Interview with Mala Darmadi – Pacific Beat, ABC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Pacific Islands Forum; University of the South Pacific; COVID-19 Vaccinations; Daru Island
10 February 2021

Mala Darmadi: There are serious questions about Pacific unity and regionalism after the Micronesian bloc confirmed they will leave the Pacific Islands Forum, the regions peak body. And there were also questions about the role Australia has played and will play in this unfolding crisis.

So, we are now joined by Australia's new Minister for the Pacific and International Development, Zed Seselja, who took up the role just before Christmas when there was a Cabinet reshuffle. Good morning, Minister. Thank you so much for joining me on Pacific Beat this morning.

Minister Seselja: Good morning, Mala. How are you?

Mala Darmadi: I'm well, thank you. What a welcome to the Pacific you ever had. You've barely made yourself comfortable and now you've got a major diplomatic crisis on your hands.

Minister Seselja: Well, thank you, Mala. I mean, obviously the Australian Government is very keen to see continued unity in the Pacific, and when there is unity in the Pacific Islands Forum and amongst Pacific Island nations we believe that the region does best. So obviously, the Micronesian leaders have made their views clear, and the Australian Government is working very, very closely in dialogue with them and with others to try and ensure that we have that ongoing unity.

Where there are these concerns, we need to listen to them, we need to engage in dialogue, we need to continue working together on the important challenges that the region faces. Obviously these are sovereign nations and they're expressing their views. And our job is to listen to them and work with them, and hopefully, come to a unified position.

Mala Darmadi: Speaking of challenges though, Minister, the opposition here in Australia says that, you know, this split will make tackling these challenges in the region even more difficult. How concerned are you about everything that's unfolded?

Minister Seselja: Well, there's a couple of points there. Obviously, Micronesian leaders have made their intention clear, but we'll continue to dialogue with them and that intent to leave to be executed obviously takes a period of time, a period of 12 months. And so, there's a lot of discussions to be had there. But, whilst it is very important and we believe that the Pacific works best when there is a fair degree of unity, we are working of course in both multi-lateral ways but also in bi-lateral ways to deal with some of the challenges that we face.

So whether that's on the vaccine roll out for COVID; we've given a lot of support to the region and we've pledged a lot more support to be able to roll out those vaccines into the region - that work will continue regardless of the makeup of the forum. We we'll work at a multi-lateral level, we'll work at a bi-lateral level as we have been, and that work will continue because it's absolutely critical that we do.

It's critical that we work on the economic challenges with COVID; it's also that we deal with the health challenges and the vaccination roll out will be central to that.

Mala Darmadi: Now, we'll chat about the vaccination roll out in just a bit. But I do want to ask what this split means for Pacific regionalism in your mind? Do you think it's at a point of no return?

Minister Seselja: No, I don't. I think that, from time to time, these challenges emerge in the relationships. I think that it was particularly challenging this year as we haven't been able to all sit in a room together. I think the virtual meeting does make it a little different.

But no, I don't accept that. I think that the region remains strong; I think we can deal with these challenges; I think from the Prime Minister down in Australia we will dialogue with leaders in the region; and, there is a lot of goodwill, notwithstanding that there are challenges in the relationships.

Mala Darmadi: Now, what does this mean for Australia's foreign policy in the Pacific? And the Prime Minister's Pacific Step-up? The government has, in recent years, increased its presence in the North Pacific by setting up embassies, but does more need to be done in that space?

Minister Seselja: Well, the Pacific Step-up continues, and you're right to point out that it has been a very significant focus for the Prime Minister and this government. We have increased our presence in the region, whether it's diplomatic presence, whether it's the amount of aid and support that is going into the region at every level we are increasing our dialogue, we are increasing our presence, we are increasing our influence because the Pacific is part of our family; because we want to see the Pacific thrive. We want to see our neighbours and friends and family in the Pacific doing well, and we will continue to support them.

But it's also in Australia's interest that we have a strong presence in the region. So that Pacific step up continues. It continues when it comes to economic support, it continues when we see difficult times like we saw with Tropical Cyclone Yasa and the very strong Australian government response to support our Fijian neighbours. So those sort of things will continue.

Mala Darmadi: Now of course, Australia does play a role. But after the events at the special leaders retreat Micronesian leaders have accused Australia of essentially missing an opportunity to play a pivotal role, almost as a peacekeeper. So why did Australia, Australia choose to take part in the vote rather than mediate?

Minister Seselja: We take our role in the Forum very seriously, but at no stage do we seek to dictate terms to sovereign nations. So we work very closely. We work in dialogue. We, like other nations in the Pacific, have one vote in the Forum. And in the end, we have to respect that their- these are- this was a Democratic vote. We understand the concerns that have been expressed by the Micronesians, and that's why the dialogue will continue. But it's important to recognise that we take our role in the region seriously, but we also take the sovereignty of each of those nations very seriously as well.

Mala Darmadi: So you know, in terms of this dialogue, what will the government do to encourage the Micronesians bloc to reconsider their decision? What approach will the government take to help address this crisis?

