TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Kieran Gilbert Afternoon Agenda, Sky News

E&OE 

Subjects: Redevelopment of Blackrock Camp, Fiji; Australian funding to the Pacific; Fijian economic recovery; beer excise.

Kieran Gilbert:

Let's turn our attention to some international news, and joining me via Zoom now from Fiji is Zed Seselja. He's the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Minister, thanks very much for your time. You've been attending today quite a significant opening of a redevelopment of the Blackrock Camp. It's where the Fijian military has its peacekeeping and military training. How much did Australia contribute to that?

Zed Seselja:

Well, a significant amount, Kieran – about $100 million investment from the Australian Government, and a really significant piece of regional infrastructure that we've invested in in partnership with the Fijian Government. So this peacekeeping and humanitarian facility will ensure that Fiji, which has a proud history of peacekeeping in the region and beyond, will continue to be able to do that and that the training for that will be at the highest level.

I think it's going to be a really important asset for the region. Fiji has said that they want to bring in partners in the region from the Pacific, of course including Australia. We want to continue to be a security partner of first choice for countries in the region, including Fiji. And so it was a really significant opening today with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, with the Defence Minister Seruiratu and other senior military as well as we had our Vice CDF as well as the head of our Defence Department Greg Moriarty.

So a really significant event, and just indicative, I think, of the deepening ties between Australia and Fiji on security and in relation to a whole range of other areas.

Kieran Gilbert:

Frank Bianimarama said in his comments today that Blackrock will serve as the regional launchpad for jaunt deployments that put Fijian and Australian troops at the frontline of the climate war raging throughout the Pacific. Is that as you see it as well? Is this a frontline response to the impact of climate?

Zed Seselja:

Well, there's no doubt that we respond to natural disasters, and that this will be a big part of that. And, you know, when it comes to climate change certainly the Australian Government and the Australian people are doing our bit – leading with 20 per cent reduction in emissions compared to the average of around 9 or 10 per cent for developed nations, record development in renewables, and we're also doing our bit in the region with climate financing.

But, yes, so issues around natural disasters, of course, will be very, very important. The humanitarian response to those disasters is something we've been at the forefront of. And Australia and Fiji are working together right now in Tonga. We're working together in the Solomons for different reasons, and now we'll be seeing Fijian troops coming to Australia – 43 Fijian military personnel – coming to assist in our flood response. So it's a very deep and close relationship, and Blackrock is a really important part of that going forward.

Kieran Gilbert:

Minister, is this support and engagement with Fiji part of the effort to try and push back against China's efforts to increase influence in the Pacific?

Zed Seselja:

Well, we obviously have invested in the Pacific, you know, for decades and decades. So, you know, we don't invest in the Pacific because of any other particular country; we do it because it's in the interests of our Pacific neighbours and it's in our own interests to have a stable and prosperous region.

But I think it's fair to say, Kieran, that there are serious uncertainties in the geostrategic environment at the moment. We're all aware of what's happening in Ukraine at the moment and the unjustified invasion by Russia. We call on China, of course, to play a more constructive role. We believe they should be condemning what is happening, and we believe they should be reaffirming a commitment to the rules-based order and to international law. And that's what our regional partners want, that's what we're doing in the region, I think it's one of the reasons that we are the first choice security partner in the region, and we want to continue that.

So, yes, there are all sorts of uncertainties. Its important we invest in our defences, as we are with a record investment, with a huge increase in our military. But it's also important that we partner with our region for regional stability and prosperity.

Kieran Gilbert:

Government officials in Fiji described covid as an economic hurricane. The tourism sector, as I read, accounts for 40 per cent of that nation's GDP. From your visit there how's the economy recovering right now?

Zed Seselja:

Well, there is recovery on. And Australians are at the forefront of it. We've seen the borders open in the last couple of months and tens of thousands of Australian tourists are coming to Fiji. And, of course, that's great for Australians because Fiji is a beautiful place to visit. But it's also a massive boost for the economy. So what I've seen is a lot of activity.

I think the Fijian economy is forecast to grow by about 11 per cent this year. You're right – it was hit very hard, and we've sought to support the Fijian people through economic supports, through covid vaccines. Those Covid vaccines in turn allowed them to reopen and we're now seeing Australians spending, amongst others, helping to see their economy recover.

So one of the great things about Blackrock too, is it happened during the covid lockdowns, and yet that continued. And so we saw that economic activity in the region. So we're going to continue to work with the Fijian government, but I think there are some great signs that the economy is coming back. And that's something we're very, very pleased to see.

Kieran Gilbert:

Ahead of the imminent federal budget, given the economic hardship that clearly has been faced by our neighbours in the Pacific, without – I don't expect you to give me the exact numbers – but can you at least indicate that support in dollars for the Pacific will be in an upward trajectory as opposed to the other way around in the budget?

Zed Seselja:

Yeah, well, look, obviously – so I would anticipate that we will continue to spend at or around record levels in the Pacific. So we spent about $1.7 billion just in our aid budget in the Pacific in this year. That is the most by Australia ever, the most by any country ever. And so I would anticipate that we would expect to see those type of record levels of support. And over and above that, of course, you know, these security relationships and other things, they're not counted in that $1.7 billion. So we're doing a lot, we'll continue to do a lot. We'll stand by our neighbours, stand by our family in the region, because we think it's the right thing to do for them and the right thing to do for us.

Kieran Gilbert:

So it won't be going down? That's the point.

Zed Seselja:

That's not my anticipation. I'm not going to announce the detail of the budget tonight – today, as you'd expect. But record levels this year, and I'd anticipate that we'll continue to see those type of investments in the coming year.

Kieran Gilbert:

And one out of left field – my colleague Andrew Clennell has reported that the government will reduce the draft beer excise in the upcoming budget. That will go down well with punters, you'd think.

Zed Seselja:

That's great news. So obviously I had no inside info other than what you've just told me, but I have had approaches from the clubs and the pubs, and I think that, you know, if we can see those hospitality works, more of those in the workforce and Australians get a slightly cheaper schooner, well, fantastic.

Kieran Gilbert:

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja, thanks. Appreciate it.

Zed Seselja:

Thanks very much, Kieran.

[ENDS] 

 

SENATOR THE HON ZED SESELJA 
Minister for International Development and the Pacific