Key, Gillard get heroes' welcome to forum
Wed, 29 Aug 2012 5:01p.m.
By Laura McQuillan in Rarotonga
New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, grinning and wearing a tropical shirt, was one of the first leaders to arrive at the opening of the Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga on Tuesday evening (local time).
Visiting leaders were carried like heroes and the crowd even sang Waltzing Matilda for Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard as they were welcomed to the national auditorium on a pa'ata (raised platform) carried by Cook Islands warriors.
The ceremony was performed in front of thousands of excited locals.
Both leaders will hold bilateral talks with several Pacific leaders, along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose attendance was only confirmed on Tuesday morning.
Ms Gillard is expected to also meet with Nauru's President Sprent Dabwido and Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill on Tuesday, to discuss moves to reopen asylum-seeker processing centres in both countries.
Those moves will also be discussed between Ms Gillard and Mr Key when they have breakfast together on Wednesday.
Mr Key told media asylum seekers are a "sort of regional issue", with New Zealand's government also looking at legislation to deal with the potential arrival of a boat.
New Zealand has never had a boat load of asylum seekers arrive on its shores.
He says reopening processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island is "totally a decision for the Australian people and the Australian government".
Ms Gillard is facing questions about whether her government is on the same page as those of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, which want asylum seekers processed as quickly as possible.
Mr Key and Ms Gillard will also discuss Fiji, which remains suspended from the forum.
Both countries recently signalled thawing relations with discussions around restoring high commissioners to Fiji, 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.
Mr Key has signalled he will make an announcement on new aid initiatives for the region, while Ms Gillard is championing discussions on increasing gender equality in the Pacific, during the forum.
Both fly to a leaders' retreat on the island of Aitutaki on Wednesday, and return home on Friday.
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