Honiara, Solomon Islands

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, Australia Pacific Training Coalition centre, unexploded ordnances, Pacific Games support, China.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Good morning, everyone. First can I apologise for being a bit late? The tour of the institute went a bit longer such is our enthusiasm, and enthusiasm of the athletes and coaches involved.

Well, as Australia’s Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for International Development and the Pacific, I’ve been delighted by my first bilateral visit to a Pacific island nation, and I’ve been particularly grateful for the hospitality shown to me by the people and Government of the Solomon Islands. It’s been a true privilege to be here for some very important meetings and visits. Obviously, one part of the visit was the very sombre commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Guadalcanal campaign. A turning point in World War II, without a successful Guadalcanal campaign the War in the Pacific would not have been won. So, it was very moving for me to attend and speak at the Solomon Scouts and Coastwatchers Memorial, the pride of our nation, to obviously be one of the guests of honour this morning at the HMS Canberra memorial, and also to attend and lay wreaths on behalf of the people and Government of Australia at the United States and Japanese commemorations on Sunday. This has been an important part of my trip.

An equally important part of my trip has been the visits to see some of the really important priorities for the people of Solomon Islands and where we are partnering as the Australian Government. Visiting the Australia Pacific Training Coalition centre to meet Pacific island workers, some about to go to Australia, some returning from Australia, was a real joy to see their enthusiasm as they trained and to take under their wing the most junior trainee, in me, was a real benefit for me and real enjoyment. And to meet a couple of workers returning to Solomon Islands from Australia, and I want to thank Joseph and Gerard for sharing their stories. And their stories are, I think, symbolic of the potential of the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, a scheme that is what I call a triple win. It’s a win for Australia where we get people to fill our temporary skills shortages in rural and regional Australia; it’s a win for the workers involved who come back with great skills and experience; and it’s a win for the countries that we partner with. The average Pacific islander worker in those schemes will remit $6,000 a year back to their home country, and that’s in the context of where one‑third of Pacific Islanders live on about $US700 a year. So, that $6,000 has a really meaningful impact. And Joseph and Gerard are both setting up businesses back here in the Solomon Islands as a result of their work in Australia. So that was so enthusiastic and such a joy for me.

Equally, joyful was the visit to Honiara Senior High School in partnership with the Solomon Islands Minister and the New Zealand Defence Minister to see the work being done to repair the school after the civil unrest of November last year and to see and open the new computer laboratory where New Zealand and Australia have provided funds for the building and the 24 advanced computers, and to meet students who are so joyful and enthusiastic about being back and learning. I met Joanne, a sixth form young woman whose goal, once she gets through her study at high school, is to become a lawyer. And that is the potential of the Pacific that Australia is so committed to partnering with. Seeing the Joannes of the world not only making a contribution to the Solomon Islands, but to the peace and prosperity of the Pacific.

Then I had some very successful business meetings last night with a very strong and deep business community of Solomon Islands where we’re committed to working to advance the private sector in the Solomon Islands. And then after this press conference I’ll be visiting the unexploded ordnance facility at Hells Point to talk about Australia can continue to partner to repair and fix the curse of the Pacific, or the curse of 80 years on of unexploded ordnance. Australia is providing $15 million to build capacity as well as ongoing funding of around $400,000 a year to really make the Solomon Islands a regional centre of excellence for unexploded ordnance and partner with Government and Solomon Islands to repair that curse that has been inflicted on the Solomon Islands, at no fault of the Solomon Islands’ people.

The other part of the trip has been some very successful bilateral meetings with Solomon Islands’ Ministers. Minister Veke, as the Minister for Police; Minister Tanangada, the Education Minister; and Minister Togamana, the Health Minister. They’ve been very successful meetings where we’ve discussed a range of issues of mutual interest for our governments and that culminated in the meeting with Prime Minister Sogavare, across the road, where we talked about a number of matters. Firstly, I expressed the condolences of the people and Government of Australia on the passing of the Solomon Islands’ third Prime Minister, Ezekiel Alebua, and passed on my personal condolences. We discussed our security partnership, our continuing and deepening economic cooperation and our support and enthusiasm for the Pacific Games hosted in the Solomon Islands, and our shared interests in the prosperity and peace in the Pacific that can be advanced jointly through the Solomon Islands and Australia.

And, finally, as part of that visit, we made an announcement around the Pacific Games where Australia would be contributing 100 million Solomon Islands dollars to invest in the success of the Pacific Games through a range of activities. So, it’s been a very successful visit. It won’t be my last to the Solomon Islands and I’ve been in awe of the hospitality of the Solomon Islands’ people, and it’s been a real pleasure to be here.

Now happy to answer any questions. Is there someone from the Solomon Islands’ media who would like to go first? Are you from the Solomon Islands media? Yes, sir.

