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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript - 23351

Joint Press Conference, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Photo of Abbott, Tony

Abbott, Tony

Period of Service: 18/09/2013 to 15/09/2015

More information about Abbott, Tony on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 21/03/2014

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 23351

Subject(s): Visit to Papua New Guinea

PRIME MINISTER O’NEILL:

Thank you members of the press and ladies and gentlemen.

Firstly, I’d like to thank the Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott who has turned up here today with his delegation for our bilateral talks this morning. During our bilateral discussions, that underpin the relationship between our two countries, the discussions were frank and very much relevant to many of the issues before us and I want to assure the people of Papua New Guinea and of course our friends in Australia that these discussions have been very fruitful, constructive and pave the way forward for our relationship between our two countries.

In doing so we discussed the issues about our detention processing centre in Manus where we have continued to work together, making sure that we process the refugees who sit in refugee status in a timely and orderly manner. Of course we regret the incidents of late, but I think the inquiries that are now continuing will take their own course and we look forward to welcoming the outcomes of those inquiries.

Papua New Guinea, we are committed to staying the course. We have agreed to participate in this programme that was signed between our two former Prime Ministers – Prime Minister John Howard and Prime Minister Sir Michael Thomas Somare. It is those agreements that paved the way for the establishment of the asylum processing centre in Manus - the refugee processing centre in Manus - and we continue to respect that and we will continue to commit to it.

We will, of course, process those who have now been interviewed for processing and we will be dealing with them as quickly as possible in the crossover in the next few weeks and months.

I want to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible and I know many of you do as well.

The second issue about today’s meetings, I want to thank the Australian Prime Minster for the economic cooperation treaty that we signed today, paving the way for increasing our trade and investment relationship between the two countries. That agreement is now going to be the cornerstone of the relationship in business that we are trying to promote between the two countries.

Australia invests close to $20 billion Australian in PNG and the trade between the two countries is now reaching close to $8 billion Australian dollars and that is a significant investment for our economy in Papua New Guinea. I am certain that the Australian businesses that do business here, it is also a significant part of their business in Papua New Guinea.

We appreciate the realignment of the trade programmes, the aid programmes that the Australian Government has in Papua New Guinea. The alignment is that we are now working more closely with the priorities of our government and the priorities that we have set in our national budget.

So, all in all, I want to thank the Australian Government for their understanding in making sure that we develop sustainable programmes that are going to improve the quality of life and education and health for our people in Papua New Guinea. And that the Australian taxpayer gets the value for the assistance that they kindly provide to Papua New Guinea.

So, I want to take this opportunity to thank the Australian Prime Minister for taking time to spend at least four days visiting Papua New Guinea. This is not his first visit to Papua New Guinea, this is his third visit I understand, and third of many more visits to come.

So, Prime Minister, please?

PRIME MINISTER ABBOTT:

Well, thank you so much Prime Minister O’Neill. Peter, it has been terrific to be with you this morning. These have been close, constructive, candid and collegial talks that we’ve had – both you and me and our wider parties and officials.

Look, this is a very close relationship. Australia and Papua New Guinea are more than friends – we are family. And it has been in that family spirit that the discussions have been conducted this morning. There will long be a very strong government to government relationship between Australia and PNG but increasingly I would like the focus of the relationship at the government to government level to be trade as least as much as aid. That is why I was so pleased to have such a large and powerful business delegation with me here today. It isn’t just a business delegation. It also included David Smith of the national rugby league – because rugby league is a pretty important subject up here in PNG. In fact PNG is the one country on earth where rugby league is the overwhelming national sporting obsession. So, it was good to have David Smith and Petero Civoniceva here with us this morning.

While the focus of this visit is on trade as much as aid, obviously there are areas where our two governments are continuing to work very closely together. Henceforth, there will be annual Prime Ministerial summits between Australia and PNG. Australia is looking forward to working very closely with PNG as PNG moves towards hosting the APEC summit in 2018. This will be an important coming of age for PNG and this will be by far the biggest international gathering ever hosted in PNG and it will demonstrate that PNG is not only a very big player in the Pacific, but it is increasingly a player in the wider world.

