JOURNALIST Australia's Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has held talks today with Fiji's military ruler, Frank Bainimarama on a visit to the island nation. She's there as part of a Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Group which is assessing Fiji's progress towards democratic elections to be held before October. Commodore Bainimarama plans to step down as military commander at the end of this month so he can contest the elections as a civilian. The Foreign Minister has taken a few minutes out of her busy schedule to speak to ABC Newsradio and she joins us now on the line from Suva. Good afternoon.
JULIE BISHOP Good afternoon Steve.
JOURNALIST How did your meeting go with the commodore?
JULIE BISHOP It was a very positive and productive meeting. It is the first time that a senior Australian government minister has met with Prime Minister Bainimarama since 2008 and so we were very keen to normalise relations as soon as possible as Fiji moves towards holding an election later this year.
My meeting with him covered a range of issues where Australia and Fiji can work together to engage, in trade, investment, education exchanges and defence and military ties and he was very supportive of the ideas that we had and together I think Australia and Fiji can work towards that normalisation of relationships and have a positive forward looking agenda to work towards.
JOURNALIST Can you elaborate on what normalisation means and how does your approach differ from the previous government?
JULIE BISHOP Well, for a start we intend to increase trade and investment opportunities by re-establishing the Australia-Fiji Government Industry Working Group. The last time that group met was 2006 and that is to provide more trade and investment opportunities between the two countries. We will also re-establish our [inaudible] ties so that our senior civil servants can come to Fiji and help capacity build. They can come to Australia and work in our public service to gain experience in treasury, finance, foreign affairs, we ranged over whole areas of cooperation. Then the seasonal workers program, we would open that up to Fiji so that Fiji workers could come to Australia as part of the seasonal workers program.
We discussed the New Colombo Plan which is currently in its pilot phase. Australia is offering scholarships to young Australians to study in the region and I talked to the Prime Minister about expanding that to include Fiji in 2015. We also talked about normalising our defence relationship. Your listeners might recall that Australia and Fiji had very close military ties, many of their officers had trained at Duntroon. That has all ceased since 2006. So these are areas where we thought we would be able to normalise the relationship.
JOURNALIST As I understand it Fiji's been pressing for an easing of travel restrictions against senior Fiji government officials. Was there any progress on that?
JULIE BISHOP Yes that has already occurred since we came into the - last September. We have granted visas to virtually every person from Fiji who has applied. I think 56 visas have been granted in recent months and so as Fiji progresses to an election, then we will progressively ease these sanctions and I think quite a breakthrough was reached in that regard.
We also had a very warm moment when I presented the Prime Minister with a West Coast Eagles AFL jersey signed by Nic Naitanui, a six foot eight Fijian AFL player. Nic of course now lives in Perth but he's a bit of a household name here in Suva so the affection that the Australian people have for the Fijian people and the Fijian people have for Australia was quite evident.
JOURNALIST No conflict of interest there obviously you're a West Coast Eagles fan yourself.
JULIE BISHOP Indeed. Well I let him know that I was on the board of the West Coast Eagles at one point so I guess I was able to get a little bit of influence in having Nic Naitanui sign the jersey for me to present to the Fijian Prime Minister. But of course we share a love of sport. Not necessarily AFL, they are very keen rugby supporters over here and we had a bit of a discussion about the Rugby 7s about which I know absolutely nothing. So there you go.
JOURNALIST Let's get back to the discussions that you had with the commodore. Did you come away with a feeling that Fiji is making progress towards a transition to democracy and did you get any sort of undertaking from the commodore that he's going to stand by his pledge to stand down as the head of the military?
JULIE BISHOP Yes, he indicated that he'll be standing down at the end of this month in order to set up a political party and run for office and that a new military commander will be taking over at the beginning of March.
In relation to the election more generally, we've also had meetings with the Attorney-General and with electoral commissioners and they set out the progress that's been achieved. They actually have had a remarkable voter registration result - about 543,000 people have registered to vote. They've extended the voting age from 21 down to 18 so young people are having an opportunity to vote. Of course this will be the first time an election's been held since 2006. So there's a good deal of public interest about it as well.
So the comments of the Prime Minister, the comments of the Attorney-General, the statements from the electoral commissioners leads us to believe, us being the foreign ministers of the Pacific Island Forum Ministerial Contact Group, lead us to believe that an election will be undertaken. We also discussed the issue of having international observers, electoral observers and that's going to be a matter for the new supervisor of the electoral commission who is to be appointed shortly.
JOURNALIST And you not only just speaking to the commodore, I understand that you're also scheduled to have talks with political parties there and other organisations. Have they raised or are they going to raise any concerns about whether or not their freedoms will be enhanced in any way?
JULIE BISHOP We are having meetings tomorrow morning on Saturday with the representatives of the political parties that have registered so far. Four parties have registered. The Bainimarama party will be the fifth party but others could also register so we are having meetings with the representatives of those four parties and we'll be finding out from them what progress they believe has been made, whether they are finding any hurdles or obstacles in any way of campaigning.
There is a new constitution that everybody's coming to terms with and new electoral laws relating to disclosure of donations and disclosure of interests and the like. We're also meeting with NGOs and others across the Fiji community so I expect that any concerns will be raised with the foreign ministers of the Pacific island countries that are represented here.
JOURNALIST Julie Bishop, thanks for taking our call today.
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