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Hero’s welcome for Gillard in Rarotonga

Published: August 29, 2012 | 6:39 am
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Pacific leaders were carried like heroes and the crowd sang Waltzing Matilda for Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard as they arrived for the official opening of the Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga.

Ms Gillard was one of the last leaders to arrive at the national auditorium on a pa’ata (raised platform) carried by Cook Islands warriors, before the ceremony began in front of thousands of excited locals on Tuesday evening (local time).

During the annual forum she will also hold bilateral talks with several Pacific leaders and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose attendance was confirmed on Tuesday morning.

Ms Gillard is expected to meet Nauru’s President Sprent Dabwido and Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to talk about the reopening of asylum seeker processing centres in their countries.

She is facing questions about whether her government is on the same page as Papua New Guinea and Nauru, which want asylum seekers to be processed as quickly as possible.

She says that will happen, but no refugees will be able to jump the queue just because they got on a boat.

“When people are transferred to PNG or to Nauru they will have to have their claims processed to see whether or not they’re a genuine refugee, and if they are a genuine refugee, then they will have to wait the same amount of time for a resettlement opportunity as they would have waited if they hadn’t got in the boat,” she told reporters.

Ms Gillard will also discuss the plan with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key when they have breakfast together on Wednesday.

Mr Key told reporters asylum seekers were a “sort of regional issue”, with New Zealand’s government also looking at legislation to deal with possible boat arrivals.

The reopening of processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island was “totally a decision for the Australian people and the Australian government”.

“They have a growing problem, an issue they need to deal with, and I guess they’ve decided that’s the most practical way through.”

Mr Key and Ms Gillard will also discuss Fiji, which remains suspended from the forum.

Australia and New Zealand recently signalled a thaw in relations with Fiji and have discussed restoring their high commissioners there, while waiting for it to fulfil its pledge to hold elections in 2014.

“We will continue to press for a return to democracy in Fiji and it’s only that return to democracy that should see Fiji join the Pacific Island Forum,” Mr Key said.

Ms Gillard will champion discussions on increasing gender equality in the Pacific during the forum.

The leaders will fly to a retreat on the island of Aitutaki on Wednesday and return home on Friday.


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