Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
ACTU president Ged Kearney
KEARNEY: He seems to be very loose with the facts actually about the leadup to the delegation. We wrote to the Attorney General following a press release that he put out saying that the Australian Trade Union should come to Fiji and see on the ground, and we accepted his invitation and said certainly we would like to come. He made it very clear in a letter sent back to us, that he did not intend to meet with us and we wrote back and said well that's disappointing, we would be there for two days. In those two days we would very much like to meet with you and indeed the Commodore. So we made every effort we think to actually meet with the Attorney General. He mades some fairly spurious allegations about us, insisting on flying business class, which is just simply a lie, it's a complete untruth, which is rather strange for him to do that. But further to the point on the ground he talked a lot about us having made up our mind before we went and that we would have a closed mind to the discussions and the negotiations. Now he makes out that we're operating in a bit of a vacuum, we have to remember that the ILO sent a mission to Fiji and found serious violations of human rights and trade union rights, and indeed the Asia Pacific body of the ILO passed a resolution calling on the Fijian government to actually restore human rights and trade union rights in Fiji. Now the ILO is of course a body that represents governments, so these are all the governments in the Asia Pacific region passed that resolution as well as employers, so business groups and trade unions. So it's not as if that we just woke up one morning and said oh we think we'll go and give Fiji a hard time. These are very serious allegations of human rights abuses occurring right now in Fiji, and the Australian Trade Union movement know that in particular these violations have actually been targetted at trade union officials who've been put in jail, they've been imprisoned, they've been harrassed. Now for the Attorney General to say that trade unions are operating freely and without hinderance in Fiji is just untrue, that is simply not the case, and as I said even the ILO know that that's the case and have said so. So I find it extraordinary that he's trying to make out that our actions were unfounded and that we were actually going there to cause mischief. We were going there to speak with him, we were going there to speak with community groups, we were going there to speak with trade union groups. And what he has shown the world in fact is that Fiji is run by a military dictatorship who simply because you might disagree with or you might like to have a difficult conversation with him about things that are happening in Fiji they can simply refuse you entry. There was no legal grounds whatsoever for him to refuse our delegation entry to Fiji.
COUTTS: Well let's get down to the tin tacks and the practicalities of it, you got off the flight, you arrived in Nadi, what happened then?
KEARNEY: Well we went to customs with our passports whereby we were hauled aside from the customs desks. They took our passports. At that stage I got a little bit nervous because nobody had said any reason why we weren't allowed through, they just stood us aside. And they then asked for our telephone, they confiscated our telephones, we made repeated requests to at least be able to make a call even from one of their landlines to the Australian authorities, and that was refused. We weren't allowed to call the High Commission there, and nor were we allowed to simply let people who were waiting on the other side of the airport know where we were or indeed let our families and friends know that we were ok. We were then detained I guess in one area of the airport where they insisted on putting us on a return flight back to Sydney. It was a very difficult process actually that process because they insisted that we pay for the flights back, which of course we'd already paid for the return ticket, so we tried to transfer tickets and then there was a conversation and negotiations about indeed who was going to pay for the tickets that I paid for my own ticket and my comrades' ticket, my delegates' ticket from the ACTU, but the others weren't so lucky, they had to pay full fare tickets back because their tickets didn't match up, it was a different airline, etc. So there was some negotiation about how indeed we'd get home. So at the end of the day we were just put on a plane and sent straight back. The military was there, the police were there and immigration were there.
COUTTS: And police and military, how many in number?
KEARNEY: There was an immigration gentleman, there were a couple of policemen, and at one stage I think we saw three military personnel. But there was no, I have to say, there was no physical force, there were no people with guns etc., at no time did we ever feel that our personal safety was really threatened.
COUTTS: How much time did this take and where were you? Were you in a holding room or were you just standing around at the immigration counter?
KEARNEY: We were standing around at sort of like a partitioned area in the customs area. There was a wall that we were kind of standing behind, but it was quite open to the rest of the tourists and things. And at one stage there was a very bizarre situation where a plane arrived and tourists were getting off and ukuleles were playing and people were singing Pacific songs, and on the other side of the partition was our delegation who were feeling very anxious and somewhat worried about what was going to happen and a very tense situation, so it was quite a surreal situation.
COUTTS: How much time between you setting foot on Fiji soil and setting foot on your return flight?
KEARNEY: We were actually in the air about three hours, the turnaround it was a very frustrating process really because we kept asking on what grounds we were being turned away, we were asking to have some representation to come and help us work the legalities through the situation. We were constantly asking questions but we were never afforded any responses. We were told constantly that the order had come from way up that we had to go back, and I asked specifically who gave that idea, and again I wasn't told until I said was it the Attorney General or was it the Commodore? And they said both. The immigration people were constantly on the phone, they didn't have the phone away from their ears really the whole time, and we weren't offered any drinks. It was a strange process really. We knew that our colleagues were on the other side waiting for us to come through, we couldn't contact anyone. And eventually the plane they wanted us to go back on was held up for about an hour waiting for us, they were so insistent that we go back on that plane. But it's really distressing because the only thing that they sent us home for or they turned us around was because number one, yes we had views, we had views that may have been different to the regime about what's happening in Fiji, but in a democratic society one is allowed to have a viewpoint, and this is exactly our point about Fiji, that this dictatorship there is no free media, you are not allowed to freely assembly or meet without the authority agreeing, there are severe human rights violations occurring in Fiji, trade unionists are being imprisoned and harassed. The workers do not have any rights to organise or to actually negotiate free and open enterprise bargaining agreements, in fact they've had many rights taken away. And this is a military regime, this is a military dictatorship that simply because you disagree with them they have a right to turn you around and send you away. We haven't even said we actually disagree with them, we wanted to speak with them. Nevertheless they have obviously got something to hide, they have obviously got a whole range of issues that they did not want us to be privy to or to see, and that makes me very suspicious. And we want Australians to know that Fiji is not the island paradise that they think it is.
COUTTS: Well a bit of an extract from a Ministry of Information press release, it says the continued persistence by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the ACTU, to enter the country despite the Fiji government's decision to deny entry to the union officials, was well orchestrated, even to the point of union officials arriving in the country with a journalist, that journalist was ABC journalist Jeff Waters. Is this grandstanding on your part, did you want it documented and that's why the ABC journalist was with you?
KEARNEY: We actually did want it documented because we wanted Australians to know exactly what I said, that this is a military regime, it is not a free democracy and that the people of Fiji are actually suffering to a large extent under this regime.
COUTTS: But I guess my question is knowing that it was on the cards, 99.9 per cent sure that you would be turned around and going back, so you wouldn't be negotiating, you wouldn't be talking with them, was that the best approach at this time?
KEARNEY: Well we did write to the Attorney General before we left. At no point did the Attorney General officially tell us that we would not be welcome. We only had a press conference, we had press releases, there was no courtesy to actually write to us and say that he would refuse to meet with us or that we weren't allowed into the country. And we repeatedly asked for official notice of that. Before we went we wrote to him and said we are coming, we are still coming please we would like to meet with you. And the tone of our letter certainly wasn't as he suggests. So at that point we're insistent on going. And the other thing you have to remember is that the Fijian Trade Union asked us to come