Sydney Institute Address – Q&A

  • Transcript, E&OE
12 November 2019

GERARD HENDERSON: Many thanks to the Minister for a very comprehensive speech, and there are a lot of people here tonight and we've got to the top of the hour for questions and discussion. So I ask you to keep your questions or your comments short, like this one: Minister, you spoke about our strategic involvement in the region. You specifically mentioned boats. You mentioned overflights. As you know you, you are an Officer in the Reserve. What can you tell us about the relationship between the Australian Army and the various armies of the area?

ALEX HAWKE: Thanks Gerard. It's in very good shape. Often the deepest relationships that we have as a country are because of our defence cooperation program. For example in PNG it’s 40 years old. It's been the most regular contact and the most normalised contact, even in times when Australia might have shifted its focus slightly to other parts of the world in different decades, the Defence Cooperation Program remains strong and was enhanced throughout that period. I'll give you a good example. So, we take cadets from all the different militaries in the Pacific, whether it's Fiji or whether it's PNG, and we train them at Duntroon in our military academy. And just this year, I visited two cadets that stand out in different ways. One was the first female graduate into the PNG Defence Force. And of course as you know, and Gerard I know you understand this, one of the biggest challenges in the region is of course our attitudes towards women and girls. Domestic violence is still one of the biggest issues that we face and the challenges we're working with governments on. And it's a serious issue. So to meet her and to see her graduation as the first female officer into the PNG Defence Force that had passed through Duntroon was a great success.

The second cadet was from Fiji, and he was the first graduate of any Pacific country to come in the top five, which they rank every single year at Duntroon. So he had on merit graduated in the top five. He was fabulously popular, you know, with all of his peers here in Australia. And I think that underscores what we have been doing. Of course, I've asked CDF and the Defence Force to ensure that we have even more people coming through Duntroon. We'll be training more Pacific cadets. We'll be having greater use of those relationships.

And when I took Prime Minister Bainimarama to the staff college, and he addressed all of the officers at the staff college down there just a few months ago when he visited to sign the Vuvale Partnership, he had a function afterwards with the cadets. Some of them came from his class. And you know, he walked around the building, you know, he showed me exactly where they used to skive off as cadets and I learnt a little bit about Frank and what they used to do, those young officers. But the depth of the connection between his peers and the mates that he'd made, was as strong as you'd expect in any family or close relationship. And I think that underscores that Defence really has the best context.

Still, of course, you'll find the relationships between the head of the defence force in all of those countries and our own is constant, regularised and strong. And certainly for the first time we convene, the heads of Pacific Security in Australia in Brisbane, I addressed them. This the first time in the region we've brought in the head of every police force, the head of every defence force, and had them around the same table talking about the challenges for security in the region. All reports are that was a stunning success. Not my address, but I think the actual day-to-day contact that they had with each other; that was the first time anyone had ever gathered them together as a region, from a security perspective and a policing perspective, to address the issues. And that will now be an annual event. So I think the relationships are strong, they're deep; we're also making sure they're enhanced as we move forward.

QUESTION: Minister, whilst we're on the subject of defence, obviously the ANZUS Treaty is preeminent of Australia's multilateral or bilateral commitments. Has there ever been any consideration given to a multilateral Pacific-Australian defence treaty to complement the ANZUS pact?

ALEX HAWKE: Thank you. That's an interesting question. Obviously, our alliance with the US is the cornerstone of Australian security. It remains the view of this Government, and that Treaty is obviously one of our most significant and most important. Regional security relies on a few things. And our view is, of course, to secure and enhance the individual sovereignty of each single nation within the Pacific. And so, for us to sign a regional security treaty would require each of those sovereign nations to agree to that proposal. So you've suggested it. It's an interesting idea. Regional security may rely, well, one day on a regional security treaty, but we are not directly organising a multilateral regional treaty at this time. But of course, security, individual sovereignty allows for nations to talk about these things. It enables us to talk bilaterally, of course, as we do with each country about their security. And certainly we work one-on-one on security arrangements with countries. And it isn't unimaginable to think in the future that regional security will rely on some form of treaty or alliance. It's probably some time off. It's not something that has been talked about by Pacific leaders that I've spoken to. And listening to them, their security concerns day-to-day relate to how Australia and their country can partner together. But there's no doubt there's strong institutions in the Pacific and the Pacific Islands Forum is one of them. There are others. And certainly our Pacific heads of security is probably a start down a path to ensure we discuss and cooperate on issues like regional security into the future.

QUESTION: Minister, there were 11 words in your speech which stood out for me.

ALEX HAWKE: Wow, which ones? Let me look back over my notes.

[Laughter]

QUESTION: Okay, so competition for influence; security partner of choice; challenge the status quo. One C word in the three thousand words wasn't mentioned: China. How will China's foreign aid and soft power in the Pacific possibly force Australia to boost its foreign aid spending to keep influence among the Pacific nations?

