Australia’s New Foreign Minister Embarks On Pacific Tour

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Australia’s New Foreign Minister Embarks On Pacific Tour Bishop to focus on women while in Solomons, Nauru and Vanuatu

By Jemima Garrett

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Dec. 16, 2013) – Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has begun a 3-day trip to the Pacific that will focus on looking at what Australia can do to help encourage women in the region to take up paid work.

Ms Bishop will visit Solomon Islands, Nauru and Vanuatu and is being accompanied by a bi-partisan delegation.

The delegation includes the parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs, Brett Mason as well as the opposition Foreign Affairs spokesperson Tanya Plibersek and her colleague Matt Thistlethwaite.

The former Australian Democrats leader, Natasha Stott Despoja, is also taking part in the tour, after Ms Bishop announced Ms Stott Despoja would be Australia's new Ambassador for Women and Girls.

The trip comes amid ongoing reports about the detention of pregnant women at the Australian-funded detention facilities on Nauru.

Ms Bishop will meet Nauru's President Baron Waqa and visit the asylum seeker detention centre.

An outspoken critic of Australia's approach to asylum seekers, Ms Stott Despoja says she will not pass judgement until she learns more about the situation.

But she says she will be forthright in any assessment she makes.

"It's been made very clear to me to that I'm in a position to provide advocacy and advice to the minister and that's something I'll be doing with her [Julie Bishop] directly," she said.

Boost for women

In Solomon Islands, Ms Bishop will meet Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo to discuss Australia's role in the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

RAMSI, a partnership between Solomon Islands and 15 of its Pacific neighbours, including Australia, has significantly scaled back its operations this year.

Its military contingent has left and its development activities have been handed over to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Ms Bishop will meet with Vanuatu's Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil as well as her counterpart, Foreign Minister Edward Natapei.

She's expected to launch two projects to boost economic development and will also visit the Vanuatu Women's Centre for a discussion with women leaders.

"It is a fact that in Melanesia about one third of the jobs are taken by women in the formal labour market," Ms Bishop said.

"Less than 5 per cent of politicians in the Pacific are women. The levels of domestic violence against women in the Pacific are very high, dangerously high," she said.

"Other issues such as communicable and non-communicable diseases are high in the Pacific and levels of education are not where we would want them to be."

Ms Stott Despoja says Australia is helping trying to improve the situation of women in the region, but there is still much work to be done.

"Some areas in the Pacific, we know that two thirds of women have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, we know that maternal mortality rates are unacceptable. They're too, too high in our region, be it in PNG or place like Timor Leste or even in places like Laos," she said.

Budget future

The Australian Treasurer will present the mid-year Economic Outlook statement on Tuesday.

The Government has already announced $4.5 billion of cuts to its aid budget and Ms Bishop is warning there may be more.

"We have considerable deficits ahead of us and all sections of the Australian budget, bar a couple that will be medical research and defence which will be quarantined, all areas of the Australian budget and that includes the Australian aid budget," she said.

Australia is currently the leading donor in the Pacific, with almost 20 per cent of the aid program directed towards the region.

The government's estimated aid expenditure for 2013-14 is just over $1.1 million.

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