'Positive' talks between Australia and Fiji

ABC Radio Australia:

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

'Positive and friendly' is the description being given to the first bi-lateral meetings between Australia and Fiji since 2006.

Australia's Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Brett Mason met Fiji's foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola to discuss progress towards the September elections, media freedom and Australia's High Commissioner to Fiji.

I spoke with Mr Mason earlier from Nadi airport.

MASON: We are heartened by the progress and indeed when I arrived at Nadi airport at half past one a couple of mornings ago, there were even people being signed up to register even then. There’s great enthusiasm in Fiji for the election, I think they’ve registered something like 90 per cent of eligible voters. So that’s going very well. There are other issues, you’re quite right about, you mentioned press freedom, that was just raised very, very briefly. But we think that along with the ministerial contact group for the Pacific Islands Forum that they know that improvements in freedom of the media, but reinforced the need for free media as we go towards the election in September. You clearly have to have a free media to have a free and fair election, and I think everyone understands that. Geraldine I spoke to a lot of people in Fiji and everyone tells me that compared to two, two and a half years ago, the quality and the freedom of the media has been enhanced enormously.

COUTTS: But was the issue of Australia’s High Commissioner being reinstated raised?

MASON: Just again just briefly it’s funny, these issues I know are discussed a lot in the media, but here on the ground it wasn’t an issue of great concern because we have an acting high commissioner doing a great job. It doesn’t really change the way we are doing business here in Fiji. And we are progressing towards full high commissioner status, that is true.

COUTTS: But it is fair to say that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is talking about normalcy and reinstating normalcy, this surely would be part of it?

MASON: Yes it will be and I’m sure in time that will happen and we the Fijian government are working on it. It hasn’t affected detrimentally at least our capacity to engage with Fiji at a deeper level over the last few months.

COUTTS: An issue of democracy, and you’ve raised the lifting of the bans on journalists. New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully has raised the issue with Fiji to lift the bans on Michael Field and Barbara Dreaver, and what about ABC’s Sean Dorney and of course Russell Hunter, has that been raised as well?

MASON: No look it wasn’t, as I say press freedom is only raised very, very briefly, and as we go towards the election I think we will see more significant pluralism. Are things perfect? No. Are things getting a lot better and are they a lot better? Certainly they are.

COUTTS: The lifting of the bans by Australia and New Zealand, the travel sanctions, was received very well in Fiji. But I wonder if Fiji’s bans on some of its citizens and some of its bans will be removed as well? For instance Dr Brij Lal and his wife Padma Lal were asked to leave the country and haven’t been allowed to return, and they were both born and raised in Fiji, and yet they can’t go home?

MASON: Look I’m not really across that issue. But it sounds to me like it’s an issue for the Fijian government rather than the Australian government.

COUTTS: Now with the Pacific Island Development Forum and the Pacific Islands Forum, Inoke Kubuabola has said that Fiji won’t consider re-joining the Forum until Australia and New Zealand leave it or resign. Is that something also you discussed?

MASON: We did discuss that briefly with the Foreign Minister you’re right, and we recognise, indeed every nation in the Pacific recognises that Fiji is an important country in the region and we look forward to its return to the Pacific Islands Forum. And we welcome further discussion with Fiji about how the Pacific Island Forum can better work to serve the interests of all of those in our region. With respect to the Pacific Island Development Forum, Australia believes that the Pacific Islands Forum remains the Pacific’s premier regional body and the best mechanism for addressing regional issues. ?? course it’s really about supporting a new group that in effect would largely duplicate the work that’s already underway through the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional mechanisms. One of the meetings was with the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. We discussed there about the Pacific Plan and the review of the Pacific Plan that has been undertaken, and further discussed next week at leaders retreating in Cook Islands. That’s really a very broad plan about how best to attack the unique challenges that face the Pacific. But Australia believes that the current Forum is the best way to go.

COUTTS: Now working visas, Fiji may enjoy working holidays for three months in Australia, an agreement that you struck with Fiji and Inoke Kubuabola?

MASON: Yes this visa program is a reciprocal tourism and cultural exchange program, and the proposal is that it will allow young adults aged let’s say 18 to 30 to have an extended holiday of up to let’s say 12 months in Australia, during which they can undertake short term work and study. It’s not precisely a work visa program, and employment shouldn’t be the participants main reason for travel. Our expectation for Fiji would be that they will provide reciprocal access and benefits to our nationals. So that’s really the quid pro quo, so we’ve made the offer and in Fiji the initial reaction was very positive, but I think we have to wait for official reaction from the Fijian government.

COUTTS: But backpackers basically?

MASON: Geraldine you can say backpackers, but it could be for backpackers and a few others as well.

COUTTS: So I’m just still unsure as to what it’s for if you don’t have to have a job, it’s the holiday seeker, so what you’re offering is that people can come up for 12 months without a visa?

MASON: Yes it allows you to work but it isn’t principally just for work, it allows you to do some work for some time.

COUTTS: So it’s a new category of visa?

MASON: Yes and we’re extending as I say, it will extend, it’s simply as we’re increasing our engagement, deepening our engagement with Fiji this will be just another aspect of that. 

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