I think it’s to the credit of PNG that this will be happening and Australia will be doing what it can to support. As well, we’re working to together to try to ensure that the Australian police presence, which has been here in PNG in some numbers for the last few months, continues to grow in the months to come. It’s impossible to have a prosperous society unless you first have a peaceful one and Australian police are playing a key role in Port Moresby and at least one other centre to make sure that’s reality. And then of course Manus where we are working together to ensure that the centre runs well and processing is expedited. I was extremely gratified to have from Peter this morning his assurance that the people and Government of PNG are committed to staying the course and I’m very grateful that the regulatory process is in train so that the settlement process can begin by May/June.

Now I fully appreciate that this whole resettlement issue is a difficult one for PNG. I absolutely accept that. But I am grateful for PNG’s assurance that the course will be stayed because a very important element in stopping the boats is rigorous offshore processing and the certainty that people who come to Australia by boat will never ultimately be settled there. I really value the mateship that Peter O’Neill has shown to Australia on this, I really value the friendship that the people of PNG have shown to Australia on this. I’m grateful for the hand of friendship that Peter extended to my predecessor Kevin Rudd on this subject and I’m pleased that the hand of friendship has been equally extended to me on this very important subject.

So it has been a good visit as Peter pointed out this is my first official visit to PNG, but it’s certainly not my first visit to this extraordinary country. I spent about three weeks here in 1980 in the highlands on the north coast walking the Kokoda Track, then in 1988 I came again in those days as a journalist and amongst other things walked the northern half of the Kokoda Track and it’s great to be back again in a different capacity. So thank you so much, Peter.

PRIME MINISTER O’NEILL:

We’ll take a few questions and then we’ll adjourn for lunch.

QUESTION:

Thank you Prime Minister, I have a question for both Prime Ministers on Manus and on processing. Firstly, Prime Minister O’Neill, can you talk about what you need to do to begin resettlement of those who you determine to be refugees? What’s stopping that process from beginning? And Prime Minister Abbott, what is it that Australia can do to assist in order to help with some of that resettlement in Papua New Guinea?

PRIME MINISTER O’NEILL:

As you know, Papua New Guinea is a signatory to the Refugee Conventions under the United Nations and we are obligated to assist where we can. And as a result of this exercise of the Manus processing centre, we have never had this issue about resettlement programmes in the past. What we are working on now is organising a structure in which we can conduct the resettlement exercise and our officials are working on that at present. It will go to Parliament in May and then we will proceed from there onwards. But this does not mean that the interviews have stopped. The interview and the processing of the refugee people at Manus is now taking place as we speak and then we’ll continue and those who are proven to be not genuine refugees will be moved on as quickly as possible. Those who are wanting to be resettled will be resettled under our legislative structure.

QUESTION:

Will all of those recognised as refugees be resettled in Papua New Guinea?

PRIME MINISTER O’NEILL:

Not all but we will take some and we’ll take as much as we can, but as we have stated at the initial stage when we agreed to this, we will also want all the other countries within the region, not only Papua New Guinea but others in the Pacific also. We will try and extend their participation; many of them are signatories to that same UN Convention, so we expect everybody to carry the same burden as we do. So that is how we are going to approach it.

QUESTION:

Can I ask Prime Minister Abbott, do you have any undertakings from other countries that they will take refugees who are recognised from Manus Island?

PRIME MINISTER ABBOTT:

We certainly very much value the cooperation and the help that PNG has extended to us and I’m extremely grateful for PNG’s renewed commitment today to resettlement. I accept that depending upon how many of those at Manus are found to be refugees I accept that it might be hard for PNG to take all of them, but we’re grateful for the fact that some of them will be here in PNG and we’re continuing to work with other countries in our region to ensure that people don’t come to Australia if they arrive illegally by boat. This is the bottom line: if you arrive illegally by boat in Australia you will never permanently settle in Australia because as long as there is this prospect of permanent settlement in Australia there is the risk that illegal boats will keep coming.

Now I know we’ve just had three months without a boat and that’s great and that’s a tribute to the good work that Scott Morrison and the whole Operation Sovereign Borders team have done, but we need to absolutely establish once and for all that the way to Australia illegally by boat has forever been shut and so the resettlement of people in these camps in countries other than Australia is very, very important.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister Abbott, just back to David’s question, what can Australia do to help PNG in that process? Do we need to be offering more money? And Prime Minister O’Neill, where in PNG would you envisage people would be resettled? Would you put restrictions on who might qualify? And what legal changes do you need to make – you mentioned them before –to make this possible?

