Australian Government coat of arms

Prime Minister of Australia

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Press Conference with The Honourable Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

15 February 2017

Parliament House, Canberra

Prime Minister

Subjects:

Trade; Australia-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship

E&OE

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m here with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka. We've had a very fruitful discussion, reflecting the very deep relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka.

We are Indian Ocean neighbours and we have a shared interest in a secure, stable and prosperous region. In particular, safe and open Indian Ocean trade routes are critically important to both our nations and it's fitting then that maritime cooperation is such an important focus.

The Australian and Sri Lankan Navy’s have a strong and growing relationship, with joint exercises and officer training. We also have longstanding, close cooperation aimed at ending the scourge of people smuggling. It is a testament to our success, that there have been no illegal boat arrivals from Sri Lanka, since 2013.

Now, it's clear that Sri Lanka is making great strides to recover from years of terrible civil conflict. The Sri Lankan Government's reconciliation agenda is laying the groundwork for long-term, sustainable and inclusive peace. We're proud to play a small part in supporting this through our aid program, which assists with skills development, fostering market opportunities for small businesses and women's participation in the workforce. So I was pleased to witness today, with the Prime Minister, the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding on development cooperation, which sets out a framework for the program going ahead.

Our growing economic relationship reflects a new and aspiring Sri Lanka. Trade between Sri Lanka and Australia was worth around $1 billion last year, and is growing. Australian companies are investing in Sri Lanka, encouraged by the Prime Minister's government's economic reform agenda. In particular, I want to mention the large number of Australian education providers that are active in Sri Lanka, which are helping to make Sri Lanka an education hub for South Asia. Of course, Australia remains a popular destination for Sri Lankans to study abroad as well. There are some 7,500 Sri Lankans studying in Australia, and Prime Minister, we would welcome more. These students no doubt feel quite at home here, with some 130,000 Australians with Sri Lankan ancestry.

The Sri Lankan-Australian community has made an enormous contribution to Australia, the most successful multicultural society in the world. In fields as diverse as business, culture, education, law, medicine and sport, and they are part of the bedrock on which our bilateral relationship is built.

Now, I mentioned sport just now and we were also pleased to witness the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Sri Lanka and Australia, to strengthen cooperation in sport. This will see exchanges of athletes, coaches, managers, health professionals, sports scientists, as well as sharing of anti-doping technology.

Our close relationship and our many ties are only strengthened by our friendly competition on the cricket pitch, which we agreed was the only area in which we are rivalrous. It will be on full display tonight at the match between the Sri Lankan team and the Prime Minister's XI. I'm looking forward to hosting you, Prime Minister, for what will no doubt be an exciting match.

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

Prime Minister, thank you again for the invitation given to me and my delegation. I do have a problem that my delegation is full of officials, or full of cricketers, as I have two cricketers on the delegation. But that of itself, shows the friendship between Australia and Sri Lanka.

We signed two important agreements today, one on economic development but that was not complete without the one on sports.

Sri Lanka and Australia have shared a common past. There are many values we inherited from the British Empire to which we have added our own values. Australia today is one of the leading members of the Asia-Pacific region.

Sri Lanka has ended the war. Together with President Sirisena and his party, we have formed a national government, for healing, for reconciliation, for further deepening and strengthening the democratic structures, because now Sri Lanka has to look to the future. When we look to the future, we have no better friend than Australia. We have worked together, we have been together in the most difficult times, and have stood with us during the internal conflict in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's position as a strategic hub in the Indian Ocean has now been recognised and we seek to build on it, for business and for logistics, for manufacturing. Asia-Pacific is full of potential, of exciting ideas, and this is where the future lies. We are going to expand in these areas and I have been talking to the Prime Minister on closer cooperation between our two countries, and how we could, with similar-minded countries and other leaders, influence the outcome. We want peace, we want everyone to prosper and we want to ensure that secure navigation, lanes of shipping in our area.

So we look forward to Australia to gain some of the technology that is required to look at the prospects of coming to Sri Lanka, and investing and more than anything else, a very, very close relationship that will carry on for the next few decades. We can set an example of that close friendship, beyond cricket.

PRIME MINISTER:

Very good, thank you. Now, we are going to take three questions each and we will start with one of the Sri Lankan journalists here. So, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

Introduce yourself to the Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST:

Something regards from what you said. You mentioned that there haven’t been any Sri Lankan people coming from boats since 2013. Has there been a dialogue between the two governments to reconcile this matter completely?

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

We have been talking under the last government and this government when the State Minister for Defence was here, we are continuing. We don't want anyone to come from Sri Lanka, [inaudible] settled here in Sri Lanka. We are looking at investment to further develop Sri Lanka. There is no need for people to be coming here.

JOURNALIST:

What about people who have already gone and have been turned away and have been sent to these island camps? And there have been certain human rights allegations as well, violation allegations as well - what about those?

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

Well, they left Sri Lanka illegally. They are welcome to return to Sri Lanka and we won't prosecute them. So they can come back to Sri Lanka and we will have them. But remember, they broke the law in coming to Australia, attempting to come to Australia.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you, yes?

JOURNALIST:

Thank you, Prime Minister, and welcome to Australia. My question is on a similar vein. You say your country is healing, but those people did leave. They don't want to come back. They would rather remain in the camps for now. What's your message to your nationals?

