For the first time in nearly seven years – since the Bainimarama takeover of 2006 – there’s been a change in the official Australian attitude to Fiji. It’s outlined in a remarkable speech by Julie Bishop, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, to this week’s Australia Fiji Business Forum in Brisbane. In extraordinarily warm terms, she signals a sea change in Australia’s current hardline attitude to Fiji should the Coalition, under Tony Abbott, win the forthcoming federal election. It includes full re-engagement and the restoration of diplomatic ties and Australia “taking guidance” from Fiji on how it can best assist in the introduction of a genuine democracy next year. Read on…
Foreign Minister Kubuabola, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
My claim to fame, in so far as this audience is concerned, should be the fact that I am a board member of the West Coast Eagles Australian Rules Football Club in Perth, Western Australia and our champion ruckman is a six foot eight Fijian by the name of Nic Naitanui,
Nic Nat not only thrills his supporters in Western Australia, but he has become a household name in AFL households across Australia. He is such an exciting player, I think he will be one of the best players of this generation of Australian Rules Football. But he is also an utter gentleman, so much so that the AFL have made him multi-cultural ambassador for the sport and he travels not only across Australia but throughout the region. I understand that not only does he have a significant fan base across Australia, in what is a highly competitive sporting code, he also has a fan base amongst the Naitanui family in Fiji.
What that says is that there are so many Fijian Australians who are sports stars in our various football codes. I’d like to suggest that AFL is the most popular sporting code but I’m afraid there will be a few too many rugby league, rugby union people here to suggest this, but we have so many people of Fijian heritage who play in our sports, who are so admired and loved by the Australian people.
I believe that reflects the broader affection and warmth the Australian people feel for the people of Fiji and I hope that that warmth and that affection and that love is reciprocated. Australians and Fijians have been friends for a very long time.
I read a blog recently by a Papua New Guinean and he was commenting, with more than a touch of envy, that notwithstanding the political differences between Australia and Fiji, notwithstanding the events of 2006 and the subsequent response from Australia, nevertheless Fiji managed to attract record numbers of Australian tourists. He was trying to work out how can that be? How can Fiji attract so many more Australian tourists than PNG? He thought well perhaps it’s because the Australian people have a healthy disregard for whatever their government tells them! But he decided that the reason people flocked to Fiji is because of the warm welcome that the Fijian people give to Australian tourists – the wide smile, the ubiquitous greeting ‘bula’.
I’m not sure if he was suggesting that Papua New Guineans were less pleased to see Australian tourists – that certainly hasn’t been my experience – but nevertheless I think there is a valid point to be made, that Australians have been experiencing generous and gracious hospitality of the Fijian people for such a very long time.
This morning Foreign Minister Kubuabola made a very powerful speech. He was very candid and said perhaps what a number of people from Fiji have wanted to say for some time. We all know the detail of the events of 2006 and we know the Australian Government’s stance in relation to it but it was refreshing to hear the frustration that the Fijian Government feels about Australia’s approach.
There’s no need for me to go into the details again but Foreign Minister Kubuabola speech was a timely reminder that there are very valuable lessons to be learned if we stand in each other’s shoes and we try to see issues from each other’s perspective.
It is now time to rebuild the bridges.
Should a Coalition Government be elected at some stage this year I commit to ensuring that normalising relations between Australia and Fiji is a priority of an incoming government. I know that there will be challenges. I know that there will be a number of issues for us to address, but with the will and commitment on both sides I believe that we can achieve whatever we set out to achieve.
Of course we encourage Fiji to hold elections as Commodore Bainimarama has promised in 2014. We welcome and encourage that commitment. I would like to see, should the Coalition be elected the restoration of full diplomatic relations between Australia and Fiji. I would like to see Fiji welcomed back into the Commonwealth, the Pacific Island Forum and other forums around the world.
I’m not pretending that an election can solve all issues – although I have to say that an election in Australia would solve a lot of issues!
I’m not pretending that democracy is perfect – believe me, after sitting in the Parliament of Australia for the last three years I’m well aware of its shortcomings – but as Winston Churchill famously observed, ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for every other form’.
What I believe we should aim for is to support Fiji in its elections in 2014 and on behalf of the Coalition I pledge our support, in whatever form Fiji requires, to assist them to overcome the challenges that come with going on the path to parliamentary democracy and constitutional law and rule.
We will of course be guided by the Fijian Government as to what they seek from Australia. We will of course be guided by what it is they believe we can offer.
I don’t presume to lecture any other country about how they run their affairs but I can offer the experience Australians have had in terms of parliamentary democracy.
It is essential that oppositions and politicians have the freedom to hold the government to account.
It is essential that an independent judiciary exists to adjudicate disputes and to interpret the law.
A free and unfettered media might be a complete pain in the neck for politicians but it is essential to hold all the sides of politics to account on behalf of the people.
Political stability is what business and investors seek. The issue of sovereign risk is bad for any country and political stability is absolutely essential.
