Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese arrived in Fiji on Wednesday to join the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting and at the very first opportunity made it known it was time to heal the rift created in the region by Kiribati’s withdrawal.
He said the Forum leaders meeting this year was very crucial and he wanted it to be filled with positive energy as the nations worked towards the 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent.
It’s a document that will set the course for a sustainable future for the Pacific and one that resolves the immediate to long term challenges faced by the region.
To show the transparent and open nature of Australia’s commitment to the Pacific, he quickly allowed Pacific media an opportunity to ask questions.
Mr Albanese said he would not be drawn on the cause of the split the Forum was currently facing but wanted to focus on how to heal the rift.
“What I want to do and what I bring to this forum is a positive energy, and I’ll be doing all that I can to bring all of the nations who are members of the Pacific Forum together,” he said.
He said it was important to engage in a respectful way.
“We live in a period whereby we have strategic competition in this region. And that’s part of the backdrop of this conference. Australia looks forward to engaging in a positive and constructive way.
“We respect the sovereignty of nations in the Pacific. We want to engage with them in a respectful way going forward.
“Our support for this region does not come with strings attached. It comes because we understand that we have a responsibility as an advanced economy in the region to provide support to our Pacific Island neighbours and that indeed that is in Australia’s interest for that to occur.”
Mr Albanese gave credit to Fijian Prime Minister and chair of the Forum, Voreqe Bainimarama in putting together the Suva Agreement to unite the Pacific.
On the issue of Kiribati he said he is very hopeful that the nation will be brought back on board.
Mr Albanese said his government planned to expand engagement of Pacific labour in Australia.
“We also want of course to expand engagement with Pacific labour in our own country – whether that be permanent migration, a specific programme aimed for the first time at the Pacific, or whether it be temporary labour,” he said.
“This can be an important way in which we not only have people-to-people relations, but we benefit both the economies of Australia and the countries of origin of people either visiting or permanently migrating to Australia,” he said.
Mr Albanese then spent the rest of the day engaged in bilateral discussions, the first with Solomon Islands.
The positive energy he had talked about was shown here as he hugged his Solomon Islands counterpart Manasseh Sogavare at the very first opportunity.
Mr Albanese arrived in true Pacific tradition and went onto conduct his discussions in a Pacific way.
Before he went into the meeting with Mr Sogavare he told the media that he wanted honest discussions with the Solomon Islands leader.
“That means not necessarily agreeing with each other the whole time, but it means being able to have an open dialogue,” he said.
Mr Albanese will be part of the Forum Leaders Retreat which will hold discussions on the 2050 Strategy. The leaders will be faced with a daunting task on whether to approve a document that would secure the future for the Pacific and its people, or hold on until Kiribati is on board.