Minister Seselja: I wouldn't necessarily telegraph all of those discussions publicly. But what I would say is that from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, right throughout the government, there will be dialogue with leaders - not just Micronesian leaders, but leaders right across the region - to listen to the concerns and to ensure that we can find a way forward. So, that dialogue will continue, but first and foremost, it'll be about listening to the concerns, dealing with them. But as I say, I wouldn't telegraph all of the discussions publicly.

Mala Darmadi: You're listening to Australia's Minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja. And Minister, let's turn to another major issue in the region. Last week the Fiji Government deported the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific and his wife, both Australian citizens. What support has the Government provided to them and do you believe there are grounds to Fiji's claims that they breached the country's Immigration Act?

Minister Seselja: Well, first thing I'd say is consular support is being provided and the University of the South Pacific is a very important regional institution. So, we've had, obviously, DFAT support and discussions with the Vice-Chancellor and that support is ongoing as these issues are dealt with.

Mala Darmadi: Now, the deported Vice-Chancellor claims that his case is a, quote, ‘a classic case of beating the whistle-blower up’ after he did reveal allegations of fraud. Are you worried by his accusations and are you taking them up with Fiji?

Minister Seselja: When it comes to concerns around governance at the university, those issues, of course, have been raised. We've seen a forensic audit and it is up to the council of the university to deal with some of those issues. It's important. We support strong governance, we support strong standards, and we have a representative on that council. What is going to be important is that we make sure that going forward that those governance standards are always improved and where there are independent audits like we've seen, that those findings are responded to.

Mala Darmadi: Australia has, however, done something in this space before. Australia, as we know, is a major funder of the university and previously withheld some funding over financial mismanagement investigation that went on. Will the Government once again withhold funds from USP?

Minister Seselja: That's not our position at this time. We're not withholding funding from the university. What we are doing is ensuring that the council works through those issues so that where there are governance issues, they can be dealt with.

Mala Darmadi: Now, Minister, there have been criticisms that the Government has been fairly muted about this particular issue. What is your response to that?

Minister Seselja: I wouldn't accept that. As I say, we're working through the proper processes. It's important that we do continue to have strong governance in these issues. And, as I've said earlier, providing consular assistance as needed.

Mala Darmadi: Minister, let's talk about the vaccination rollout. Australia is set to begin its COVID-19 vaccination campaign within weeks. How far off will there be a vaccination rollout for Pacific nations?

Minister Seselja: Well, there's a couple of points to make. Obviously, the way that Australia is supporting our Pacific neighbours when it comes to the vaccine rollout is in two main ways. One is through the COVAX facility. And we anticipate that the rollout of COVAX vaccines will start very shortly in the Pacific and that will be part of our support through the COVAX. But we're also going to provide direct support to nations in the Pacific and we're working with them on a lot of that detail. So we anticipate that COVAX will come first and that will happen very shortly. And then we're working through, importantly, not just about procuring vaccines for the region, because whilst procuring the vaccines is very important and we've committed to ensuring that nations in the Pacific are fully vaccinated, along with our partners like New Zealand, the United States and France in the French territories. But by ensuring that all people within the Pacific island nations are able to be vaccinated, we believe that's a strong moral case for us to do that. And also, I think there are strong economic case in the region for that to occur. So it's not just about the procurement, but it is about providing end to end support when it comes to helping health systems to deal with it, logistics, workforce training, communications, all of these things will be important to ensuring people are vaccinated right throughout the Pacific.

Mala Darmadi: Speaking of logistics, will it be possible for Australia to provide vaccinations for everyone in the Pacific through those various means? Or do you expect that other donors like China, for example, which has offered, will also do so?

Minister Seselja: Well, we believe, obviously the United States has undertaken, in the Compact states, to rollout the vaccine; New Zealand likewise in its realm states and the French government in the French territories. But when we look at all of the other nations not covered by that, Australia has undertaken, between COVAX and through direct support to those nations, to ensure full vaccine coverage.

Mala Darmadi: Finally, Minister, we've had two proposals for Daru Island in PNG's far west from Chinese companies that have reportedly have big plans to invest and develop the island, including an entirely new city port, as well as other plans that involve a fisheries processing plant. Now, Daru is incredibly underdeveloped and also right on Australia's doorstep. What information is the Australian Government seeking about these plans?

Minister Seselja: We continue to have good discussions with our friends in PNG over these issues. When it comes to one of those proposals in terms of the city, as the Prime Minister said recently, I think we file that one under speculation. When it comes to other issues with proposed fisheries, we have engaged in dialogue at the highest levels of government with PNG. Obviously, there are shared interests in the Torres Strait. We have a very strong relationship with the Government of Papua New Guinea and with the people of Papua New Guinea, and so we anticipate that there will be ongoing dialogues. That memorandum of understanding that was signed is still at an early stage, and we anticipate there'll be a lot more discussion and a lot more consultation between Australia and PNG.

Mala Darmadi: Minister Zed Seselja, Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development. Thank you so much for joining me this morning on Pacific Beat.

Minister Seselja: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Mala Darmadi: That was Zed Seselja, Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development. And there are plenty more issues to discuss. The chances of a Pacific travel bubble potentially, and the Pacific seasonal workers, just to name a few. So we hope to speak to the Minister again soon.

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