Press conference with the Prime Minister of Fiji, the Hon Sitiveni Rabuka

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-Fiji relationship, shared passion for rugby, PacificAus Sports program, funding for high performance pathways, invitation to Fiji, PM Rabuka’s first official visit, social and economic development, result of the Voice referendum.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Well, good morning, everyone. And thank you for that wonderful introduction. Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet – the Gadigal people. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

Firstly I’d like to acknowledge the Honourable Sitiveni Rabuka, Prime Minister of Fiji. On behalf of Prime Minister Albanese, I extend a warm welcome back to Australia, Sir, and I look forward to catching up with you in Canberra shortly.

Australia and Fiji are connected by geography, longstanding historical ties, shared values and enduring relationships between our peoples. It’s a great pleasure to be here today to celebrate our shared passion of sport and how it connects Australia and Fiji, especially through rugby union. We enjoy a fierce yet friendly rivalry on the rugby field. In 1954 here in Sydney a brave Fiji edged out the Wallabies in an historic victory. Sixty-nine years later this year the Flying Fijians again bested the Wallabies to earn a well-deserved place in the Rugby World Cup quarter finals. And Prime Minister, as a former prop forward for the national team, I’m sure you’re very proud of the 2023 squad.

And let me pass on my commiserations for your loss this morning. I think you were dreadfully unlucky against the Poms. And I can say without fear of contradiction that every Australian was going for Fiji this morning against the old enemy. And it’s going to be very tough for us to choose someone else to back given the nature of the semi-finalists.

Ladies and gentlemen, sport is an enduring part of our bilateral relationship. It transcends national boundaries, and we’ve got some great ambassadors for that, the game, and that cultural connection here today. The Australian government understands the power of rugby to bring people together. Through the PacificAus Sports program we’re offering pathways for Fijian players, coaches and officials to train, exchange and engage with Australia’s rugby community. This enhances Australia’s people-to-people links with Fiji and deepens our bonds providing more opportunities for Fijian players – women and men – to compete in elite competitions.

Rugby is a powerful platform for improving gender equality. The Fijiana Drua’s stunning back-to-back Super W championships in 2022 and ’23 has inspired women and girls throughout the Pacific. Record numbers of girls and women – teams are now playing in Fiji with the domestic competition growing from 20 teams of women and girls to 120 teams. Just imagine that – a six-fold increase. And closer to home in Australia it has sparked passion. I’m proud to say – indulging me for a personal moment – that my daughter who started playing girls rugby last year, the very first match she watched with me was that first victory of the Fijiana Drua over the Waratahs two years ago. And with due respect to my home state, the passion and enthusiasm of that Fijiana Drua team inspired countless women and girls around the Pacific, not just in Fiji.

And that’s why I’m pleased to announce today that the Australian government will continue its support for the Fijiana Drua and Fijian Drua teams to compete in the Super W and Super Pacific – Super Rugby Pacific competitions for the next four seasons, enabling the teams to strengthen their high performance programs and pathways, supporting Fijian players to achieve their rugby dreams based at home – that’s critical, being able to be at home and performing at that level – and contributing towards establishing the successful Fijiana and Drua teams in the competition for years to come.

This continued support builds on our partnership with Rugby Australia and in association with Fiji Rugby Union and the Fiji government that has helped the Fijiana and Drua teams perform so well.

So we look forward to the ongoing rugby partnership, developing more Fijian stars playing for their home clubs, playing for their home country in the years to come. And I’m very confident that when we’re back here in four years’ time that not only have you had continued success in the Pacific but you would have been beaten the Poms next time around. Thank you very much, and best of luck.

Speaker: Thank you, Minister. I’d like to now invite Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka to provide his address.

Prime Minister of Fiji, The Honorable Sitiveni Rabuka: The Honourable Pat Conroy, Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Mr Ben Whitaker, Chief of Rugby Services of Rugby Australia, Mr Mark Evans, CEO Fijiana Drua, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I join with my colleague in acknowledging the traditional leaders past present and emerging of this land we stand on today.

Today is a bit of an emotional one, an emotional day for me. Having been a sportsman for Fiji for our country, I know the commitment and sacrifice that Fijian and Pacific athletes make when preparing themselves and preparing together for elite competitions and events. There is no greater feeling than representing your country. Yesterday I was at a church service in Parramatta and I saw a colleague who played test rugby with me in 1977 and asked that we record a message to be broadcast or telecast to our compatriots in France playing for the Flying Fijians [indistinct] Flying Fijians.

