Joint press conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
  • New Zealand Minister for Pacific Peoples, The Hon Aupito William Sio
  • New Zealand Minister of State For Trade And Export Growth, The Hon Phil Twyford
Topics: Travel to New Zealand; Australia-NZ co-operation; PACER Plus; Pacific COVID support; Pacific workers; Support for Timor-Leste.
23 April 2021

MINISTER SIO: Good morning everybody and thank you for your time. I am going to quickly make some statements then I am going to invite Minister Seselja to make some statements and then I am going to invite Phil Tywford to make some statements. Both of us have been meeting with Minister Seselja yesterday. But it’s been a delight to have you down here. Mr Seselja ‘Zoomed’ in earlier this year, but it is actually far better face to face and being able to, just share reflections on what is happening in the region and how we can respond better together. We have been really straight forward that Australia is an indispensable partner for New Zealand in the Pacific region and we are working on a range of things, providing direct budget support to countries in the region and now supporting the rollout of the [COVID-19] vaccine. And that is work that still has to continue for some time. Happy to answer any questions but I am going to invite Zed Seselja for some comments.

MINISTER SESELJA: Thank you so much Aupito, it’s great to be with you, it’s great to be here in New Zealand. Isn’t it great that we can, once again come to each other’s countries, and Minister Payne and I have been so privileged to make this trip a priority and we have done so quite deliberately because of the very close and enduring and important relationship between our two nations. So, it’s been a great opportunity for me to have face to face meetings with Aupito and Phil and to have such a warm welcome from the New Zealand Government. The relationship is critically important and when we look to the Pacific, we know that working together is critically important for the health and wellbeing and stability and security of our region. We know that there are some significant challenges ahead. We know that in parts of our region, COVID is still there. It is places like PNG, Timor-Leste. In other places where the virus under control, we know there are great economic challenges and so together we are up for the challenge, along with our Pacific family in helping that recovery, in rolling out the vaccine and ensuring that those economies can recover and one again thrive. Of course, we can again in time, when it is safe to do so, open up travel once again to the region. So, thank you so much for your hospitality. It’s been an extraordinary visit, we have really enjoyed it and it really points to the importance in the enduring friendship between Australia and New Zealand.

MINISTER TYWFORD: Thanks, Aupito, thanks Zed, it’s been great to have you here. Of course, the really big priority right now is for us as region to support each other to come through the pandemic and open up our economies. But more than ever, economic development and trade has to be central to our efforts to build prosperity and wellbeing in the Pacific. And PACER-PLUS, our first, most important regional trade and economic regional development agreement, came into force just in December. And so, Zed, you being here has been a real opportunity for us to redouble the efforts and cooperation between Australia and New Zealand. To work together, to support our Pacific partners, to grow opportunities for growers, entrepreneurs, traders for businesses and make economic development a really powerful force to bring the region close together. So, that’s an exciting piece of work that Australia and New Zealand are committed to working together on. Thank you.

MINISTER SIO : Happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Moving into a post-COVID world, how do we ensure that Australia and New Zealand are providing equal access to growing and benefiting for our Pacific neighbours, just in regards to some countries have shown they would rather support one country over another, where [inaudible] say the Cook Islands say they want more support from New Zealand when there is support available from Australia that they can take. How do we ensure there is equality there? Are you working together on that front, on that support?

MINISTER SIO: Absolutely. I mean our officials are working really coordinated, collaboratively together. Our coming together like this is manifestation that that is what we want to do on an ongoing basis moving forward. And so, we are in a new environment here. Our priority or so, has been that we have got close relationships with realm island countries, and we are best placed to support that. The rollout of economic support and well as the rollout of the vaccine. Similarly, we coordinate with Australia. Australia’s best placed with the Melanesian countries, PNG, Timor-Leste. What our discussions have been focused on, making sure that we are aligning that support and we will continue to do that going forward. Our aim is to ensure that the Pacific are not left with any unmet needs, economically or health wise.

QUESTION: Do you think that alignment and support, that message of that, is being passed on to other Pacific countries, so that they recognise actually they need to be potentially be a bit more aware of that so that they aren’t kind of so focused on where their traditional relationships stand?

MINISTER SIO: I think so, but its going to be work that has to be ongoing. Two days ago, I ‘Zoomed’ in with the Minister of Health of Fiji to share information and to check up on the recent transmission there. And they were asking us [New Zealand] for support, which they have also shared with Australia and we are working to make sure that we are providing that support. And again, we are aligning it. Making sure we are not tripping over each other. There is a limitation to the resources. And so, so far Australia and New Zealand are aligned in terms of our strong desire to make sure the Pacific are not left with unmet needs.

QUESTION: And what support are we giving Fiji at the moment, given their unfolding crisis and also PNG which is in a far worse state? and that question is to both of you.

MINISTER SIO: Well I can say with Fiji, that announcement will be made soon, and which will be new support. It has been direct support to their budget and there has been other support around helping them with COVID-19 response. We provided, I indicated our offer of additional doses of AstraZeneca and will now wait for them to see how they respond to that.

MINISTER SESELJA: From the Australian Government’s perspective, we have provided financial support throughout the crisis to help support the Government of Fiji and the economy of Fiji. We have also of course responded to natural disasters there, with significant support in recent times. When it comes to the rollout of the vaccine and health support, we have committed to ensuring that the people of Fiji can have full access to COVID vaccines. In terms of our vaccine rollout in the region, we have prioritised PNG with 8,400 doses recently. We have also now committed to also at least 10,000 doses per week, starting with PNG and Timor-Leste and then moving to other nations in the region including Fiji. So, it’s comprehensive end to end health support, with vaccines to be delivered as needed and of course we have also committed to the COVAX facility, which is rolling out vaccines in the region, including in Fiji as well.