These fundamentals have been the experience of Australia and a number of other countries, including countries committed to the Commonwealth of Nations, over many years and I believe that these fundamentals can be achieved by Fiji with the support of its friends. Australia should never and will never if I have anything to do with it, forsake Fiji.
Ladies and gentlemen, foreign policy under a Coalition Government will be marked by an unmistakeable focus on our region. I come from Western Australia, so the Indian Ocean is part of our region, of course here in Brisbane the Asia-Pacific is part of our region. So for Australia our region is the Indian Ocean, Asia Pacific. This is our neighbourhood. This is where we need to focus our attention as a government.
Under a Coalition Government all of our foreign policy assets, whether they be military and defence capabilities, or economic and trade capacity or diplomatic and foreign aid activity, will be focussed, not exclusively, but unmistakeably, in our region.
Let me take trade policy for example. The Coalition will describe our foreign and trade policy an exercise in ‘economic diplomacy’.
We will align all of our agencies and all of our departments across government in pursuit of our strategic goals through economic diplomacy.
In the area of trade that means we commit to a network of bilateral and free trade agreements to liberalise trade in our region. I know of no better way of lifting countries out of poverty than through economic liberalisation through trade and through private sector investment and that is what we will encourage, country by country.
In particular I’m concerned that the PACER Plus negotiations seem not to have advanced and in fact have stalled. I think that the PACER Plus negotiations need fresh thinking, a new start. What may be required is for some of the bigger economies in the region, namely Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, PNG to conclude bilateral or, if we could do it quadrilateral, free trade agreements, a high quality agreement that would bind us together and that other countries in the Pacific can then see the benefit of a free trade agreement and can opt in to such an agreement.
They would then have the ownership of the reform process that will be needed. They would have ownership of the pace at which they would join such an agreement. Instead of standing still and leaving PACER Plus to languish I believe it needs an injection and the major economies, including Fiji, must be at the forefront of ensuring that trade liberalisation can continue in the Pacific.
Under a Coalition Government, we will continue to provide overseas development assistance into the Pacific. I acknowledge and recognise that Australia is the largest provider of aid to Fiji and to a number of other island nations in the Pacific but as a Liberal I believe in a hand up, not a hand out and I believe that’s what the countries in the Pacific are looking for as well.
Through trade liberalisation, through opening our markets, through private sector investment in development, we can turn developing countries into developed countries. Our philosophical belief in individual enterprise and in the private sector I think will have much longer term ramifications than even free trade agreements.
Back in the 1950s, Prime Minister Robert Menzies signed Australia up to what was called the Colombo Plan and through this process thousands of young students from the Asia Pacific came to Australia to study in our universities. Over a 30 year period, the 1950s to 1980s, 40,000 young people from the region studied in Australian universities, lived with Australian families, got to know the Australian way of life and they went back to their country and today they are Prime Ministers, former Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, business leaders, community leaders in those countries and they have fond memories of Australia and their experience in Australia.
We believe that it’s time to reverse the Colombo Plan and we’ve announced a signature initiative dubbed the ‘New Colombo Plan’, that will see young Australians given the opportunity to study at universities in the region. We want to see it as a ‘rite of passage’ for undergraduates in Australian universities to have the opportunity under a nationally backed scheme, to undertake part of their bachelor course at a university in the region.
What we hope will happen is countries will opt-in to our New Colombo Plan. When their universities, or their higher education sector are ready to accept Australian students in large numbers, we will come to an arrangement with that country. There are lots of issues about student visas, and course accreditation and mutual recognition of capacity but over time we hope that all countries in the region will want to be part of the New Colombo Plan.
How we’ll make it attractive to young Australians to study at universities in the region is a business partnership that we propose with businesses operating in the host country.
For example, a student at Queensland University, wins a New Colombo Plan scholarship to study at the Fijian National University in engineering then say Newcrest operating in Fiji could offer them an internship, one or two days a week for the duration of the scholarship. Or more pertinently, a student studying finance in Fiji could get a job for the ANZ Bank and I’m delighted to confirm that the ANZ Bank has agreed to come on board, should we win government, to be a supporter of the New Colombo Plan, throughout the Asia Pacific. Thank you Mark.
So can you imagine, just dare to dream of an Australia where thousands and thousands of young people have lived and studied and worked in a country in our region. Learnt the language, understood the culture, got to know the people, formed friendships that will no doubt last for life and come back to Australia, with their new skills, new perspectives, new insights and new ideas. Not only will they be contributing to the productivity and prosperity of our nation, they will be part of a deeper and broader and more diversified engagement with countries in our region.
I hope that I’ve given you some indication this evening of how a Coalition Government would seek to engage, not only with Fiji, but with our region, the Pacific, in Asia, and the Indian Ocean.
I want to pay tribute to the Australia-Fiji Business Council and its counterparts in Fiji for arranging this event. I think it’s a real milestone.
I hope that when you leave, after this forum is over, you will go away firm in the knowledge, as I truly believe, that the best days of the Australia-Fiji relationship lie ahead of us.