Sa Bula Vinaka and Good Morning.
At the outset, please allow me to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and pay respects to their elders, both past and present.
I’m delighted – as Fiji’s Foreign Minister – to be here today for this important gathering of those of you who drive the economic links between our two countries and contribute so much to our prosperity. It’s especially pleasing to see the Australian Government represented here at a senior level by the Pacific Islands Minister, Senator Thistlethwaite. Relations between Australia and its Pacific neighbours are at a critical juncture and we have much to discuss While Senator Thistlethwaite is relatively new to his portfolio, I am sure he has a keen understanding of the issues we face and I look forward to continuing our constructive and friendly engagement.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the ties that bind Australia and Fiji are clearly greater than the issues that sometimes divide us. Our people are genuinely fond of each other and nothing is more important to Fiji than continuing to welcome the hundreds of thousands of Australians who visit our shores every year.
As you all know, there are also tens of thousands of Fijians living in this country, adding the richness of their culture to the great multi-cultural melting pot that is modern Australia.
Certain Fijians are even enriching the life of Senator Thistlewaite, who’s a keen supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the National Rugby League. I think I can confidently say that without Apisai Koroisau, the Fijian hooker for the Rabbitohs and the other Pacific players at the club, the Senator’s weekends wouldn’t be quite so enjoyable.
Of course, there are Fijian players throughout the NRL, as well as in the Kangaroos and Wallabies. I’m sometimes amused at the way your sports commentators mangle the pronunciation of their names but there’s no doubting the affection in which they’re held by the fans. Or the way in which Australia’s international sporting reputation so often depends on them.
The point is that our relationship runs very deep – certainly way beyond our business ties – and, person-to-person, is overwhelmingly one of mutual affection. As our Prime Minister said in an interview with the New Zealand media on Friday, “Fijians love Australians. Always have, always will”. We are neighbours and we are friends, which also means that we have our differences from time to time and also need to treat these with openness and candour. Which brings me to being candid this morning about some aspects of our relationship that we feel need addressing.
As you will have gathered from the Prime Minister’s comments on Friday, the Fijian Government is decidedly less than happy about Australia’s plan to move asylum seekers seeking to settle in Australia into Melanesia – into our neighbourhood.
For an Australian problem, you have proposed a Melanesian solution that threatens to destabilise the already delicate social and economic balances in our societies.
The Australian Government has used its economic muscle to persuade one of our Melanesian governments to accept thousands of people who are not Pacific Islanders, a great number of them permanently.
This was done to solve a domestic political problem – and for short-term political gain – without proper consideration of the long-term consequences.
This was done without any consultation, a sudden and unilateral announcement, which is not the Pacific Way and has shocked a great many people in the region.
Why – you may ask – is this any of Fiji’s business? This was a deal with Papua New Guinea, a sovereign government surely entitled to make its own arrangements.
Well, we regard it as our business because we see ourselves as part of a wider Melanesian community through the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
We are striving for more cohesion, more integration in the MSG, including the formation of a Melanesian Common Market with a free flow of goods, services and labour.
This deal – and those mooted with Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – clearly threatens our interests by altering the fundamental social fabric of any member country that accepts a deal with Australia.
We are deeply troubled by the consequent threat to the stability of these countries – and the wider Melanesian community – by the scale of what is being envisaged.
Indeed, we are alarmed to read some of the accounts of what is evidently being canvassed in Australian policy circles.
In the words of the respected Foreign Editor of The Australian newspaper, Greg Sheridan, Quote: “Imagine what the South Pacific would be like in five or six years’ time if there were 50,000 resettled refugees in PNG, and perhaps 10,000 in Vanuatu, 5000 in Solomon Islands and a few thousands elsewhere in the Pacific.
These refugees would be Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Palestinians, perhaps some Sudanese and Somalis, and most of them getting some Australian financial support.
This population would constitute a recipe for social instability and a significant security problem for the region ”. Unquote.
Very similar sentiments have been expressed by Indonesia, the Salvation Army and a growing number of Australian interest groups. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has warned that settling subsidized asylum-seekers in PNG under the deal could spark local resentment among a population already suffering significant disadvantage, thus leading to instability. History has shown us that such instability will have far reaching ripple effects for not only PNG but the rest of the region. As business people you are well aware of the potential for the negative spillover effect of this Australian Government policy throughout the region, given that our Pacific economies are inextricably connected.
So Ladies and Gentlemen, it IS our business and before this goes any further, we want thorough regional consultation. We want – no, we demand – to have our voices heard.
It is not our concern who wins the coming Australian election. That is a matter for the Australian people. But we are deeply concerned about the impact of Australian politics on our own affairs.
We are deeply concerned about the impact of Australian politics on the welfare of future generations of Pacific People. As Pacific Islanders, we share the horror of many in the international community at the deaths of more than one thousand asylum seekers trying to reach Australia. It is a terrible human tragedy and our hearts go out to the families of those involved. But we cannot remain silent when the current Australian Government dumps this problem – which is arguably of its own making – on our doorstep. Regrettably, from Fiji’s perspective, this deal continues a pattern of behavior on the part of the Australian Government that is inconsiderate, prescriptive, highhanded and arrogant. Instead of treating the Pacific nations as equals, your decision-makers too often ignore our interests and concerns and take it for granted that we will accede to their wishes and demands.
Australia is a vast landmass with vast resources and is thus much better placed than the small and vulnerable nations of the Pacific to address this problem. The question must be asked as to why Australia did not engage with the other Forum members before it embarked on its latest Pacific Solution for unwanted asylum seekers? From where we sit, we suspect the answer is that the Australian Government doesn’t particularly care what we think. Fiji therefore appeals to the current Australian Government to face up to the responsibilities to your neighbours.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the nature of the schism between Fiji and Australia over the events of 2006 is well known and doesn’t warrant elaborate detail here.