QUESTION: I’m sorry Minister, do you think that you are actually doing enough in PNG given that it is an unfolding crisis. We have just heard there is more than 10,000 cases and those are just the ones we know about, likely to be one in three I understand. So how much more can you do, and shouldn’t you be doing more?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well I think, I’ll point out what we are doing, and it is quite significant. So, our support from a health perspective didn’t start in the last couple of months or last couple of weeks in PNG. In fact, there has been around $60 million [AUD] of direct health support during this period as well as economic support. We have committed $144 million [AUD] to vaccine rollout in PNG. For full vaccine rollout in the region, we have put forward our AUSMAT teams which are doing health assessments on the ground and coordinating, working with PNG authorities to then bring in additional support. We have delivered doses on the ground and committing to many more doses.

We are also working, not just through the COVAX facility but we are working with, putting the case to European governments in terms of the one million doses that we had contracted to come out of Europe, for AstraZeneca vaccines, we have put forward that all of those one million doses if they are released by European authorities would go to PNG. So, our support for PNG is comprehensive, it’s ongoing, it’s long standing but yes they are facing very serious challenges now and we have our people on the ground working with PNG Government, working with NGO’s to deliver that support right across the board.

QUESTION: Minister Seselja, is there anything you think that New Zealand could learn from Australia in terms of your approach to offering labour jobs to people in the Pacific. There has been lots of calls here [in NZ] in recent months to increase our numbers of RSE works, the seasonal workers. Is there anything you think New Zealand could learn from Australia’s approach?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well I don’t think it’s a matter for me to tell the New Zealand Government what they could learn from us. Because I think that they are making a lot of efforts as I understand it, bringing in workers from the Pacific as we are. We have faced challenges, and I’m sure some of those challenges would not be unique to Australia in bringing in some of those workers during this period. So, we had suspended our Pacific labour schemes for a period, it started again in August. Since that time, we have brought it over 4,000 workers. I would like to see those numbers increase. And in some of the discussions we have had, I won’t speak for the New Zealand Government, but they have indicated they are doing similar things. I don’t know if you Minister [Sio] want to add?

MINISTER SIO: We had 2,000 of RSE workers return to New Zealand. Our focus has been to make sure that those workers are protected. The whole idea with the scheme was to be able to support the locally economies back in the islands. But what happened in the start of the pandemic is we saw a lot of those workers be locked up in here and end up spending their wages on accommodation and other things. This time we are putting a lot more responsibility on the employers themselves who are willing. It is a win-win situation for the employers. So, they are having to pay living wage while they have been quarantined and were providing pastoral care at those levels. I’ve been meeting with some of those employers to make sure that there is support from local diaspora for those workers. But one of the things that we did say when brought the new cohort of 2,000 was it was on the basis that those countries would be prepared to repatriate them when the is up. Because we are also seeing the longer, they are out here, other issues are arising, mental health et cetera. So, our priority has been about supporting that work force here. What we want to look at other ways of increasing those numbers because it does help sure up remittances back to the islands.

QUESTION: And I guess on that front there, as you said, issues with getting that money back to Pacific nations then. Do you think in both countries there needs to be an effort to make sure that money is not being spent here, is making its way back to their home countries and I guess do you think there potentially is onus on the local employer to ensure that that is happening, that essentially they are not sucking up some of that money. You know, they are not bringing some of that money back themselves?

MINISTER SIO: The work is ongoing, the engagement I have had with all of the employers out in the regions is that they are very supportive and very cognisant that those workers should be returning with money in their pockets. There is a lot of work with small money transfer units here, that are going out into the regions to make sure that it is affordable and that the money reaches the different villages. Which means that working outside your main backing system, because those money transfers, those groupings have to meet other criteria’s, money laundering et cetera. But they are much closer and understand the Pacific than your mainstream banking system. But we continue to have those discussions with those countries because, these workers whilst they are receiving money here. Also they need to be receiving contributions back home for their retirement funding, the national province funds money. So, that work continues to happen.

QUESTION: But why aren’t we bringing in workers on the RSE scheme like Australia does. I mean Australia’s about to do its quarantine, set up quarantine centres for those workers in their home countries. Why aren’t we doing more? Because we are desperate for those workers.

MINISTER SIO: But we have by raising the number of, bringing in the additional 2000 RSE workers this year.

QUESTION: But aren’t we putting the onus on the home countries to fly them home? Can’t we do more to help our guys and to help them?

MINISTER SIO: Yes but those are discussions to be had with those countries because where there is a need for them, they will ask. And we have done that with Vanuatu, we have had a special plane which returned those workers. So, in the international arena there is a process for that to occur where the need to greatest.”

QUESTION : Yes my question is to Minister Seselja. Your neighbour the north, Timor-Leste is just reeling from a devastating flood. Has Australia received any requests for assistance and how are your responding?

MINISTER SESELJA: The answer is yes… [interrupted by reporter]

REPORTER: Because Australia has been criticised for not doing enough for Timor-Leste.

MINISTER SESELJA: The answer is we have received requests for assistance, and we have provided assistance. Initially, I think it was around $7 million [AUD] in immediate humanitarian assistance. We were setting up evacuation centres, providing essential supplies and those discussions will be ongoing with the Timor-Leste Government in terms of what additional support are needed. We know that in addition to dealing with the natural disaster, the flooding, they are of course dealing with, unfortunately also with an COVID outbreak. So, we are proving support in relation to health support. We will be prioritising, as I mentioned earlier, PNG and Timor-Leste in the early part of our rollout of the 10,000, at least 10,000 doses per week that we will be providing to the region. Timor-Leste obviously has a significant need. So we are providing humanitarian support, we are proving the health support and of course we stand ready to do more as needed.


Media enquiries

Cassandra Choake | 0427 839 164 |