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

Come back. All is forgiven.

JOURNALIST:

But is it safe to do so, sir?

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

Yes, yes, it is quite safe in Sri Lanka. We just started a Missing Persons Office. It is quite safe to come back. Some of them have gone from areas in which the conflict never took place. All of them are not even Tamils and even the TNA want all the Tamils to come back. We should not make a mess of ourselves like they've gone and done in Europe and the Middle East.

JOURNALIST:

Given some of the hostility in the Senate, don't you think it's time for the Government to simply write off the $13 billion in the so-called zombie savings that are yet to pass?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we are pressing ahead with our legislative agenda with the Senate - and I understand there is consideration of creating a Senate in Sri Lanka?

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

But we are learning from you, so we avoid the pitfalls, Prime Minister.

[Laughter]

PRIME MINISTER:

Very good. As part of the constitutional reform.

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, we respect the Senate, we respect the crossbenchers. We work with them to secure the passage of our legislation. I've stood out here, Prime Minister, on a few occasions in the past, and considerable scepticism has been shown by members of the Press Gallery about our ability to get measures through the Senate. And from time to time we've been successful. We will press on with our legislative agenda, and we may continue to surprise you.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, this is nothing compared to our [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Very good. Do we have another question? Perhaps from one of the Sri Lankan journalists? No, alright.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Wickremesinghe, can I just ask, when you took power, you criticised Mr Turnbull's predecessor, Tony Abbott, for essentially turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses that were committed by your predecessor, Mr Rajapaksa. The suggestion from you, sir, to The Australian was that they had turned a blind eye in order to secure cooperation on people smuggling. Sir, do you stand by those comments? Did the former Abbott government's stance on that issue cause damage to the relationship? Has the relationship improved since then and how?

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

Tony Abbott is known to me and we felt that there could have been more emphasis on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. Now, that’s over. We are back in power.

JOURNALIST:

So no long-term damage to the relationship?

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

No, there is not. Why am I here?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are old friends. Last time we met, we were in Opposition, each of us.

PRIME MINISTER WICKREMESINGHE:

Like when I was speaking with Tony Abbott, I was also speaking with Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister and Liberal Party and people were having contact. This is possible, I think within parties, to have differences of opinion.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Turnbull, do you agree with your Treasurer that taxes will need to be raised to fix the deficit and if so, which taxes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the point that the Treasurer is making is what my father-in-law would describe as a penetrating glimpse of the obvious which is that those who oppose savings measures, by definition are supporting tax increases - if you assume that they want to bring the Budget back into balance. So we've got to be very clear about this. We have a solemn obligation to the nation, to our children and our grandchildren, to live within our means. That means we have to continue the task of Budget repair.

So that's why we are calling on the Senate to support the savings measures, the really important reforms that we are proposing, which are going with the child care reforms, alone, as you all know, is going to make child care more affordable and more available for Australian families. It’s going to particularly benefit families on lower and lower-middle incomes. It is going to enable more mothers to stay in the workforce, to re-engage with the workforce. It is critically important. It is a big economic reform. It is a really big economic reform, and that's one of the ways in which we're demonstrating that we can make our social welfare spending more effective, so that it helps more people and provides more support, which of course is what it should be doing.

These are big reforms and we are urging the Senate and of course we should focus, too, on the Labor Party here. Again, I don't want to introduce an unduly partisan note with our visitor, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, but let's be quite clear about this.

You saw Mr Shorten this morning in what must have been a real triple-train-wreck of an interview. He was unable to say how the NDIS would be paid for. This is our big National Disability Insurance Scheme. He acknowledged that he had no way of paying for that. He acknowledged he had no idea what his reckless Renewable Energy Target would cost, or what its consequences would be. So he confirmed, precisely, the criticism that we've made about Mr Shorten - that he is literally clueless on this subject, mindless, just like South Australia has been. In other words, as the business leaders from South Australia said to me yesterday, South Australia is the canary in the coalmine, and it is. That's what will happen to Australia, if you get this same kind of ideological, mindless leadership on RET. Of course, when he was asked about schools funding and schools, how are you going to go about ensuring that, despite spending more money on schools, outcomes are deteriorating? - he had no answer to that either. So he is a man with many complaints, but no solutions.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, did you have any problem with the Treasurer linking the welfare cuts to the NDIS?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, what the Treasurer is doing is pointing out that the - the answer is no - but what the Treasurer is doing is again pointing out the critically important fact that this big program, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, this big program is currently short of money.

Labor left it unfunded. It was another Labor promise - which we all support, we all support the objective and the scheme - but we've got to find the money to pay for it. Now what we're seeking to do is to ensure, demonstrating, that as we make savings, we will be able to apply them to support that vitally important program.

The alternative, David, is just to pay for it with more debt. Everyone at least pays lip service to bringing the Budget back into balance. It is only my Government that is doing the hard yards, making the case to bring the Budget back into balance. Your commitment to the NDIS is not measured in words, it is measured in deeds. What we are doing is taking the steps, making the decisions, to ensure we've got the money to pay for it.

So on that note, thank you all very much. I'm sorry we've had a few questions on domestic matters, Prime Minister, but we've had a great meeting and we look forward to more discussions as we watch the cricket. May the best team win.

Thanks very much.

[ENDS]