ALEX HAWKE: Yeah. Well look, I did actually mention China in my speech and I can tell you what I said without looking at my notes. I said we do want to partner with China, and I mentioned- no, no. I disagree with that. I think we do have some cooperation in the Pacific with China and we have had it. If for example, China wants to help us and- like we do in our programs immunising hundreds and thousands of children in PNG, and literally Australia immunized as hundreds of thousands of children in Papua New Guinea against the most serious and difficult diseases, we'll certainly partner with them on that. If we can partner on good quality infrastructure we will.

Obviously, with the geostrategic environment we're in, the media often reports the entire Pacific region through the competition lens; the US versus China. Just within six months in a role, Pacific leaders, while they understand the region very well, they understand the geostrategic narrative that's been built, they understand their relationship where they are relative to China to the US, to us; they don't see it all about competition. The great thing about Australia's role in the region is that we are the long term partner; we're the trusted partner; we're the friend, we have the best relationship because we're genuine; Australians are good people; we deeply care; we're doing it not just for our own reasons, we're doing it because we believe in their mission to get better economic prosperity and improve quality of life in their countries, and we're the most reliable partner.

So I think we're the ones that are most turned to, and that's why we organise a lot of the partnerships ourselves. So, what are we doing? Well, it's so hard to outline what we're doing because — even just tonight is a small snapshot of it — but what we are doing is partnering with all of our allies. We partner greatly with US to bring them into the region. We're bringing in Japan more and more to build that infrastructure and do good work. We're doing it with New Zealand, we're doing with France, we're doing with the UK; we're engaging countries and we had many of them over in Tuvalu that I won't mention tonight but from other parts of Europe or other parts of the world because we think those partnerships, given the strategic time, people say the Pacific is more relevant, more important from all parts of the world than they have for a long time. And that is an opportunity as well as a difficulty.

And so our message is the same to China; if you want to partner with us, we'll partner with you. We'll help you build good quality infrastructure in partnership with us and other partners, and together we can do a lot. And it's the right message and it sends the right message to the Pacific as well. And while we understand the strategic competitive issues, and we're certainly grouped up by those, we also speak regularly with our partners in the Pacific about issues that affect their sovereignty, including their levels of debt; making sure that no nation in the Pacific is indebted to anyone whether it be a country, whether it be a state owned enterprise, whether it be a lending institution of anyone's country, in a way that is unsustainable. And those conversations I can tell you are working; they are very revved up by the fact that there have been some poor lending practices. There have been bad outcomes where countries who've been put into debt have received poor quality infrastructure, and therefore have an unsustainable level of debt to GDP ratios.

So again, Australia is the good actor; we're the good partner. We have to use all arms of our government to make sure we're helping and partnering. And that means of course being responsible in how we approach the Pacific; being responsible in our narrative; not looking at it through just a geostrategic competitive lens because one thing about the Pacific and the people is they shrewd people, they understand their own interests, they've seen actors from all around the world before, and if you're coming in to say here we are we're here to help, I back their ability to see through it.

Now, sure, we may be able to sometimes help with technical advice and assistance, but we certainly can't fool anyone about what we're doing. And if we're not genuine as a country about what we're doing, I think the relationships will be damaged.

QUESTION: Minister, Louise Waterhouse, Honorary Consul for the Kingdom of Tonga and have been for nearly 25 years. So I have to say, really, congratulations because in that long time I've been looking after Tonga, I've never seen such wonderful enthusiasm and across the board support for Tonga. And I think it's interesting the support we've had with the Australian football players going over and playing for Tonga turning their backs on a $100,000, paying for $3000.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: You've got to be brief.

QUESTION: Okay. So that's one of the things about the connection we have between Tonga and Australia. But what I wanted to say to you is I think that there are a lot of opportunities where we can help Tonga stand on its own two feet, and one of those is agriculture. Only 30 per cent of Tonga's …

UNNAMED SPEAKER: Okay. You got to be brief.

QUESTION: … land is cultivated, and we have the best soils and we need Australia's help to make that all happen. [Indistinct]

ALEX HAWKE: Thank you. That's an important point. So obviously, Tonga, I had the opportunity to visit under sad circumstances with the passing of Prime Minister Pohiva and you know, that was a real eye opener for me. He was one of the great statesman of the Pacific, been there for a long time; had the support of the people and really, I saw that in the whole funeral procession and the day and the great outpouring of grief, you know, while I was there so we sort of you know, really understand the nature of Tongan society and how it how it works together so- and you know, I was able to take our first Pacifica MP, Member of Parliament, in Australia. It's worth mentioning her Elizabeth Kikkert from Canberra. She's a MLC in Canberra; she's of Tongan descent. She is from a Tongan family; she had family all around there when we went there and I was able to take her as well, she is Australia's first person from the Pacific elected to Parliament in Australia, which is a great achievement.

