Media conference with PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration the Hon Rimbink Pato

Port Moresby

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

6 February 2014

MINISTER PATO Good morning press, we had important constructive discussions with the Foreign Minister of Australia. As most of you know Australia has a very, very strong relationship with Papua New Guinea in so many areas.

Initially it was about technical and development cooperation because PNG was at a point in time in which that was what was necessary, but moving forward today the areas of focus in our discussions has been economic cooperation between Papua New Guinea and Australia because of where Papua New Guinea is today in terms of its economic position, in terms of its population, in terms of its regional standing. That those are the things, that was the underlying issue which we were concentrating in our discussion: the future of PNG and Australia in terms of economic partnership.

Indeed, of course, we also had the opportunity to discuss the ongoing work between the Australia and PNG Governments on the Regional Resettlement processing centre on Manus Island. And we are happy to see all of the arrangements we have put in place are working. There are very minor issues, but those are issues that are not difficult, they can be addressed and our technical people are working on it.

The other thing we discussed was of course the Colombo Plan. The Colombo Plan was announced at the last Ministerial Forum in Canberra. PNG is very excited to be a part of it and I have been encouraged by the comments of the Australian Foreign Minister and we’ve discussed a time frame in which PNG could participate.

The other thing that our public in Papua New Guinea should know is that there are 100 positions which are available for seasonal holiday workers in Australia now and we’ve also established in our discussions that we’ve not been able to pick up the opportunities that exist for our citizens in the seasonal worker program that PNG has with Australia.

The fault is not with Australia but our procedures and internal processes that delayed it. And quite a number of our colleagues, the Attorney General and the Minister of National Planning and Minister for Works who was there, we will collaborate to ensure those internal impediments, if there any, are addressed so we can give that opportunity to foster the continuing link between Australia and PNG.

Of course always high on the agenda is Australia’s aid package to Papua New Guinea that we are so grateful and I did acknowledge from the friends of Government and the people of PNG to Australia for their continuing support.

It’s quite clear that all the countries that are receiving aid from Australia, PNG funding has not been affected, that’s the amount of 500 million dollars Australian, and that is in addition to the 420 million dollars that the Australian Government is proving to support the Regional Processing centre on Manus Island.

And of course also discussed was the issues concerning Fiji. It’s clear that there will be a meeting of the Ministerial contact group that will begin the 13th or 14th of next month where my colleague and I will be attending. There we intend to ensure that we will continue to encourage Fiji to come back into the Commonwealth and Pacific Islands Forum to ensure that there are fair, free and democratic elections in Fiji in a sense that the results of election in the country are not only acceptable to the people of Fiji but also to the international community.

MINISTER BISHOP Thank you Foreign Minister. I am absolutely delighted to be back in Port Moresby. This is my fourth visit to Papua New Guinea since I became the Shadow Foreign Minister but this is my first visit in my capacity as Australia’s Foreign Minister. My previous visits were extended and I had the opportunity to travel around the country.

On this visit I will also be travelling to Lae, where I hope to meet a number of Australian Federal Police, I can see some of them here today, who are working with the Royal PNG Constabulary to ensure that we can have mentoring and training and the best possible professional police force here in PNG. But that’s just one area where Australia and Papua New Guinea are working closely together.

Today I have had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister O’Neill and we had very productive discussion about a range of issues and now I’ve had the opportunity to have a very extensive meeting with the Foreign Minister and the Attorney General and Ministers for National Planning and for Works. And as you can see by the time we took to get us through all the issues we have very extensive and comprehensive relations at every level.

Of course our history ties us together. We are friends, we are very close neighbours. But now we have now elevated our relationship to one that focuses on economic cooperation. It’s been a transformation for this relationship and the Foreign Minister and I have spoken about the ways that we can enhance it even further.

The new Australian Government is determined to make Australia an attractive destination for foreign investment and for trade and business. We want the Australian economy to thrive and to grow. We will be entering our 23rd consecutive year of growth, but we cannot take that for granted.

