RICHARD MARLES: The Pacific is of course extremely important to the Gillard Government. You know, we will see in global affairs various trade deals done, various conflicts happen, powers emerge and others fade away, but amidst all of that our neighbourhood will always be our neighbourhood, and so we've got to place a priority on it, and we do.
QUESTION: Australia pumps hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into the region every year. During the budget you announced a review of the use of consultants. There’s concerns been raised of course about the money, more money ending up in consultants' pockets than stays on the ground in these countries. Did your trip confirm any of the issues that the review is looking into?
RICHARD MARLES: Oh look I think those issues certainly arose during my trip, but we need to see that with some balance as well. There will always be a place for technical advice. That said, the concerns that were reflected in your question are certainly out there, we accept the fact that the level of technical assistance and the proportion of the aid budget spent on technical advisors was too high. We think that is a valid point to make. We are doing a review of that, and I think the likely outcome of that review will be a reduction in the level of technical assistance and the number of advisors. But we need to wait until we see the outcome of that review to look at that precisely.
QUESTION: Another issue that’s on the minds of a lot of Pacific Island nations is climate change and rising sea levels. Some countries have even called for Australia to prepare basically to take what’s called climate change refugees. Did you have any talks about that while you were out there?
RICHARD MARLES: Well not specifically in terms of taking climate change refugees. The message that I was giving was that this is an issue that we really take very seriously in Australia which is why we've worked so hard on our domestic policy. It’s also an issue that we are pursuing vigorously in international forums, and we're doing so with a view to explaining how this is going to affect the peoples of the Pacific, and indeed we're committing some significant money towards assisting countries in the Pacific with their climate change adaption policies. And so it is unquestionably a priority in our relationships with these countries.
QUESTION: A big announcement in 2008 for the Labor Government was the creation of the Pacific seasonal worker pilot scheme. I understand so far just over 100 of the 2,500 visas have been issued. Is it seen as a success by our Pacific neighbours?
RICHARD MARLES: Oh look I think it’s seen as a work in progress, and that’s - and to be honest that is what it is. This of course is a pilot program and I think it’s a really important pilot program to look at how we can provide this opportunity to people in the Pacific whilst meeting the labour needs of particular employers within Australia.
QUESTION: With only so few visas issued where’s the blockage, is it in Australia or is it in the Pacific?
RICHARD MARLES: It’s probably a bit of both is the honest answer to that. I mean it’s a bit on the demand side here in Australia as to the, you know, those farmers who are needing the work done, but there may be some issues as well in the Pacific.
QUESTION: Okay now turning to the Solomon Islands, has Australia got value for the $1.5 billion plus it’s pumped into there since 2003?
RICHARD MARLES: In terms of RAMSI?
QUESTION: In terms of RAMSI, in terms of the aid that Australia’s putting into the country?
RICHARD MARLES: Yeah I think unquestionably is the answer to that question. The Solomons is an entirely different country now to what it was back in 2003 when the RAMSI mission was first invited into the country, and there is an enormous amount of goodwill and good feeling towards the RAMSI mission by those in the Solomon Islands.
There are of course challenges which RAMSI now faces, and we've made it clear that RAMSI was never intended to be a permanent state of affairs. One day it will come to an end, I think that day needs to be based on when RAMSI has completed its job by bringing security in a sustainable way back to the country and that we see the Solomons on a path to economic sustainability. And I think that day is a way off.
QUESTION: One of the issues that’s raised quite regularly over there is that while you've provided security in the Solomon Islands the fundamental issue that led to the troubles, the land dispute in Guadalcanal, that has not been resolved while RAMSI’s been there, and they can't leave until that is resolved.
RICHARD MARLES: Well I think it’s fair to say that the underlying - the underlying issues do need to be resolved as part of this mission. I think it is fair to say that, and I think if we're - if what we're talking about is that RAMSI transitions into a more normal aid partnership relationship.
I'm not sure I would agree entirely with the premise of the question though that there has been no ground made in relation to the underlying issues. You know, one of the people, the senior leader in the Solomons, I spoke to made the point that the experience of now having had by and large the better part of seven years with stability and security and without the violence has made the Solomon Islanders aware of the virtues of that, and that people would be very loathe to let that go again.
QUESTION: So is Australia looking at another 10 years, what sort of timeframe?
RICHARD MARLES: Oh look I don't think you can put - well certainly I'm not going to put a timeline on it, and to be honest I just don't think you can do that.
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