JOURNALIST: Minister, how much assistance has Australia pledged to Fiji?
JULIE BISHOP: We responded immediately by providing about $5 million worth of pre-positioned supplies so that we could get immediate relief to people. We've added a further $10 million in supplies but, importantly, we've sent about 1,000 personnel, 950 Defence personnel, about 50 civilians including two medical teams. We have sent a significant deployment of Defence assets. First, some P3 Orions, the surveillance planes to carry out assessments of the damage on the outer islands. We have 7 Defence helicopters there taking supplies to the outlying islands. HMAS Canberra which is our largest navy vessel, has been in Suva and is now heading out to Koro islands. There is about 760 Defence personnel on board the HMAS Canberra. So it's been a significant response. We're working in cooperation with the Fijian authorities and working closely with them. Our medical teams are working with their doctors, our engineers and carpenters and plumbers are working with local people and we're getting supplies and much-needed treatment to those outer areas where the cyclone hit hardest.
JOURNALIST: Have you attached any guidelines to the aid that you've provided, for instance making sure structure is rebuilt in a way to perhaps withstand another cyclone?
JULIE BISHOP: That's standard for our engagement with our Pacific Island neighbours so we have a long-standing development assistance program with Fiji and we're working through the guidelines that always apply in these areas. We do have some considerable experience, sadly, in responding to natural disasters in our region, the Pacific being one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world. So we have some experience in work in humanitarian relief and disaster relief and rebuilding and restoring structures.
JOURNALIST: A big concern for Fiji is the economy, tourism its biggest export. We've seen from Australia's visits to Fiji the numbers basically tripled from the year 2000 then Cyclone Evan hits in 2012, they flat lined ever since. Is the concern here those numbers will drop again?
JULIE BISHOP: It is a concern. Australians are big supporters of the Fiji tourism industry. About 350,000 Australians visit Fiji every year. There's a deep affection between the people of Fiji and the people of Australia. So we certainly encourage Australians to continue to visit Fiji and other countries. There is a focus on rebuilding the tourism infrastructure, the hotels and the resorts and the like but our immediate concern was to get roads, power, water purification under way. We had to focus on the immediate concerns but the tourism industry would have to be rebuilt, as the agricultural industry will have to be rebuilt.
JOURNALIST: Your DFAT website says Australia gave Fiji $33 million last financial year and will give $35 million this coming financial year or this financial year. The disaster recovery money does want affect that, does it?
JULIE BISHOP: No, that's in addition. The money we've provided is in addition to our aid funding, in fact more than 35 million because there are also Pacific-wide programs that apply to Fiji as well, so all up it's probably about $58 million and then the $15 million in direct aid for the cyclone on top of that and then of course the cost of deploying the Defence assets.
JOURNALIST: The Treasurer is all about controlling spending in this coming Budget if you can judge by his remarks up until now, have you sought any assurances about the aid Budget particularly for Fiji?
JULIE BISHOP: I'm confident the aid Budget for Fiji will remain and we have built up the Emergency Fund that had been depleted under the Labor Government. The Emergency Fund is what is so important because that's money that's set aside so that we can respond to humanitarian and natural disasters - that's what we've done in this case.
JOURNLIST Your website also notes literacy and numeracy skills are declining in school-aged children and life expectancy has stagnated. Is that a case for more to be done from Australia?
JULIE BISHOP: There are concerns about these social and economic and health indicators across the Pacific and that's why our aid program is pretty well focused on the Pacific. We do provide aid and assistance elsewhere in the world but very much focused on the Pacific. It is our neighbourhood, it's where we live and that's where we can provide assistance and make the biggest difference so health and education are priorities as well as the empowerment of women and girls and good governance and infrastructure, these are where we focus the Australian dollar.
JOURNALIST: Australia has had a fractious relationship with the Fijian Government, you know, Commodore Frank Bainimarama led the military coup in 2006, they were suspended from the Commonwealth, only reinstated 18 months ago. How would you describe your relationship with Frank Bainimarama?
JULIE BISHOP: When we were in Opposition and I was the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, I determined that it was time to normalise relations with Fiji after the military coup and-
JOURNALIST: Due to the elections being held?
JULIE BISHOP: That’s right, elections were to be held and so we embraced a program of normalising relations and there was enthusiasm on both sides. The elections were held and Commodore Bainimarama became Prime Minister Bainimarama and I have worked very closely with Foreign Minister Kubuabola throughout and we now are engaged at every level across the board and I'm looking forward to visiting Fiji again. I'll be there as soon as I'm able, to visit some of the outlying islands and see the impact of Cyclone Winston and continue to work closely with Fiji. We have a long-standing friendship, a long-standing relationship in defence and development assistance and sport and so I'm certainly looking forward to continuing that path of reconciliation between Australia and Fiji.
JOURNALIST: Now if I can switch gears slightly to domestic issues - the leak of the Defence draft White Paper, how much latitude as a Liberal backbencher does Tony Abbott have to comment on it?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, the leak is the subject of a police investigation. Obviously the Secretary of the Department of Defence saw this as a sufficiently serious leak that he's initiated an Australian Federal Police investigation so I don't want to comment on the detail of that investigation.
JOURNALIST: Not the investigation but commenting on the leak, Philip Ruddock, for instance, is quoted today as saying it's inappropriate.
JULIE BISHOP: Backbenchers can comment on matters but the specific leaking of a classified document is obviously the subject of a police investigation.
JOURNALIST: He was reportedly flabbergasted at this apparent delay in the delivery of the 12 subs from 2020s to 2030s. You're one of the few people intimately aware of that transition from draft to final Defence White Paper. Is that a fair comment, to be flabbergasted?
JULIE BISHOP: The head of the Defence Force confirmed that the advice to the Government has been consistent since 2013 and that's most certainly my recollection, the advice has been consistent and that the Collins submarines would always be part of the mix because until you knew who the planners and designers and manufacturers of the submarines would be you wouldn't be able to put a timeframe on it.
JOURNALIST: So are Tony Abbott’s comments sincere or calculating or a combination of both?
JULIE BISHOP: They're questions you will have to ask Tony Abbott.
JOURNALIST: In his media conference after being rolled by Malcolm Turnbull, he said, "My pledge today is to make this change as easy as I can. There will be no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping." Is he keeping his word?
JULIE BISHOP: We're all judged by our words and actions.
JOURNALIST: What is your judgment on his words and actions?
JULIE BISHOP: No, we are. I'll judge my words and actions, I won't judge others.
JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop, thank you so much for your time.
JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure.
- Ends -
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555