Minister:

The right of freedom of speech and assembly certainly are essential elements of a functioning democracy.  I mean, Fiji has really come a long way since the coup in 2006 including the democratic elections in September 2014 so from our perspective, and again, Australia's concern is that the people of the Pacific are able to enjoy the rights and freedoms of democratic societies.  This is something that we have pressed for.  Certainly, at this point in time, as I indicated yesterday in the public, we are watching events.

Journalist:

Did you raise this with Mr Bainimarama when you met him?

Minister:

Well, I don't want to go through the sort of private discussions that I may have had with Ministers and routinely we discuss a wide range of issues.  But suffice to say that I actually said publicly while I was in Fiji that as a matter of principle, we strongly support the universal right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Journalist:

Well obviously that is shared by the United Nations.  The Secretary General Ban Ki Moon addressed the topic of Fiji and said he welcomed the release of those Opposition figures and he urged the Government of Fiji, and I'm quoting here, to fully respect and protect the rights of freedom of opinion, expression and association and create an atmosphere conducive to the exercise of these rights which are fundamental to democracy.  So this isn't just Australia and New Zealand raising this is it?

Minister:

Clearly, there will be reactions from different quarters Bruce, but from our perspective, as I've indicated, we made it clear from our perspective that we are aware of the circumstances, we are watching developments and I stated strongly our position in support of freedom of speech and assembly being essential elements of a functioning democracy.

Journalist:

Prime Minister Bainimarama actually had a bit of a go at Australia and New Zealand back at the tri-partite conference in Pacific Harbour where you were at and he said that Fiji doesn't raise human rights abuses in places like Australia with its treatment of refugees and New Zealand over the Maori issue.  So he clearly is responding to these.

Minister:

Our Government takes human rights seriously both at home and abroad.  Our approach to human rights reflects a set of national values which are deeply embedded in Australian society.  I think that we do have a strong record of respecting human rights and this has been recognised by our international partners.

Journalist:

Well, you took part in the tripartite Australia-New Zealand- Fiji Business Council meeting at Pacific Harbour and at that meeting Fiji's Trade Minister Faiyaz Koya announced that Fiji was not in fact pulling out, it was in fact still part of the negotiations. Are you pleased at that development?

Minister:

Well certainly, we are pleased and Minister Koya participated in a meeting of Trade Ministers in Christchurch in August and certainly was very constructive as part of that process.  So in August the framework and the timetable was set.  There was an agreement as to the legal text of PACER-Plus, market negotiations should end by the end of October, hopefully with a signature of the agreement by the end of the year.  Now, clearly we are determined to work with our counterparts in Fiji to strengthen our bilateral relationship and that was the reason why I went to this conference.  It was basically a conference which brought together the four business councils between Australia Fiji New Zealand and I really wanted to hear directly from businesses about that relationship and how important PACER-Plus is to that relationship and I certainly was made very, very aware of that.  We note Fiji's reservations.  We believe Fiji has much to gain from a regional economic integration through PACER-Plus and of course we will continue to work closely with Fiji on this agenda.

Journalist:

Now when Minister Koya made an announcement I think about seven days ago that Fiji was going to withdraw from PACER-Plus that sent shockwaves around the region.  They were seen as joining Papua New Guinea and not having anything to do with it.  Did Australia sort of have to give anything away or back down on any of its negotiating points on PACER-Plus to get Fiji to come back to the table?

Minister:

Well I think as Minister Koya himself indicated when he spoke, their reservations were in relation to the legal text so it is very clear that certainly negotiations are still on foot.  And following the meeting in Christchurch certain concerns have been raised in relation particularly to infant industries and most-favoured nation treatment.  I mean these are the two issues basically that have been raised since then. Now we accept that there are these reservations.  We think that the legal text is a good one.  We believe that the text already has included in it a range of flexibilities and special differential treatment provisions to take into account the vulnerabilities of developing countries in the Pacific.  Having said that, discussions are still ongoing and without getting into the nitty gritty and the nuts and bolts of this I think this is very much one for the trade negotiators but my understanding is that those discussions are continuing.  And it was actually pleasing to hear Minister Koya's comments yesterday.

Journalist:

I understand you've also made an announcement about uncapping the number of Fijians that can take part in the seasonal worker program. That could have a big impact on relations couldn't it?

Minister:

Well Bruce, we uncapped, this is really repeating what we had already announced.  We have uncapped the number of positions available under the seasonal worker program. I have said this is a very good program, the seasonal worker program, so we look forward to making the seasonal worker program even better.  We look forward to growing participation by our Pacific neighbours.  Indeed, I have spent a lot of time travelling around the Pacific and this is one of those issues that I have had quite detailed discussions with, with quite a number of my counterparts, ministerial counterparts in the Pacific.  So we see it as very much a win-win between Australia and Pacific countries.  And so we are really pleased to see participation and pleased to see the participation from Fiji.

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