Press conference in Noumea, New Caledonia with the President of New Caledonia, Harold Martin, and Mr Marles, in the presence of the French High Commissioner, Albert Dupuy

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

2 April 2012

Mr Martin: I would like to thank you for coming so early in the morning to the Méridien. With the [French] High Commissioner, we were keen to have this discussion with the Australian Minister before he left given, as you would be aware, that the delegation is due to depart this morning.

We started at 7.00am sharp and the first thing I wanted to share with the Minister, on behalf of the Government of New Caledonia, was to express our warmest thanks for the visit by the Governor-General, as it was the first time a Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia has visited New Caledonia. It means we are held in high esteem by Australia; it is a meaningful gesture, this is indeed how we felt about it, and I wanted to acknowledge this token of friendship. Once again, it shows the strength of our relationship and this is a gesture of consideration towards New Caledonia.

The visit by the Governor-General went extremely well and I would like to take this opportunity to thank you, the media, as I noted you covered the visit extensively. And because it spanned over the week-end, you deserve even more praise. Thank you.

Mr Dupuy: I agree fully with what the President of the New Caledonian government just said. It was an important visit and it was equally important that this morning the President of the Government and I had this meeting with Mr Marles, representing the Government of Australia, for an exchange of views which was both political and technical.

We understand that, from an Australian Government perspective as well as from a personal perspective, you are keen to support the President of the New Caledonian Government in areas in which he wants to make progress in the coming months and that he raised earlier on.

At your request, we conducted an overview of the situation in the region and in New Caledonia. In conclusion, I would like to thank you warmly for your time on behalf of the [French] State.

Mr Marles: Merci and bonjour.

Thank you. Can I [extend] my thanks to you for attending so early in the morning and to say that doing a press conference in front of these French pastries seems a perfectly appropriate way to do a press conference here, in New Caledonia.

It is one of the reasons we love coming to New Caledonia.

Can I thank the President of New Caledonia, Mr Harold Martin and the High Commissioner, Mr Albert Dupuy, for meeting me this morning? We had a very productive meeting.

We have a growing and substantial agenda between Australia and New Caledonia and, this morning, we have spoken about issues such as access to health in Australia, membership of the Pacific Islands Forum, along with the trade between the two countries. These are important discussions to have and we look forward to continuing those.

But of course, the real significance of this visit has been the historic step of having our Head of state, the Governor-General, visit New Caledonia for the first time ever.

I want to say something about the significance of this visit. But, before I do, I do want to express our gratitude to both the French state and the Government of New Caledonia for all the work they have done in hosting our Governor-General here in Noumea.

Having a Head of state in town is not a small exercise and we feel very looked after. I know the Governor-General personally feels very looked after, and the visit could not have gone better. We are very, very grateful to both the French state and the Government of New Caledonia for all they have done.

New Caledonia is a very important Pacific community and you are, in many respects, our closest neighbour. The relationship between Australia and New Caledonia, Australia and France, is vitally important, and it is one of the reasons we were so keen that on this visit to the Pacific, the Governor-General made a significant part of that visit here, and indeed we are staying longer than in any of the other places that we are visiting in the Pacific this week.

And it has been too long before having the first visit of an Australian Governor-General to New Caledonia: we will make sure it does not take 112 years before we do it again.

I do want to say this: Australia deeply values the presence of France in the Pacific and we deeply value our relationship with New Caledonia.

And it is most fundamental: we are both stable, liberal democracies which hold the same values about the way we want to see the world, and I think we have a historic role together with our partners in the region such as the US and New Zealand in building that partnership of support for the Pacific Region.

As developed countries, we really do live in a developing part of the world and there is much that we have to do together, we believe, in contributing to the development of the Pacific and if more broadly, the Asia-Pacific region. I think that is why we see the partnership between Australia and New Caledonia, Australia and France, as being so important.

Saying those words are important but we really want to give expression to those words, which is why I think it was essential that we have this visit over this week-end.

Finally, at a personal level, I think foreign relations are built from a foundation of personal relations and it was really good for me, for the first time, to get to know the High Commissioner, Monsieur Dupuy: we had a very nice week-end participating in a number of events. And of course, it has been fantastic for me also to catch up with my old friend President Martin and I look forward to seeing you hopefully in Australia in a not too distant future.

Mr Martin: I would like to say that I totally agree on what the Minister just said, and in fact, while I was listening to him, I realised that I could have said exactly what he just said. More importantly, what I would like to emphasize is that there is no controversial issues between Australia and us. We have issues on which we talk, particularly on the economic side [of the relationship], but no differences. Let me add that I am delighted that we have such a good relationship with Mr Marles. As you would have heard and understood, he is a very dynamic Minister, with whom I get on really well. We know each other quite well given that we met on a number of occasions. We had a fruitful exchange of views yesterday on the stability across the Pacific. In short, I hope that he will stay Minister for the Pacific for a long time so that we can continue to see, and talk to each other and enrich each other. As he is much younger than me, he has a better chance of staying on than I have.

Question by Sean Dorney, ABC Television: How do you see your future status, once it has been decided, with France? Will it be a little bit like the Cook Islands and New Zealand?

Do you mean with Australia? (No, with France.) OK, the question you raised is important. We have put in place, with the support of the State, a think tank on that matter. In this think tank sit representatives from the whole political spectrum of New Caledonia as well as representatives from the State, and we all contemplate options for the future of New Caledonia. The starting point is that the end of the Noumea Accord cannot be the status quo and it cannot be independence either, so we will all work on the best possible solution with the help of three world-class experts designated by the State.

What I can tell you is that, from my perspective, independence is not an option. It is impossible on a political level as there is a vast majority of people here who do not want independence, and it is impossible on an economic level because what France gives us every year weighs much more than the grand total of our tax revenue. Socially, independence would not be possible either, because it would only widen the social fractures which already exist here between the communities.

We do not see how a very small country like New Caledonia could maintain its own army, its own justice system, etc… In conclusion, I believe our relations with France, which are so important, will stay strongly anchored.

Inaudible question by Radio Rythme Bleu on New Caledonians accessing Australian health system

Mr Marles: In the meeting this morning, President Martin has raised with us how that can be better consolidated. At the moment there are, every year, a number of New Caledonians accessing the Australian health system and I understand that President Martin is looking at continuing discussions with the various state departments of health in Australia. We indicated we are very happy to facilitate those conversations.

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