Journalist: My name is Jeremy Gwao, currently with Tavuli News and also freelance. Basically, just around the visa waiver. I know that Solomon Islands have been seeking visas. Is the Government of Australia would consider this with SIG [Solomon Island Government]. And my second question is in terms of media, how do you find it with being fair in terms of reporting, in terms of the Solomon Islands media, how has it affect – was it affect the relationship with the Government? My last one is that you mentioned something around climate change since its been a priority since you’ve been in Fiji last month. What other support do you mention in terms of the Pacific Islands?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you for those three questions. I found the Solomon Islands media very fair and balanced and very keen to engage with both myself and previous visits such as from Foreign Minister Wong. On the first question around visa arrangements, obviously, I’m very aware that that’s an issue. Two other related issues is the need to speed up visa processing of our existing visa categories. That’s a message that I’ve delivered and has Prime Minister Albanese when he visited the Pacific Islands Forum meeting last month. We need to deal with the back log of visas that we’ve inherited from the last Government. And obviously as part of our Pacific policy we announced in the leadup to the last election, we announced the Pacific Engagement Visa, which I’m incredibly passionate about. For the first time in the history of Australia we will have a permanent migration visa purely for one region – the Pacific – where 3,000 permanent migration spots will be allocated to people in the Pacific each year to build our people‑to‑people links, and that’s something that’s an important initiative that I’ll be working with the Minister for Immigration, Andrew Giles, on.

On your question about climate change, that was another part of our Pacific policy that we announced. Australia’s proud to be part of the Pacific family but being part of a family means you listen to other family members, and the Pacific family has been very clear, if you look at the 2018 Boe Declaration, that climate change is the number one security threat to the Pacific, and Australia under the former Government was not playing its role. So, Australia has now got strong domestic climate change targets. The climate change legislation passed through the House of Representatives last week and I was proud to vote in favour of it, and we’re hopeful that we’ll get it through the Senate shortly.

That was one part of our climate policy; another part is our Pacific Climate Financing Partnership, and that will work to support climate mitigation and, importantly, climate adaptation in the Pacific, because we need to be a better partner for the Pacific on dealing with the impact of climate change and avoiding it through supporting renewable energy within the region.

The third area which I’ve been evangelical about on climate change is Australia will no longer be a blocker of climate language and climate action in multi‑lateral forums. We’ll no longer block climate language, which we saw under the last Government; instead, we’ll amplify the voice of the Pacific. So, one issue that is very important is that, unfortunately, the Pacific and quite frankly other parts of the world will lose islands to rising sea levels. Under current UN maritime laws, when an island disappears the country loses the exclusive economic zone around it, it loses the fishing rights, the mineral rights that go with that exclusive economic zone. Australia is committed to working with the Pacific to get UN maritime laws changed so that when we do lose islands, those countries don’t lose that exclusive economic zone. And that is a really meaningful part of our efforts to be a good climate partner to the Pacific family. Stefan?

Journalist: Thank you, Minister. You’ve just met with the Prime Minister. He seemed very pleased to see you. I don’t know if you got a hug or not, but do you think there’s been a change in position? What did you talk about? Why did he seem so pleased to see you when there’s been a bit of an antagonistic relationship lately?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I think you might need to ask the Prime Minister for his motivations, but I found it a very warm and friendly meeting. We had a number of handshakes, no hug, but it was a very warm and friendly meeting, and we discussed a range of issues. Our security partnership was obviously one part of that where the Prime Minister repeated his assurance that Australia is the security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands, and that he and the Solomon Islands Government would come to Australia first if there were any gaps that need to be filled. We discussed our longstanding economic partnership. Australia is the largest development partner of the Solomon Islands and we’re working on so many joint projects to advance our shared economic interests, the Pacific Games being one example. The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility being another.

We have 4,000 Solomon Island workers right now in Australia filling our urgent skills shortages and we’re really interested in ramping it up, so, it was a very warm and productive meeting, and what we’ve said to all Pacific Islands leaders is with a new Australian Government, you’ll get new energy from Ministers and the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Albanese was obviously out in the Pacific last month for the PIF. Foreign Minister Wong has had four visits to the Pacific. This is my third visit to the Pacific and my first bilateral visit. So, you’ll get more energy from the new Australian Government, and you’ll get more respect. It starts by listening – listening to the priorities of the Pacific Island nations and acting on those priorities. So, I found it a very warm meeting and all my bilateral meetings with Solomon Islands Ministers have been similarly warm.

Journalist: Did you raise the China security pact which was signed earlier this year and what did you raise specifically with the Prime Minister about that pact and the lack of detail and lack of transparency with it?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: We discussed our security partnership with the Solomon Islands, and I updated the Prime Minister and he welcomed our activities around constructing the western and eastern border outposts, which we are accelerating right now. We discussed our ongoing support for their maritime division, and again I welcome the assurance from the Prime Minister that there will be no foreign bases in Solomon Islands or persistent military presence. So, Australia remains the security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands, and we are very committed to deepening that relationship and we’ve had some very productive meetings including with the Australian Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, who accompanied me yesterday to a meeting with police Minister Veke to talk about a range of issues. So, it’s been a very warm meeting – warm discussions around our security partnership.