PRIME MINISTER O’NEILL:

Firstly, the issue about resettlement, there are already some communities in the country who have already offered to participate in this programme. Now, it is pretty hard to speculate on that when we don’t precisely know the actual numbers of the people that we are talking about. We expect it to be less because people are expected to go home and many of them now that have been processed, a good majority of them are economic refugees, they are not genuine refugees, so as such they will be sent back to their country of origin. But let us not forget when we are having this debate why this policy was initially agreed to by the PNG government. Mainly it was to save the lives of many of the innocent and hundreds and thousands of people who lost their lives at sea when they were trying to make this journey to Australia.

So, now that policy is working. People must know that as a result of this particular action that we have taken, lives are being saved. Now I think we need to work together in making sure that we resettle these people as quickly as possible. Trying to get a high ground on many of the moral issues that have been debated, that is appreciated, but I think we deal with the realities and that is why the Papua New Guinean government and our people are willing to participate.

QUESTION:

And the legal changes, Sir [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER O’NEILL:

The legal questions as I said, our officials are working to rid them. As soon as they are complete we will announce it to the Parliament there and then we will announce it to the rest of the world.

But again, let me stress this very carefully, that this is not something we do every day, so there are no precedents in which we are following. We need to go through it to set up a legislative framework that will work within our own Constitution so that people are resettled in an orderly manner.

QUESTION:

Sorry, Mr Abbott’s just going to answer my question. Sorry, thanks.

PRIME MINISTER ABBOTT:

Well, what we’re looking to establish is swift processing, swift repatriation for those found not to be refugees and swift resettlement for those that are found to be refugees and where Australia can best assist is ensuring that people who are found not to be refugees are swiftly repatriated to their home country.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, I’d just like your comment on the [inaudible] visas into Australia. Have you had any discussion about this today?

PRIME MINISTER ABBOTT:

Look, Prime Minister O’Neill and I have discussed this now on quite a number of occasions and I absolutely accept the desire of the PNG government and people to have swift and easy and appropriate access to Australia – I absolutely accept that. We are working towards better processes; we’ve already got the ability of PNG citizens to apply for visas online, we’ve already got fast-track entry at Brisbane and Cairns airport. What we’re now going to work on is trying to ensure that the PNG system and the Australian system can interoperate as it were, so we can have the level of information sharing that exists between Australia and New Zealand and which facilitates what is effectively visas on arrival for people from New Zealand.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, what’s the latest on the search for the plane outside of Perth and also did you jump the gun yesterday by talking about it in Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER ABBOTT:

Shortly before Question Time yesterday we received credible evidence that there was debris in the Southern Indian Ocean, very close to the southern search corridor for ill-fated Flight MH370 and shortly after receiving that credible evidence, as you’d expect, I communicated it to Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia.

Since then, we’ve been throwing everything we’ve got at that area to try to learn more about what this debris might be. Now, it could just be a container that’s fallen off a ship. We just don’t know. But we owe it to the families and the friends and the loved ones of the almost 240 people on Flight MH370 to do everything we can to try to resolve what is as yet an extraordinary riddle. We owe it to them to do everything we can to resolve this and because of the understandable state of anxiety and apprehension that they’re in we also owe it to them to give them information as soon as it’s to hand and I think I was doing that yesterday in the Parliament.

Now to let you know where things are at today, as I understand it, we’ve got five aircraft that will be searching the area. What we are looking for today is a visual on what was picked up by satellite imagery a little while ago and as soon as we have additional information we will make it available.

I should also let you know that last night, shortly after arriving here in PNG, I spoke by phone to President Xi of China because the vast majority of the people on that Malaysian aircraft were Chinese nationals. As you can understand, he is devastated, as are so many people in China, as is Prime Minister Najib by all of this. This has been a gut wrenching business for so many people, not least those who are charged with the responsibility of keeping their citizens safe.

So, Australia will do its duty. As I said, we’ve got five aircraft in or close to the search area today – three of them are Royal Australian Air Force Orions. We have an Australian Naval ship which is steaming as fast as it can to the area. It is an extremely remote part of the Southern Indian Ocean; it’s about 3,000 kilometres south-west of Perth. It’s about the most inaccessible spot you could imagine on the face of the earth, but if there is anything down there, we will find it. We owe it to the families of those people to do no less.

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript - 23351