Doorstop interview, Blackrock, Fiji

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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20 October 2022

THE HON INIA SERUIRATU, FIJI MINISTER FOR DEFENCE, NATIONAL SECURITY, AND POLICING: At the outset, I wish to reiterate my words of welcome to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence for Australia, the Honourable Richard Marles. Again thank you sir for taking the time to visit today, in what I believe will be the first of your many visits to Fiji. I also wish to warmly welcome your delegation also present today.

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me much pleasure to officiate the (inaudible) signing of the Status of Forces Agreement between Fiji and Australia. I believe it is also quite fitting that we hosted this signing event at Blackrock (inaudible). It is a (inaudible) significant reminder and demonstration of our close and strong partnership that is underpinned by our (inaudible) partnership. Ladies and gentlemen, the ongoing partnership has only strengthened continuity and strong relations in the areas of defence and security. The partnership exemplifies the strong family bond between Fiji and Australia and the signing of this agreement will see a new high of security cooperation between our two nations.

(inaudible). This agreement reflects the increased cooperation between our forces on traditional and non-traditional security threats, including climate change, humanitarian crises and disasters. Fiji and Australia’s security cooperation forms the bedrock of our partnership and helps maintain regional stability, resilience and peace. This agreement, which we will execute today will greatly enhance our defence cooperation program, (inaudible) us to grow from strength to strength. And we will also see the greater exchanges of personnel between Fiji and Australia, which will enhance the defence capability (inaudible). It will also strengthen the interoperability between our defence forces. It governs issues, including Immigration and Customs arrangements for peacekeeping forces, wearing uniforms while in another country and criminal and civil jurisdiction over forces while they are in another country. (inaudible).

Concluding, I wish to reiterate my most profound appreciation and thanks to the Government of Australia, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister and your Department of Defence, and the Australian Defence Forces, for your continued friendship, military, and familial relations with Fiji. (inaudible).

THE HON RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER & MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Can I start by thanking Minister Seruiratu for those very warm comments, and acknowledge you, and say what a thrill it is to be here, back here in Fiji, on what is a really significant occasion in the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement. Could I acknowledge the Permanent Secretary of the Defence Force, the Commander of RFMF, and Australia's chargé d'affaires. It's great to have all of you here as well.

We live in a very challenging strategic time, where the strategic circumstances around the world are as precarious as they've been at any point since the end of the Second World War. And none of how we deal with that is particularly obvious. But we also meet at a time when the impact of climate change is meaning that we're seeing more weather events in our region, which in turn places a pressure on our defence forces as we respond to those disasters, through the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster response. What's clear about all of that is now's the time to be close to friends. And we don't have closer friends than Fiji. The Vuvale declaration is really about the spirit of friendship which exists between our two nations. And it’s what has underpinned a very productive set of conversations that we've had today, which is looking at every opportunity that we can find to see Australian servicemen and women alongside Fijian servicemen and women in a spirit of partnership, where, in fact, both countries gain the enormous advantage, out of the opportunities and experiences which come with sharing the development and the capability.

The centrepiece of today's meeting is the signing today of the Status of Forces Agreement between our two countries. That is a rare agreement amongst the Community of Nations. We don't have many of these, and it speaks to how close our relationship is with Fiji. And as the Minister has described, what this agreement will do is really facilitate a much closer working relationship between our two defence forces in each other's countries, so that that can happen as smoothly as possible and therefore as often as possible. And in the process building interoperability and building capability between our two countries. It is a very, very significant step in the relationship between our two defence forces and as such, it's a very significant step in the relationship between our two countries. And I feel very honoured with Minister Seruiratu to be signing the Status of Forces Agreement today.

It has been an enormous pleasure to spend the morning with you, we've got another day of meetings ahead in what, as I’ve described, have been a very productive set of conversations. We see these conversations on this agreement as emblematic of a growing and deepening relationship between Australia and Fiji which has really never been close than it is right now.

JOURNALIST: My question to you today is; there's been reports by international media, particularly in the US, where the US government is advising the citizens about what to do if there's a nuclear attack. My question to you is, is this an area of concern for the Australian Government? And how is the Australian Government prepared to support island nations like Fiji in the instance, given Russia's capability to carry out such an attack?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER MARLES: I think what I'd say is that the comments that we've seen from the Russian President, raising the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons, is appalling. It’s not something that should be put on table. But it says a lot about who Ukraine is facing in the conflict in which it is now engaged. As we see this, this is about the importance of the global rules-based order. Ukraine is a long way from Australia, but we are one of the largest non-NATO contributors to supporting Ukraine. And we do that because we see that the principles that are at stake in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, are principles which engage our national interest because they go to the whole question of protecting the global rules-based order, which has underpinned so much of the prosperity and peace that we've seen since the end of the Second World War.

