JULIE BISHOP: The Australian Government is continuing to work with our friends in the Pacific to assess the damage and destruction that has been left in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Pam. We are aware that the cyclone has passed through Vanuatu leaving a trail of destruction and we are working to assess the extent of the damage both in the short-term and for the long-term recovery efforts.

Today I can announce that Australia will be making an initial life-saving support package available to Vanuatu in response to a request from the Government. This package will include $5 million that will be provided to Australian NGOs, particularly the Red Cross and to other United Nations partners.

We will also be deploying humanitarian supplies to provide support for up to 5000 people in the form of water, sanitation and shelter. We are also deploying a team from Australia of medical experts and urban search and rescue personnel. We are also sending a team of consular and humanitarian and disaster relief experts to Vanuatu.

We will also be assisting the travel to Port Vila of a United Nations disaster assessment team. We have deployed military aircraft for this purpose. A C-17 has left Amberley Air Base in Brisbane and a C-130 Hercules has left the RAAF base in Richmond. We already have a PC3 Orion that is in Vanuatu that has been carrying out reconnaissance and imagery surveillance for the islands.

We are yet to confirm the number of casualties. There are unconfirmed media reports of deaths in Port Vila and in the northern provinces of Vanuatu. We have no reports of any Australian casualties. Over 1,100 Australians are now registered in Vanuatu but we expect that there are more and so we will continue to contact hotels, accommodation throughout Vanuatu to see if there are any Australians who we have not yet made contact with.

Our travel advisory, as I said yesterday, has been revised to ‘reconsider your need to travel’ to the region. Anyone with any concerns should ring the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Hotline on 1300 555 135.

In the meantime Tuvalu has announced a State of Emergency and we are responding to a request from Tuvalu for some basic supplies, medical, water, sanitation, tents, blankets and food.

In the case of Fiji, Solomon Islands and Kiribati, we understand that assessments are still being made. The impact was not as great but we will wait to hear. In the meantime we stand ready to work with the Government of Vanuatu in terms of their longer-term recovery needs. I understand that the Cabinet of the Government of Vanuatu is currently meeting to assess this situation.

Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you on another issue? Patrick Johnson has added his voice to the Prime Minister's handling of Indigenous Affairs. Is he right to say the case for a referendum has been damaged?

JULIE BISHOP: I don't believe that to be the case at all. I think people are very keen to have their say on the question of recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution and I'm sure that the debate will continue.

JOURNALIST: Do you agree that living in a remote community is a lifestyle choice?

JULIE BISHOP: I believe that the West Australian Government should have the responsibility for providing services to communities throughout Western Australia. I certainly agree with the Prime Minister that the Federal Government should not be involved in the delivery of basic services. That's what State Governments are for. I think that's an assessment that the State Governments should make. I'm yet to see a program of basic community services delivered out of Canberra that should not have been done by a State Government. So I think in this instance, it's an appropriate debate for us to have as to the support that State Governments can provide to communities across their respective States.

JOURNALIST: Has this issue set back the case for reconciliation in Australia?

JULIE BISHOP: I don't believe so at all.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister calls himself the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, should he relinquish that claim in the wake of this withdrawal of funding?

JULIE BISHOP: Certainly not. The Prime Minister is deeply concerned about Aboriginal matters. He has shown his deep passion and interest for many years. This is not something he has recently been interested or involved in. For many years he has travelled to remote communities. He has worked in Indigenous communities. He is a strong friend and supporter of Aboriginal people in this country.

JOURNALIST: Has the Government had any contact with Indonesia over the weekend?

JULIE BISHOP: I've not made contact with my counterpart. We have been corresponding by letter but also been in constant telephone communication but I've not spoken to her this weekend.

JOURNALIST: Do you feel like at this stage there is anything else the Australian Government can do?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, we are awaiting the outcome of the legal proceedings. There are two legal avenues on foot at present. One is an appeal against the final rejection of the clemency plea. I understand that there are also Judicial Commission hearings in relation to allegations of bribery and corruption at the original trial of Mr Sukumaran and Mr Chan. I understand those matters are proceeding so I cannot imagine that further plans for the execution of these two Australian citizens would be proceeding while there are legal options still being pursued.

JOURNALIST: Just on people smugglers, do you know anything about reports a people smuggling ring has been secretly helping people trying to get to Syria to fight with IS?

JULIE BISHOP: I have seen the media reports about this but I have not been specifically briefed on it but I'm sure it is something I will hear about when I get to Canberra this afternoon.

JOURNALIST: Did the AFP not properly investigate the chain of evidence that suggests the people smugglers are helping people to get to Syria?

JULIE BISHOP: I just said I haven't been briefed on this matter so I am not in a position to make a comment about the Australian Federal Police.

JOURNALIST: Is it dangerous for the Education Minister to be so confident about higher education? Could he just galvanise cross benchers who are undecided to vote against the changes?

JULIE BISHOP: I don't think the Education Minister is a danger to anyone. I think the Education Minister understands what is needed for our higher education sector. I was the Education Minister in the Howard Government between 2006 and 2007 and even at that time the universities were calling for much greater flexibility, much greater freedom to meet the specific demands of students, to tailor make their higher education services to the needs of students, as opposed to the current over-regulated ‘cookie cutter’ approach, the ‘one size fits all’ approach, to higher education which is, quite frankly, holding back the innovation and creativity within our universities.

We want to see our universities among the best in the world. The way we can do that is to pass the Higher Education reforms that have long been needed to ensure that our higher education sector can compete with the best in the world, including with universities in our region.

- Ends -

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