Likewise Papua New Guinea has an economy that’s going through a transformation. We want to ensure the opportunities that exist between our two countries are enhanced. So the focus of my visit here is on economic cooperation.

I talk about economic diplomacy as this has been the cornerstone of our foreign policy; just as the aim of traditional diplomacy is peace, the aim of the economic diplomacy is prosperity. That’s what we want to see in both Australia and in Papua New Guinea: stable prosperous nations living side by side.

We’ve been through a number of issues including a discussion about Manus Island and the processing centre there, and I want to place on record again, the Australian Government’s appreciation of the leadership shown by Papua New Guinea both regionally and in working with Australia. We are determined to dismantle the people smuggling trade that exists in our region. And it’s through the cooperation from Papua New Guinea that we are able to achieve those aims.

We have also discussed a range of other matters. The Defence White Paper that we certainly welcome, that will be a blueprint for the future for security purposes for Papua New Guinea and our Defence Cooperation Program will help underpin that change.

We discussed a number of trade issues, but we’ve been also focusing on the people to people links and our seasonal workers program is open to Papua New Guineans who want to take part in seasonal work in Australia and we certainly encourage people to become involved in that program, but also our work and holiday visa. There are a hundred places for young Papua New Guineans who want to undertake a working holiday in Australia. And we would encourage that kind of exchange.

Our two governments work closely together, we face similar challenges in a number of ways. We both have economies that have been supported by a strong minerals and resource sector but we both need to diversify our economies to ensure there are opportunities for people across our nations.

So we have many common interests, we face many common challenges but I want to thank the Foreign Minister for his gracious welcome and the opportunity to discuss these matters. So I would be happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST Thank you and welcome to Papua New Guinea. In your discussions did you discuss anything about visas on arrival, the visa issue?

MINISTER BISHOP Yes this is a matter I discussed with both the Prime Minister and with the Foreign Minister. I outlined how the Australian Government now offers Papua New Guinea the opportunity to apply for a visa to Australia online before they leave the country and this can be done, all you need is access to a laptop, and it can be done by you or a relative or an employer or a third person so that your visa application is processed before you even leave the country.

My concern about visa on arrival is that you then have to stand in line and apply for a visa once you get in the country and if your visa is rejected then it’s been a waste of an air ticket hasn’t it. So I think the superior system is online applications and this is what we’ve offered to Papua New Guinea.

It’s the first country that Australia has offered this more sophisticated means of getting a visa and I’ve raised with both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister whether Australia could likewise be able to access an online visa system within Papua New Guinea so it’s reciprocal and we can do it online and I think in the interests of both our countries it would be better if we can do it that way rather than having people try and apply for a visa on arrival.

Secondly, we are looking at whether there are technical ways of streamlining the visa process even more and I’ve been speaking to some experts out of the United States who suggest that perhaps there’s a technological solution and we are discussing whether or not we could pilot such an idea here in PNG and with Australia. So the matter is progressing.

What I think is important is that we ensure that the two way people flows are as easy as possible so that business people, so that tourists, government officials and those who have interests in our respective countries are able to travel easily and more quickly and not be bogged down in red tape.

We do have special channels now in Brisbane so that people from Papua New Guinea don’t have to line up at Customs and they can go through their own particular, dedicated channel and we think that streamlines things as well.

JOURNALIST I was just wondering whether the discussions you had with Minister Pato actually touched on the recent comments made by the Supreme Court in regards to asylum seekers who are currently in Manus having access to the PNG justice system in terms of alleged abuse of their human rights.

MINISTER BISHOP Well I am certainly aware there is a challenge to the arrangement and that is currently before the courts so it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment about legal proceedings in Papua New Guinea, but most certainly the Foreign Minister and I discussed that issue in our meeting.

JOURNALIST In terms of Manus Island and the detention centre there, can I get your comments on reports of protests within the facility and also reports yesterday of hazardous material at the development site including unexploded ordnance, asbestos and mysterious white substance?

