Journalist: Senator thank you so much for your time. Can you start by telling us about the scale of the situation in Fiji and of course Australia’s efforts there so far this week.
Minister: Our thoughts go to the people of Fiji at this very difficult time. We know that there are about 42 deaths and that thousands of people have been affected. This has been the worst cyclone to make landfall in Fiji. The extent of our response has been immediate. We are working with the Fijian authorities. We are responding to their needs as they arise.
I think at this stage it’s safe to say that we really do not understand the extent of this devastation and it’s really only becoming apparent. We’ve got about four helicopters out there, going out and seeing the devastation in the outlying islands. So we are in this phase now where we’ve given immediate assistance. Our first tranche of assistance has been five million dollars.
We will await requests by the Fijian authorities for further assistance and our assistance has been in relation to supporting NGOs on the ground. We’ve released aid supplies. We now have HMAS Canberra on the way. HMAS Canberra is anticipated to arrive on the first of March and HMAS Canberra will be also bringing supplies and carrying 65 tonnes of emergency aid.
Journalist: There’s about 900,000 people who live in the archipelago of about 300 islands in Fiji as you mentioned, how difficult is it to access those islands at the moment given the communications, it really is possible that we don’t know the full scale of the disaster yet.
Minister: Well absolutely. I mean we know that some of the islands, and when you look at the map of the trajectory of this cyclone and you can see how the islands, small islands that have been hit. For example Koro island, and we’ve dispatched shelter kits to Koro island and these of course will assist people on the ground there. But the true extent of the devastation of this cyclone will not really become evident until particularly the helicopters do work and surveillance and manage to get out to those outlying islands.
Journalist: And until such time, it’s a pretty terrible situation for the people on those islands. How urgent of course is the need for clean water at the moment?
Minister: Well these are of course the immediate needs and can I commend the response of the Fijian authorities. Can I commend the response of the NGOs. Of course, we have released aid - we had prepositioned stocks of aid in different parts of the Pacific - and so we’ve been able to get assistance out as quickly as we can. This is a terrible situation for not just the people in Fiji but the almost 60,000 people who are of Fijian heritage here in Australia and their families here in Australia who are obviously going to be worried about their loved ones.
Journalist: I want to ask you a response from someone who has been working there, a UNICEF worker. They landed on the worst-hit island of Koro on Tuesday and it looked like someone had taken a torch and had just burned from one side to the other. Is that similar to the reports that you’re receiving, that you’re hearing back?
Minister: Well, we know that the devastation is terrible. As I said, reports are coming in both to the Fijian authorities, which are coordinating the efforts, and of course also to our officials. But as I said, we’re really not going to know the extent of that until we get the helicopters out there to actually see for ourselves the extent of that damage and the different types of aid that are going to be required in those different parts of the country.
Journalist: Fiji is of course a really popular tourist spot for Australians and others as well, tourism being a big part of the Fijian economy. What’s the advice for Australians who actually booked accommodation and upcoming trips before that cyclone hit? Should Australians be cancelling their plans?
Minister: We have our travel advice on our DFAT website and at this stage, I would urge people to consider the situation there and consider whether they really do need to go to Fiji. Clearly, as I said, we don’t know the extent of the devastation and this is becoming evident day-by-day. So I would urge Australians to look at the travel advice that we have on the DFAT website.
Journalist: In your dealings with the Fijian Government, how well are they handling the situation at the moment?
Minister: The Fijian Government is to be commended for its response. I think in the region, whilst I’m new to this position, it’s very clear that we have learnt lessons from previous cyclones like Cyclone Pam that hit Vanuatu, so we’ve learnt the lessons from the past. As I said, we are here to assist the Fijian Government and the Fijian people. This is a long-standing relationship that we have and, in this terrible time of need, we are here to assist. We have responded quickly and we are there alongside and will give the assistance to the Fijian authorities that they need us to give them.
Journalist: Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells thank you so much for your time.
Minister: Thank you very much Ahron.
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