I’m proud of all Flying Fijians who have risen to the occasion I believe and have competed well at the 15th Rugby World Cup, not only to lift the standard of our game in tier 1 level but to inform the whole country and to inform the whole rugby system as we know it. The values of our culture, emphasise respect, humility and communalism.

Many have perceived this to be detrimental to the Fijian player or their psyche, particularly as rugby coaching refereeing is currently seen as more responsive to confrontational and domineering approaches on the field. However, I believe that the game of rugby truly reflects our way of life and also espouses our Fijian and Pacific values.

It is incumbent upon our Fijian Warriors to maintain our ethos and demonstrate that true rugby obliges great honour than oneself, contributing to the growth of the game that promotes unity, inclusivity and character development.

Today is also a very special day as we acknowledge and pay tribute to the government and people of Australia. It would be remiss of me not to mention the DFAT Office of the Pacific and Australia Rugby Union. Without you we would never have seen the rise and success of our Drua men and women’s teams. Within two years of their engagement in the Super Rugby competitions we have seen the return of your investment I believe and support in the lives of our families and communities. Our young people now have the opportunity to dare to dream and dream without the boundaries. Dream without the boundaries of Fiji limiting them to local competition.

Your contribution to our sporting teams throughout the Pacific Asia region and particularly the PacificAus Sports program, which I’m told is the most successful Australian-funded program in Fiji, will contribute to the development of our people in ways we cannot imagine right now.

I’m sorry, of course, that our success has come at the cost of a proud Wallabies team, but it has taken 69 years for this remarkable achievement to arrive, and it can only mean stronger and better competition between our teams for the benefit of our region and our sports people. We can only stand on your shoulders to achieve the unthinkable and dream the impossible.

I wish to personally invite Minister Conroy to Fiji in March of next year for the double-header Fiji and Fijiana Drua clash against the Waratahs. Minister Conroy ought to witness the spirit of the Fijian brand of rugby, which I hoped – well, I wished that we had played last night. Very encouraging to see the Drua products still playing that brand of rugby. We invite him to come and see for himself the countless associated benefits of the PacificAus sports program to Fiji and the Fijian people.

Finally today is an historic day because it is my first ever trip to this great nation and as a guest of the government of Australia. In 53 years of our independence as a nation and 53 years of diplomatic ties between our two countries, I’m the second Prime Minister to be accorded this honour, and I am humbled and grateful for it. I’m optimistic, therefore, that our relationship will continue to grow and become stronger with time.

Speaker: Members of the media, we will take some photos shortly. We’ll do some questions for the minister and the Prime Minister, if you have any. If we can start, please, with any questions to do with this partnership and then anything beyond that afterwards. But let’s concentrate on this for now. Minister and Prime Minister, if you could join me up at the lectern here. Any questions, now’s the time to go ahead with them. Thank you.

Journalist: Prime Minister and potentially Minister Conroy, [indistinct] Prime Minister, you’ve spoken about this being an historic moment in terms of your visit to Australia. How much of today’s announcement is about sports [indistinct] and how much of today’s announcement [indistinct] sporting ties between Australia and Fiji?

Prime Minister Rabuka: From a Pacific point of view, we can only say that it’s [indistinct] to help in our own social and economic development, particularly socio-economic development for the families and for the nation as a whole. The number of sports people who have come to Australia and have remitted assistance back to their families is growing every year. And that has contributed a lot to our socio-economic development at home, particularly during the time of COVID. So we’ve benefited a lot from this sports cooperation.

Minister Conroy: And if I can add to the Prime Minister’s answer, the Australian government is committed to bringing the people of Fiji and Australia closer together. We’re both proud members of the Pacific family, and that’s based on shared values, shared history and shared geography. And probably the central one is a shared love of sport. And I can’t think of anything that brings our countries closer together. This is not just about advancing the sporting aspirations of Fiji; it’s a great avenue for those lessons that Prime Minister Rabuka was talking about – about putting the team first rather than the individual, working collectively to advance your interests. It’s also obviously a great vessel for advancing gender equality. The success of the Fijiana Drua team is inspiring dreams and aspirations that haven’t been there before. So this is about bringing our two countries together in a way that is creative and imaginative, and it’s a great opportunity.