But I would say that the global rules-based order is not only relevant to Eastern Europe, it's relevant to the Indo-Pacific as well. And I think it's actually highly relevant to the Pacific. The Pacific is an area where, you know, with relatively small populations across large, disparate geographic areas, it's so important to have international cooperation. International cooperation is at the heart of how so much of our government is done in the Pacific, and none of that can happen without a strong global rules-based order. That's what underpins international cooperation. So we think it's really important that nations of the world are standing up for that right now. It's really important that we are doing that by providing support to Ukraine. A large country seeking to invade a smaller neighbour, not by reference to the rule of law, but my reference to power and might is not a position that can be allowed to stand, which is why it's so important that we stand with Ukraine today. The kind of comments that we’ve heard from President Putin in respect of nuclear weapons is absolutely appalling. To us, it just makes it clear why it is so important that the world stands with Ukraine today.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

MINISTER SERUIRATU: Thank you. We have been looking forward to this visit by the honourable Deputy Prime Minister of Australia in his capacity as well as the Minister for Defence. We had our initial meeting in Singapore in June, when we were both there for the Shangri-La security dialogue. And today, I have, in my welcome remarks again, conveyed how grateful we are, that finally the honourable Deputy Prime Minister is able to visit us. It is significant for many obvious reasons. We know and understand the geopolitics of the region and the role that we play, Australia and New Zealand, and the need for us to stand united and cooperate. The Vuvale partnership has never been at its best since the signing of the partnership in 2019. And we are hopeful, and of course grateful as well, for the commitment of the Labor Government through Prime Minister Albanese, and we have the honourable Deputy Prime Minister here with us, for the commitment to continue and of course elevate the relationship, of course, the assistance to the Pacific. Most importantly for us, consistent with the Boe declaration, which defines the way forward for us in terms of priorities, and not only the Boe declaration, but of course, consistent with other arrangements that our leaders have identified and set the direction for us as Ministers. Because prominently the Boe declaration is security. And, of course, as Ministers responsible for security in our respective countries, and of course, the wider role that we play in the region, this is something that we need to continue to strengthen. And in our discussion today, apart from the issues of maritime security, humanitarian and disaster responses, cooperation and interoperability. We looked at also future engagements, and of course, not forgetting that climate change is our biggest threat. So very important meeting for us. And we are thankful again, for the commitment and the assurance from the Australian Government and the honourable Deputy Prime Minister for his continued support to Fiji. But whatever it is (inaudible).

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

MINISTER SERUIRATU: I think this is one of the key issues by the Labor led government that brought them into government. It has been outstanding for quite a while. And commitment to climate change is something that we in the Pacific warmly embrace and appreciate. Because, again, consistently with the Boe declaration, this is the biggest existential threat that we face. And climate change doesn’t discriminate. It affects the developed countries, it also affects the smaller countries. The Pacific being amongst the most vulnerable in the world, we really appreciate the stronger commitment and we are closely monitoring the developments in Australia under the new government. They have now probably passed their climate laws and the commitments. This is something that not only the Pacific but the whole world will appreciate. Maybe the honourable minister can share a bit on that as well. But for Fiji being a former COP President, and being also the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, we warmly welcome and appreciate this commitment from the government.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER MARLES: Thank you, Minister. Action on climate change is very central to the Australian Government's agenda. We want to make clear that Australia is back at the table in terms of global leadership when it comes to action on climate change. It's important, as the Minister said, from Australia's own national interest, climate change is indiscriminate, it affects the whole world. And we're seeing the effects of it in Australia with increased weather effects in our country. But the place which is at the frontline of climate change is the Pacific. I think one of the responsibilities that Australia has is to help and support the Pacific in telling its story to the world because it is very compelling. And I've previously had the experience in a former role representing the government of Australia in the Pacific, of seeing how powerful that story is in shaping the minds of global leaders. Secretary Ban Ki-moon coming to the Pacific in 2011, going to a low lying coral atoll countries such as Kiribati, seeing exactly what was happening there then, and that's more than a decade ago, was deeply powerful to him around his sense of the world needing to act in relation to this. So we think that there is a place for Australia in helping to tell the story.

But what's also clear, and this has also been a part of the conversation today, is that as we see increasing weather events, and more cyclones, which give rise to more disasters, it's really important that our humanitarian and disaster response preparedness is excellent across the Pacific. This has been a topic of conversation between the two of us but also earlier in the week in Tonga at the South Pacific Defence Ministers’ meeting. It's really important that when a disaster happens, we have a set of standard operating procedures, which means that there is no moment of hesitation, we know exactly what we are going to do, exactly how we coordinate so that we can bring to bear the greatest effect possible in responding to that disaster as quickly and as efficiently as possible. And that I really want to commend Fiji, because Fiji has been the leader in respect of this. The framework that we've been talking about earlier this week is a framework put together by Fiji. And it’s Fijian leadership in this space which I think is bringing the Pacific community together as a family to make sure that we are operating in an excellent way going forward to respond to effects of climate change. So we need to be doing everything we can to make the case in the world today so that we see greater action on reducing emissions, so that we minimise the effects of climate change. And we also need to be doing everything we can to deal with what effects are already occurring so that we can be keeping the populations of the Pacific safe.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER MARLES: well, accessing finance is really important. And we have put forward initiatives from Australia in respect of our own offerings in relation to climate financing for projects within the region. It forms part of the suite of measures that we need to be undertaking to ensure that we can build resilience across the Pacific and particularly in places which are most vulnerable, low lying parts of all countries and particularly those countries like the coral atoll island nations of Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, and Kiribati. So we are keen to make sure that we are doing our part but also encouraging the world to be making this available so that this resilience can be built, and that, along with the disaster response which I’ve described, and the advocacy on the global stage which I’ve described is what's so important in making sure that we are dealing with what most countries in the Pacific regard as their greatest existential threat.


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