MINISTER BISHOP I understand that all these matters will be dealt with by the contractor who is handling the expansion of the facility as one would expect in any situation where a contractor is required to develop facilities on a greenfield site. They would go through the appropriate environmental and other checks to ensure it is a safe site and my understanding is that those necessary and appropriate and usual standard processes are being undertaken.

Of course there are people living on Manus Island, about 55,000 people live on Manus Island now, so we are making sure that any work that we do there, that the Australian Government has contracted there, is done appropriately and with regard to all necessary risks and ensuring that we manage them. So I am confident that that is being handled appropriately.

JOURNALIST And in terms of the reports on protests?

MINISTER BISHOP These are matters that will be dealt with obviously by the PNG Government and if necessary by the PNG legal system, judicial system.

JOURNALIST Minister Pato, would you like to comment on that particular issue?

MINISTER PATO Yes there is a process and system that will deal with any law breaking anywhere so the normal system and processes will apply. We have, as of today, ensured that the police take necessary steps to ensure that there is no disruption to the activities. Papua New Guinea and Australia are working together in terms of the regional processing centre so those who break the law they will be dealt with according to law.

If I may come back to the question that the gentleman from the Post Courier has raised in terms of what is going to happen, whether the Supreme Court challenge will impact the asylum centre the answer is that the Government, in the spirit of the partnership, has taken steps under its law in ensuring that certain amendments are brought to our constitution and those constitutional amendments are brought before the Parliament.

In the last session of the Parliament the vote was unanimous of all of those who were in Parliament at that time more than 80 of our members, I think 84 of our members present, voted for that amendment to the constitution and the second reading is coming when Parliament meets next, which commences on the eleventh, where those constitutional amendments will be read and go through the second and third reading and I expect those issues will be resolved by constitutional process.

Also can I take this opportunity to address some of the, one of the issues arising on the visa, for the public in PNG. What the Foreign Minister and I have agreed is that our technical people will work to establish a process which will ensure that the Papua New Guinean passport holders entering Australia will enter through a process which is compatible, which is very similar to that which Australia and New Zealand have so there is that understanding. What we’re working towards is to try and make sure that what we set up will be compatible, will be very similar, so our technical people, following the Ministerial Forum in Canberra, we had a technical team to work at it, we’ve tasked them further today to make sure that this reciprocal arrangement is facilitated efficiently and quickly so that there is a ease of travel between the two countries.

JOURNALIST Two years ago, I remember you were here as the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Now that you are in Government what do you intend to do about relations between the two countries?

MINISTER BISHOP Two years ago, in fact, three years ago when I was here I said that should I become the Foreign Minister of Australia, our relationship with Papua New Guinea would be one of our highest foreign policy priorities. And I stand here today, on my first visit to Papua New Guinea as the Foreign Minister of Australia and reaffirm that commitment that the Australia-PNG relationship is one of our highest foreign policy priorities.

I am determined that we enhance our relationship to the status of an economic, a strategic partnership. There are many initiatives, many frameworks, many agreements between us. But we need to ensure that we treat each other with mutual respect, that we build on the level of engagement that already exists.

There’s a myriad of connections between Australia and Papua New Guinea but that ultimately our aim is together to ensure that the people of Australia and the people of Papua New Guinea live in peace and prosperity side by side as close friends, as close neighbours and as economic and strategic partners.

JOURNALIST A lot of complaints from Papua New Guineans about the way they are being treated upon arrival, particularly at Brisbane Airport?

MINISTER BISHOP I’ve been informed that there are complaints and if there are any specific instances of unfair treatment, please bring them to the attention of the Australian Government because we would not condone that. If there are instances that should be investigated we will investigate them.

I can assure you that we have very professional customs officials, we have Department of Agriculture officials in place, to maintain the integrity of our borders. That’s through biosecurity measures, that’s through appropriate screening.

It’s not discriminatory, it happens to all incoming passengers. You want to come with me sometime through an Australian airport and see who gets targeted for the explosive testing. I don’t think I’ve ever been through the Australian airports without being subjected to it. So it’s certainly in no way aimed at any particular people or nation. But if there are instances, we will certainly investigate them.

ENDS

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