Prime Minister Rabuka: I’d like to add we’ve been together during war time and during peace and peacekeeping. We’ve been together. And when we were a colony we were entrusted under the care of the Australians and New Zealand government [indistinct] delegation in health and other social areas. We are proud to have participated with the Australian troops in the defence of the Pacific in the Second World War, and also in peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and around the world.

Journalist: Can I ask, if there’s no other questions on the announcement, Prime Minister, Australia has voted against recognising our Indigenous people in the constitution. The referendum on the weekend was something watched quite closely in the Pacific. I think the head of the Pacific Islands Forum noted that the Yes vote would be welcome. What was your reaction to the result of the referendum on the weekend?

Prime Minister Rabuka: My initial reaction was that it was a sovereign decision by the people of Australia, and I have not studied in detail the democratic involved, and I rather stay away from it because it’s clear we have the same problems at home and we handle it in our own national way. And I am sure that there are other parts of the Pacific that are going through the same question. But as we work towards achieving our Sustainable Development Goals in the world, these are some of the issues that we’ll have to deal with. They’ll have to be dealt with domestically, and considering out own businesses and other considerations.

Journalist: [Indistinct]

Minister Conroy: Sorry, I just –

Journalist: Sorry, are you aware of any of Defence’s involvement in repatriation flights from Australia to Israel?

Minister Conroy: At the moment we’re still waiting to see where more assistance is needed. Obviously Prime Minister Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong have made statements on that. And we’re just seeing how the situation develops over the next few days.

Prime Minister Rabuka: We’re very proud to have included some Australians on ours, and we thank you for including some Fijians on your efforts.

Minister Conroy: And if I could just supplement what the Prime Minister said about our shared history, I represented Australia at the 80th anniversary of the Guadal Canal campaign last year in the Solomon Islands where Fijian battalions fought side by side with the Royal Australian Navy, and I also had the privilege of visiting the peacekeeping force in the Sinai Peninsula last year and met with the Fijian battalion there. Some of the troops have been on their ninth rotation. And I’m happy to report not only is there a great spirit between all the nations there. No one dares to take on Fiji in rugby. The common sport is volleyball.

Journalist: [Indistinct]

Prime Minister Rabuka: [Indistinct].

Journalist: [Indistinct] grassroots development [indistinct] Fiji as opposed to [indistinct].

Minister Conroy: I think he’s asking would you prefer the money to go to grassroots rugby rather than elite competition?

Journalist: Not even rather, but how would you like to see this money [indistinct] grassroots?

Prime Minister Rabuka: Well, going to the level it’s going to at the moment energises grassroots competition. Everybody’s got a dream, and their first dream is to get up there at that level we’ve funded. And without that funding there would be nothing to strive there. I believe it is well targeted.

Minister Conroy: And to add to Prime Minister Rabuka’s answer, we have two separate programs: so the PacificAus Sport is focused at supporting elite competition, elite sporting competition. We have the great Team Up program as well which supports grassroots sports participation. And I’ve seen the power of that program, whether it’s supporting using rugby league in PNG to talk about domestic violence and general equality or supporting female participation in sport in Samoa. And I know they also are active in Fiji. So what we’re announcing today complements what we do at a grassroots level to help promote healthy lifestyles in schools and promote values around general equality and fight gender-based violence.

Journalist: Minister Conroy, just one more, if I may: on the Voice, most Labor electorates have rejected it, including your own in Shortland. The argument seems to be that the government needs to get back to basics. What message are you taking from the weekend?

Minister Conroy: The message that I take is that the Australian people have spoken, and we respect the result of the referendum. I do reject the sort of premise of your question. We’ve been delivering huge amounts of cost of living relief at the same time as making the case for a Yes for the referendum. Our energy bill relief has reduced price rises by 25 per cent compared to what they would otherwise be. Our cheaper child care started in July. We’re doing lots of work in other areas of cost of living measures. So good governments do more than one thing at the same time, and that’s what the Albanese Labor government has been doing.

I think that’s –

Speaker: I think we’re good. Great, thanks, everyone.

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