Journalist: Australia’s new minister for the Pacific is Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, sworn into the role just a matter of days before the cyclone struck Fiji. She’s taken time out to join us on Pacific Beat. Senator, welcome to the program.

Minister: Good morning Richard

Journalist: First of all, I suppose quite a rude introduction to what life in the Pacific could throw at us. What do you make of it all?

Minister: Well first, can I start by saying that the thoughts of us all are with the people of Fiji at this very difficult time and of course their many friends and relatives throughout Australia. Coming into this job as the Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, I’m very conscious of communities, such as the Fijian communities, who have strong links with their country of origin. Let’s not forget that there are almost 60,000 Fijian-born people in Australia and many more here in Australia of Fijian heritage, all of whom will probably have some link to family and friends in Fiji, so our thoughts are with all of those people at this very difficult time.

Journalist: From a practical point of view, I mentioned that Australia has already pledged five million dollars in assistance. Our understanding is that the Fijian Government is likely to put out a further appeal quite soon so can Australia assist further.

Minister: Australia stands ready to provide further assistance as requested by the Fijian Government. We are also looking at what recovery assistance Fiji may need, particularly how we can help the country to rehabilitate schools and get the children back to school for example. Can I just take the opportunity to say that our response has been at the request of the Fijian authorities and it is coordinated through the National Disaster Management Office. And so therefore, can I also take the opportunity to commend the Government of Fiji for its preparations and the immediate response to the devastation caused.  We are supporting the Fijian authorities to coordinate the response and to assist those most in need.

Journalist: As was the case with Vanuatu almost a year ago when Cyclone Pam hit that country with great force as Cyclone Winston has struck Fiji now, we know we’re in this for the long haul and you’ve talked about the strong connections between Australia and Fiji, so I suppose clearly Australia can provide immediate assistance but would stand by to help over the months and years ahead, which is how long it is going to take to put Fiji back on its feet.

Minister: Well I think that’s precisely the case. As each of these disasters happen, we obviously learn from each of the disasters. This regrettably is the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded to make landfall in Fiji and at the moment we’re doing everything that we can to assess the extent of the damage. I don’t think we actually do understand the extent of the damage and we are supporting the efforts of the Fijian Government and our regional partners to reach those outlying islands that did take the brunt of the storm.

We know that 44 people at least have been confirmed dead and we have about 35,000 people in the evacuation centres and it is very clear that these numbers are likely to increase as we make contact with the outlying islands. We do have the Australian Defence Force helicopters flying to the remote islands for damage assessment and medical evacuations and over the next few days we will have those helicopters – there are four of them – supporting relief distribution to those affected areas.

We also have HMAS Canberra leaving for Fiji and it is expected to arrive on the first of March. That will be carrying about 55 tonnes of emergency relief and essential building supplies. HMAS Canberra will also carry a team of army engineers, which will also help with the reconstruction of schools and medical centres and the provision of clean water, which is vitally important at this time.

Journalist: You are of course in the very early days of your new ministerial role, do you have any plans to visit Fiji any time soon if you feel it is appropriate at this time?

Minister: My intention obviously ... as things are unfolding and we will make those decisions as appropriate, but also it is my intention to visit the Pacific Islands as soon as practicable. So I am getting my feet under the desk so to speak and coming to terms with my new portfolio. I’m really excited, I’m really thrilled to have been given this wonderful opportunity and as I said, coming off the back of having done many years in the multicultural and especially the social policy area, I hope that all of that experience will put me in good stead for this new, exciting role.

Journalist: Senator thank you very much indeed for taking the time to join us on Pacific Beat and clearly Australia’s role in the relief effort in Fiji is greatly appreciated as you heard there from our previous contributor Lola. Thank you very much for your time.

Minister: That was a very nice story to hear from Lola and her experience.  So we are very glad we can help.

Journalist: Indeed thank you very much for speaking to us. Good to have you on the program. Again, that’s Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. She’s Australia’s new minister for the Pacific, in the role just for a matter of days when Cyclone Winston struck in Fiji.

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