Journalist: Thank you. We are from Voice of America. Obviously, Australians are concerned about security pact and the possibility of Chinese military base here. I wonder if you can talk about what do you believe are China’s intentions? Do they have a master plan for this region? And a related question is, as you know, China has started another round of military drills off the Taiwan islands. Some people in the United States actually worry that United States and its allies and China keep talking past each other and this might lead to some new instabilities and uncertainties in the Indo‑Pacific region. I’m wondering if you have more [indistinct], sir? Thank you.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: On the second matter, the Australian Government has been very clear about our attitude, which is, firstly, that we call for restraint and calm in the region. We call for a de‑escalation around Taiwan and – but, equally, we also reaffirm the bipartisan position of a commitment to the status quo and a One China policy. So that’s our position on that, that Foreign Minister Wong has repeated a number of times.

On your first question, that’s a question for the Government of China about their interests in this region. What I’m interested in is how Australia can be a true and faithful member of the Pacific family, how we can listen to the priorities of our Pacific family and act upon them. And the number one is climate change, and that has been a huge hinderance to Australia’s relationship with our Pacific family over the last nine years because the former Government did not take action on climate change seriously. It’s one where we’ve changed our attitude. We’ve got a new Government committed to action on climate change and that’s opened the door to rebuild our relationships in the region and that means we are in a better position to talk about what other countries are and aren’t doing around climate change, and that’s I think a very important way that we’re building our relationships in the Pacific. I might go there.

Speaker: One from the Solomons, I think.

Journalist: Do you worry about the current state of US‑China relationship?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Look, our position on the US-China relationship has been stated, and, obviously, in the Taiwan Straits we’ve been calling for restraint and calm and de‑escalation.

Journalist: Thank you Minister, Christinrita Leong from ABC Australia. We’ve just come from across the road where Prime Minister Sogavare have mentioned that Australia is the second largest development partner to the Pacific Games next year. Why is Australia supporting this? Is this because of China?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: No. No, Australia is supporting the Pacific Games because it’s a priority of the Solomon Islands Government and people, and being the development partner of choice for the Solomon Islands means listening to the priorities of the Solomon Islands people and Government. We are the largest development partner for the Solomon Islands. We provide $AU161 million last year to aid in the development and when you include our in‑kind support through the ADF, it gets close to $AU200 million. So, we’re proud and honoured to be the development partner of choice to the Solomon Islands, and, so, my announcement today of the 100 million Solomon Islands dollars commitment to the Pacific Games is part of that development program, listening to the people of the Solomon Islands about what their priorities are, just as we do on economic development, on investing in education and health. So, we’re funding health investment. I was at a school yesterday, the Honiara Senior High School to talk about our education support program that we partner with New Zealand on. So, they’re all important facets of our support for Solomon Islands, and sport is one example of that. We’ve got a very strong sports program throughout the Pacific and, as I said, I’m looking forward to the Pacific Games and I’m looking forward to Australia sending its largest delegation we ever have. And that’s important as a member of the Pacific family, we should be well represented at the Pacific Games.

Speaker: Any other questions?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Yes, sir.

Journalist: Ian from SIBC. The question is on the labour mobility. Is there any areas where you’ll think that past Government of Australia want to improve on especially with the new Government at this time?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you. The question about Pacific Australia Labour Mobility is incredibly important and it really is at the heart of the new Australian Government’s Pacific engagement policies. And there are areas where we’ve announced significant improvements on what the last Government did. The origins of the PALM were with the seasonal worker program that began under the last Labor Government in 2012, so we really are the holders of the flame of the Pacific labour mobility scheme.

So, we made a number of announcements to improve the scheme. First is to allow Pacific Island workers to bring their families, which is particularly important for the longer engagements. Two of the returning workers I met yesterday that I’ve talked about, Gerard and Joseph, were separated from their family for quite a long time. I think in Gerard’s case it was three years from his wife and two young kids, and for Joseph, it was two years. That is way too long to be away from your family. So, we will be changing the scheme to allow families to come over for the longer engagements. Obviously, the seasonal worker doesn’t really make as much sense. But, if a Pacific Islander is in Australia for three or four years, they should be able to bring their family. So that’s one important improvement.

We are making it more attractive for Australian employers to access the scheme by reducing the cost imposts around the airfares. Importantly, we’re ramping up the safeguards to make sure there isn’t exploitation because a single Pacific islander being exploited hurts the reputation of the scheme and reflects on the reputation of the Australian Government and the Australian people. So, we’re cracking down on exploitation and implementing all recommendations for the migrant worker task force. And we’re looking at how we can expand the scheme into other areas, so not just traditional areas like agriculture, but into areas that are more female dominated like hospitality. There were hospitality trainees there yesterday, and aged care. So, I visited the APTC training centre in Suva in Fiji last month, where 40 trainees were being trained in Cert III qualifications for aged care, and they were going across to Queensland. We’ve got a very significant aged‑care worker shortage; in fact, it’s at the heart of the crisis in aged care, so having Pacific Islanders come over, earn significant amounts of income for them and their family, and provide care to senior Australians is a win‑win. So, they’re some of the significant improvements we’re looking at in that scheme.

Speaker: I think we’ll leave it there.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you very much for your time.


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