18 Jan 2019

Aussie PM wraps up historic Vanuatu, Fiji trip

2:57 pm on 18 January 2019

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is wrapping up an historic three-day trip to Vanuatu and Fiji, where he announced millions of dollars in additional support for the Pacific region, but faced criticism over Australia's inaction on climate change.

Scott Morrison and Frank Bainimarama in Fiji

Scott Morrison and Frank Bainimarama in Fiji Photo: Twitter/ Scott Morrison

The visit, part of the Australian government's Pacific "Step Up" policy, was a first by an Australian prime minister in more than a decade and came as Canberra increases its engagement in the region in response to rising competition from China.

"If there is anything that Australia should be known for and I believe is known for, it is that when we make commitments we stick to them," Mr Morrison said today in a speech at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva.

In Fiji, Australia's commitments were wide-reaching, while in Vanuatu they appeared to be spontaneous.

On Wednesday, Mr Morrison and Vanuatu's prime minister Charlot Salwai reached an agreement to ease restrictions on kava exports to Australia, prompted by a request by Mr Salwai during talks.

In Fiji, far more deliverables were announced.

A new 'Vuvale Partnership' between Fiji and Australia includes a $US60 million education partnership with the University of the South Pacific to lift teaching standards and a $US12 million program to send 3,000 hours of Australian television content into the Pacific over the next three years.

Mr Morrison also formally announced Fiji's inclusion in the Pacific Labour Scheme, following news in November that Australia would expand the migrant labour scheme to all Pacific Island countries and lift its cap of 2,000 places. Fiji will also join Australia's Pacific Medicines Testing Program.

As well, the Vuvale agreement - Vuvale is the Fijian word for family - will see more ministerial and high-level meetings between the two countries, border assistance and training and sport cooperation.

"You can see across all of these initiatives, whether it's in economy, whether it's in security, whether it's in culture, whether it's in sport, this is a broad based relationship," Mr Morrison said.

The Australian prime minister also made a renewed pitch for PACER Plus, a Pacific free trade deal which Fiji and Papua New Guinea have so far refused to sign, having said it would do little to benefit them

"We see Fiji very much as an economic hub in our region," Mr Morrison said.

"Every deal is better with Fiji in it."

Mr Morrison also said Australia and Fiji were undertaking a joint study on the trade and economic impact of PACER Plus.

But he found himself under the pump in Suva, when Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama urged Australia to shift away from its coal and mining industries because of the effect of climate change in the Pacific.

"From where we are sitting, we cannot imagine how the interest of any single industry can be placed above the welfare of Pacific peoples, honourable people in the world over," Mr Bainimarama said in a speech at a dinner event on Thursday.

The next day, at USP, Mr Morrison made reassurances over his government's commitment to climate change action, saying it was one of many global challenges Australia and Fiji would face together.

Scott Morrison and Frank Bainimarama

Scott Morrison and Frank Bainimarama Photo: Twitter/ Scott Morrison

"We have made commitments in the area of climate change and we are keeping them."

During his speech, Mr Bainimarama said Australia and Fiji had come a long way since 2006, when a military coup he led resulted in breakdown in ties including sanctions on Fiji.

"From my conversation with Prime Minister Morrison, it's clear now more than ever that we can put this behind us in the past, letting bygones be bygones," Mr Bainimarama said.

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