Thomas Roth, Australian High Commissioner: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Richard Marles, the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs.
Mr Marles: Thank you, Thomas. I appreciate the assistance we've had from Thomas Roth, our High Commissioner in Tonga, who does such a great job in representing the interests of Australia here.
We've had a fantastic day here in Tonga. It’s been a real privilege for me and our delegation to be the first delegation from our country to visit Tonga since the formation of Prime Minister Lord Tu'ivakano’s Government and of course since the elections last year. I think probably the most important point to make is that we have come to Tonga at a very critical moment in Tonga’s history. And we're very keen, in coming here, to make a very clear statement about how important we regard our relationship with Tonga. We see ourselves as very close friends and we want to be the very best friends that we can be to Tonga as a new chapter in Tongan history is embarked upon by this Government. It’s been great to affirm that friendship with today’s visit. And I think in a wider sense that is part of the message that we're bringing to all the countries that we have visited in the Pacific over the last few months.
The Gillard Labor Government regards the Pacific as absolutely crucial to Australia’s foreign policy. Whatever else happens around the world our neighbourhood will always be our neighbourhood. The Pacific, as our collective neighbourhood, has a particular importance in Australian foreign policy and it will always be very significant to us.
Perhaps I'll leave my comments there if there are any questions you want to ask?
Taimi 'o Tonga Newspaper: Have you met any of the members of cabinet?
Mr Marles: Yes, we met with the cabinet this morning. I met with the Prime Minister first thing this morning on his own, and then we had a meeting with the cabinet and talked about a range of issues. We talked about Australia’s overseas development assistance here in Tonga, and also such issues as the Pacific seasonal workers program which has had a very strong uptake from people in Tonga. We're very pleased about that. This is a program that we are keen to see expand. We're also keen to get an understanding from the Tongan Government about how they think the scheme’s working and how we might be able to improve it.
Matangi Tonga: I take it you were in the Cook Islands before?
Mr Marles: Yes, we'd been to the Cook Islands and…
Matangi Tonga: So what’s the whole purpose of your visiting Pacific Island countries?
Mr Marles: Well, as I stated, the importance that we place on the Pacific cannot be overstated, and we want to make it clear how significant we see our relationships with each of these countries. The issues differ from country to country, obviously, but there is much work to be done within the Pacific. In an overall sense we do very much regard this part of our region as critical to Australia’s national interests. But it’s also making a statement to the Pacific that we are going to be the very best friends that we can be in assisting the Pacific in its development. And the first way to do that is to go out and meet everyone, so that’s what I've tried to do. The Pacific way is a very personable way. It’s about people-to-people contacts, it’s about getting to know each other, so that we get a really deep sense of what the critical issues of the Pacific are. That’s what these visits are about.
Government Press Officer: You've met with members of the cabinet this morning. Are there any indications of some key or priority areas you will be bringing aid into…?
Mr Marles: Sure, in terms of aid specifically or…?
GPO: Just indications of aid, yes.
Mr Marles: In terms of the key issues that have been raised in our discussions with the Government here, as I mentioned, the seasonal workers program has been a very important issue. We, in terms of our aid, have also made contributions to the education sector here. We went to Nuku'alofa Government Primary School this morning to look at new curriculum materials, both in terms of the textbooks the kids are using but also teaching materials that the teachers are using. Education is a very important part of our focus here. And then we went to the Police training college where we handed out seven identification badges to police, which is an important part of the professionalisation of the Tonga Police. We have a very close working relationship with the Tongan Police through the Tonga Police Development Program. So, these are good examples.
If you go back to the meeting with the cabinet, what’s really important I think is that Tonga faces a number of financial challenges going forward. We are very keen to see, and appreciative of, the public expenditure review process which has been undertaken by the Government of Tonga in the context of our aid program with Tonga. That is something that we spoke about this morning and we understand that will continue and that’s very good news for us.
TV Tonga: In your talks about the various areas that Australia is contributing to financially to Tonga, is there a certain key area that the Tongan Government has addressed as wishing your further assistance on?
Mr Marles: There were a number of issues that were raised. As I said, we mentioned health and education. There were other issues of financial management that were raised in the conversations that we had. I think one of the important things is the Partnership for Development that we have with Tonga. We've got a very structured way in which all of these issues can be progressed. I think it’s been a very important step forward, having the Partnership for Development, so this is really seen as not being a handout but actually working together between the two governments as equals. It’s about how we can use this money in the best possible way for the development of the country. And in that context we've got a structured way in which each of the requests can be discussed. I think there is a meeting of donors here in April and we will also be working through some requests from the Government in that process.
Taimi 'o Tonga: In terms of the region’s security, there is the quadrilateral group. I've noticed that none of the Pacific countries are involved in that, nor a major influence in the region now which is China. What is the deal?
Mr Marles: Well, in terms of the quadrilateral group, I think one of the most important elements for Australia as well as the US and France, is maritime surveillance. And the Pacific countries are totally fundamental to the program of maritime surveillance. This is really one of the most important aspects that is coming out of the quadrilateral talks. If you look at the exclusive economic zones both that Tonga has, and countries such as Kiribati or the Federated States of Micronesia, these are often the most important economic assets that countries have. And having a really good network of maritime surveillance for these assets is absolutely fundamental to that. Now we have the Pacific Patrol Program that Australia has developed in combination with other countries of the Pacific. Here in Tonga, through our relationship with the Tonga Defence Service, there are three patrol boats working very closely as part of the network of surveillance with the assets of the US Coastguard, the New Zealand Navy and the French Navy. So in a sense whilst the quadrilateral talks involve those four countries, the programs that are coming out of that involve or aimed at the Pacific region.
Taimi 'o Tonga: What do you think of mining prospects in the Pacific Island EEZs, including Australian companies?
Mr Marles: It’s a really interesting question and it’s one which has been brought up lately. I understand that there are assets that Tonga may well have within its exclusive economic zone. There are a couple of points to make about that, and one is that I don't think any of this is about to happen tomorrow. It’s a long term prospect. But as a long term prospect, it does offer a significant source of hope and opportunity to the people of the Pacific. But, what matters as this important issue is discussed, is that countries think about the ways they set up their mining exploration operations such that the return from them is maximised and the resources are sustained, so that there is a long term benefit for the countries involved. And that may ultimately involve people thinking in terms of the mining resources within these economic zones as perhaps a better benefit for the next generation rather than this one. So it’s a very exciting long term prospect. In the short term we're not about to see people make a whole lot of money out of the mining project. Thank you.
Mr Roth: Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen.
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