But we remain deeply disappointed that instead of constructive engagement, Australia chose to punish Fiji for finally addressing the deep divisions in our society, the lack of equality and genuine democracy and the corruption that was destroying our country from within.
Our doors were always open to you but you chose not to enter.
Next month, we will unveil a new Constitution that guarantees, for the first time, political, economic and social rights for all Fijians, including access to basic services. Next year, we will have the first genuine democracy in Fiji’s history of one person, one vote, one value. And the legal enforcement of our people to vote along racial lines will finally be a thing of the past.
We imagined – perhaps naively – that our bigger neighbours – Australia and New Zealand – might at least try to understand what we were trying to achieve. But they turned their backs on us and set about trying to damage the country in the hope that they would destroy our reformist government.
It is not easy to forget Australia’s efforts at the United Nations to bring an end to our three-decade long commitment to UN peacekeeping. It is not easy to forget the Australian Government’s action in severing our access to loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. It is not easy to forget the travel bans that are still in place and have led to inconvenience and heartbreak and deprived us of the ability to attract the best people to run our government departments and even serve on the boards of our public enterprises and utilities.
Even now, Australia has refused a visa for our Minister for Trade and Industry to attend this gathering. So the Minister who can most assist you all in your efforts to expand that trade cannot be present in this room.
This is an unconscionable impediment to free trade, just as it was unconscionable for Australia to ban entry to the former head of our national airline, an American citizen punished for assuming the job of Chairman of Tourism Fiji while he pursued the interests of an airline part owned by Qantas.
When Australia stops trying to damage Fiji – which it is still doing – only then can we can begin to rebuild the political relationship, including the restoration of full diplomatic ties. But it will be a different relationship. The events of the past seven years have made it so.
When it comes to global and regional politics, we have taken a different path and forged new relationships with countries that proved to be more understanding and less prescriptive, who understood what we were doing rather than telling us what to do.
Fiji no longer looks to just Australia and New Zealand as our natural allies and protectors, we look to the World. Jolted from our complacency by the doors that were slammed in our faces, we looked North – to the great powers of Asia, especially China, India and Indonesia and more recently to Russia. We looked South, to the vast array of nations, big and small, that make up the developing world and we currently chair the G77, the biggest voting bloc at the United Nations. And we looked to our Melanesian neighbours, to forge closer ties with them and use our collective strength to make our voices heard in global forums and secure better trading deals for us all.
So while whoever wins the Fijian election next year will doubtless find a more accommodating attitude in Canberra, on the Fijian side our attitudes have changed irrevocably. We are keen to rebuild the relationship but not on the same basis. We want mutual understanding and respect and to be regarded as equals, just as we pursue all of our international relationships under our overarching policy to be “friends to all”.
And so, Ladies and Gentleman, Fiji renews its call today for the Australian Government to engage more constructively with it and with the other Melanesian countries, all of whom – to a greater or lesser extent – share our view that current Australian attitudes leave a lot to be desired.
It is, in turn, fuelling a growing belief that the current frameworks for regional cooperation are not serving our needs. In Fiji’s case, our continuing suspension from the Pacific Forum has convinced us that Australia and New Zealand have a disproportionate influence over its affairs that is clearly to our detriment and sometimes the detriment of our neighbours.
So Fiji wants to rearrange the furniture with a regional body that more properly reflects the concerns of Pacific island nations.
Next week in Nadi, Fiji is hosting the inaugural Pacific Islands Development Forum. 23 Pacific countries will be attending, as well as 10 countries with observer status. At this meeting, Australia and New Zealand will be observers, not members. And the island countries will be able to discuss their own challenges and formulate their own solutions free from outside interference and the prescription of their larger neighbours.
When it comes to our bilateral trade relationship,Ladies and Gentlemen, of course, Australia is still Fiji’s biggest partner and our healthy trading relationship continues. You will hear in greater detail about the challenges and opportunities from Mr. Shaheen Ali, our Permanent Secretary for Trade and Industry Mr. Truman Bradley, Chairman of Investment Fiji and Mr. Inia Nayasi, Deputy Governor of the Reserve of Fiji, later on in the Forum, not only about our political reforms but our increasingly healthy trading environment, of the lowest corporate and personal taxes in the region, large incentives for investment and significant improvements in infrastructure such as roads, ports and telecommunications.
Fiji remains open for business, as the theme for the 20th Australia-Fiji Business Forum and Trade Expo states and I encourage you all to seize the opportunities that our reforms in Fiji are producing.
As a Government, we believe in creating a conducive environment for trade, investment and business. We are convinced that the best way to raise living standards is to create and sustain jobs. That means a strong collaboration between the public and private sectors and a strong collaboration between workers and businesses.
In conclusion, I wish to leave you with the following considerations:
· The Government of Fiji urges the Government of Australia to take cognisance of the effect of its domestic policies on its Pacific neighbours and work towards an alternative asylum-seeker solution.
· Bilateral relations between Fiji and Australia at the political level can only ever be restored on an equal footing, with mutual respect for sovereignty
· In spite of our political differences, the Government of Fiji remains committed to facilitating and encouraging Australian businesses to
reach their fullest potential in Fiji. As we keep saying, we are building a new and better Fiji and that means new and better opportunities for the business community flowing from our reform programs.
Fiji is indeed open and always ready for business.
Thank you for the invitation to address you and I wish you well in your deliberations. Vinaka vakalevu