Question time - Fiji visit

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

24 February 2014

Ms JULIE BISHOP (Curtin—Minister for Foreign Affairs) (14:43): I thank the member for Barton for his question, and I recognise the number of Fijians living in his electorate, as well as the number of Fijians living in Australia.

I am delighted to be able to inform the House that on the weekend of 14 and 15 February I visited Fiji as part of the Ministerial Contact Group of the Pacific Islands Forum. The six ministers in that contact group welcomed the progress that has been made by the Fijian Government towards an election to be held by the end of September this year. In particular, we noted the large number of registrations that have occurred. At the last count it was something like 550,000 voters registered out of a population of about 800,000, including registrations of Fijians living in Australia, the US and elsewhere.

We also noted that independent electoral commissioners have been appointed, and we were pleased to see that progress towards these elections is being made. We also held meetings with other Fijian ministers to talk about the election preparations. We met with representatives of the other registered political parties and we met with civil society.

There are challenges, including the need for freedom of the press; there are challenges involving putting in place an electoral legal framework for the conduct of the elections; and we urged the Fijian authorities to have international observers present. There should not be any doubt in the minds of the international community as to the legitimacy of this election when it is held.

I also took the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Bainimarama. This was the first meeting with an Australian minister since 2008. In accordance with the commitment we took to the Australian people at the last election, we believe it is time for there to be a new and constructive phase in our relationship with Fiji. I outlined to the Prime Minister our plan for deeper engagement. Australia is the largest source of investment for Fiji, we are the largest source of overseas development assistance and we are the largest source of tourists to Fiji so we believe it is time to rebuild the political ties, including reviewing the travel sanctions.

In accordance with our election commitment, we have a plan for deeper engagement and that will include public sector exchanges, defence exchanges, and greater trade and investment with Fiji. The Australian business community certainly welcomes the change of foreign policy under this government. Given the deep affection that the Australian people have for the people of Fiji and the affection that the people of Fiji have for Australia, I am proud that this government has been able to change the direction of our foreign policy and work towards embracing Fiji as it heads into an election by the end of September this year.

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