Interview with Geraldine Coutts, Radio Australia 'Pacific Beat'

Subjects: Australia’s engagement with Pacific Communities

Transcript, E&OE

10 March 2011

Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, is in French Polynesia, where he has been meeting with leaders there.

His visit is part of a three nation tour including the Cook Islands and Tonga.

The visits will mean that since taking office last September, Mr Marles will have visited every member and associate member state of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Mr Marles says that Australia wants to engage with all the communities in the region and not just the Forum member states.

MARLES: One of the important messages to give to the community here in French Polynesia is that Australia regards the Pacific as being very important to our future and to our foreign policy. I've said before, whatever else happens in the world our neighbourhood will always be our neighbourhood, and this is our collective neighbourhood. That goes beyond just looking at member states of the Pacific Island Forum. We really want to have a comprehensive engagement which looks at all the communities of the Pacific. Here in French Polynesia we've got a community in excess of a quarter of a million people, which in Pacific terms is a very large Pacific community. We're very keen to have a strong engagement here and there are many links which we've discovered in just the last few hours between Australia and French Polynesia. There will be, for example, in the lead-up to the Melbourne Cup, a festival of French Polynesian commerce and culture to be held in Melbourne, which is a wonderful initiative and we certainly want to help that initiative go forward. It’s an example of the kind of contacts which exist between French Polynesia and Australia and we're very keen to see that continue.

COUTTS: Well of course Australia and the French territories have had naval pacts for some years now, and they've carried out mutual exercises. Is Australia looking to have closer ties or do more with the French and the French territories?

MARLES: We certainly work very constructively with France in our activities in the Pacific. You can almost argue that France is our closest international neighbour, that the closest overseas mission Australia has to Canberra is in Noumea. France is a very important local neighbour to Australia and the French territories, the French co-activities, are very important neighbours to us as well. And you mentioned the defence ties, I think one of the key challenges for the Pacific is to develop a comprehensive network of maritime surveillance for the Exclusive Economic Zones of the countries of the Pacific. That’s being done through the talks of the quadrilateral group, which is France, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and making sure that through the assets of each of those nations we really can build up an important maritime surveillance network. If you look here in French Polynesia, which has the largest Exclusive Economic Zone of any of the countries of the Pacific, having that maritime surveillance network in place is very important and they have strong expertise here in doing that. That’s something that can be of benefit to many countries. A country like Kiribati for example, their Exclusive Economic Zone is really their most important economic asset. So we're certainly keen to work with France to see how we can build that network for the prosperity of the people of the Pacific.

COUTTS: Will any of Australia’s aid dollars find their way into the French Pacific?

MARLES: Look it does in a modest way. We wouldn't want to overstate it, but we do have a modest contribution here. One of the most important things we do here in French Polynesia, as well as in New Caledonia, is provide scholarships for people from French Polynesia and the other French co-activities to study in Australia. There are five students from French Polynesia studying in Australia right now, and another four, some of whom I met this morning will be coming to study in Australia during the course of this year. Over the last 20 years there’s 200 French Polynesians who've had the opportunity to study at a tertiary level in Australia, and over that period of time that actually represents quite a strong alumni here in French Polynesia and a significant contribution to the skills base of this country. And I think it’s a connection which is very much valued here in French Polynesia, and certainly one that we want to continue from the Australian end.

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