You're right. Agriculture is important. In brief, I would just say it's something we're now bringing on. We've certainly started that conversation with other countries. We think agriculture has been a bit underdone in relation to our expertise; in using our expertise in discussions with countries. It's something that we continue to expand but I think your point is well made.

UNNAMED SPEAKER: Robert?

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Minister. We hear on the media about the criticism by Pacific countries in relation to climate change. We blame Australia for not doing enough. Could you comment on this?

ALEX HAWKE: Yes, certainly. I'd always start any question that's framed that way, by saying: don't believe everything you read or hear in the media but that's, I think, a well understood maxim in 2019. And being in Tuvalu for one week, a full week with the leaders, representing Australia before Prime Minister Morrison arrived, it was important for me to meet all those leaders; the ones I hadn't already met or had a relationship with already having been in Parliament a few years. And it was also important for me to listen very carefully to them about what they were really talking about and what was really important. And there's a great difference between what is reported about what happens in many of these forums and what actually is said and what actually goes on, and it isn't just a difference of factual reporting. It's a difference of, I think — the international media in particular puts an exceptional emphasis on the confrontation that we have over elements of climate change.

And yes, Prime Minister Morrison stood up very firmly against calls to close every coal mine in Australia. And he did so in the Australian national interest and he did so because those calls are not what the Paris Agreement calls for. Those calls are not what the international community has agreed to. So, no Australian Prime Minister could go to Tuvalu and sit with anybody from anywhere and say: I'm going to agree to the closure of every coal mine in Australia without having new baseload generation plans; without having you know, new technology plans to bring on new power.

So those things are obvious and yet the media sort of says: well, this has been a great epic clash of a confrontation. It's not the full story. We are the single biggest nation that spends money on climate change in the Pacific. We're going to be spending even more, a record-spend for the Australian Government, and we're helping them to deal with the practical impacts of change. We don't argue esoterically about what is happening with climate change, when you are in a low-lying atoll at Tuvalu where the highest elevation is one metre above sea level. That's the highest elevation. It's quite irrelevant what's causing sea level rises or waves coming over. We just want to help partner with them to make sure we can deal with it, that we can deliver things to help, and certainly help evacuate them to Fiji or other places where that might be needed if that's the case. And in a certain sense, all Pacific Islands, given their small landmasses, are always subject to the immediate impacts of any change in the world's climate. It has been the case historically, and will be the case for years to come.

So there's much agreement on climate, much agreement on action on climate change. We certainly stand up for our record on climate change as a country. We had, I think, over now a billion tonnes of carbon abated. We've met our Kyoto targets. We're going to meet our Paris targets. We're leading in renewables investment in many sectors in the world, and we're bringing that technology to Pacific islands. These things are all agreed on in conversations that we have. And then, of course, we disagree. Sometimes if I was being cynical, I would say the most difficult people to deal with in Pacific Island nations are not Pacific Islanders. They're not peoples who've come from the Pacific family. And what do I mean by that? Well, perhaps the difficult negotiators are actually expat Australians. They're actually expat New Zealanders. They are the people that were the most difficult for Australia to negotiate with at Tuvalu. They're the people that actually took the hardest line position against Australia. So we tend to find the process of getting together in the Pacific and having it out is a very Pacific thing to do and the leaders did it.

And yes, Australia stood up for its position, and I was in the leaders' forum the next day, where one of the Pacific Island leaders got up and said: I really respect Prime Minister Scott Morrison for the strength of his position, for the absolute respect for his standing up for his country, and for the agreement that was reached in the Kainaki II Declaration, which of course, was an agreement of every single country. Those things are not reported by the media. Those things are never reported, and again, when everybody flies out of Tuvalu — which they did — every single country, every single person, every single climate activist, the only people left behind is the Australian Post, The Australian development budget, the Australian Climate Change spend, and us. They're the only people that are there now.

So I think we're good actors. I think we can stand on our climate record here and overseas. And we're not sitting passively saying we've done enough. We're working with them to spend more and do more. So I think we're good actors, and I think we have a good partnership with them, that's certainly the feedback we get from them.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Whichever, one final brief question and brief reply.

QUESTION: Quick question. Thank you for that. Thank you. Quick question. France, you mentioned, France is a traditional maritime power in the Pacific. Could you comment on the activities between Australia and France in the Pacific and the apparent [indistinct] regulation, particularly in relation to the Navy and President Macron's visit not so long ago?

ALEX HAWKE: Yeah. Thank you, Robyn. Great question. We are partnering with France, and obviously France has still a vital and important role in the territories that it still administers and funds. And the security forces of France in the Pacific are some of the best. They are investing more in their navies in the Pacific, and our joint operations are being enhanced as well. We've had a joint operation recently with French naval forces, there are more planned. And President Macron and Prime Minister Morrison met, and where we increased some of our multilateral spends. President Macron not only just visited recently, but he's visiting again early next year, and they have agreed and they are engaged on also increasing their commitment to the Pacific and Pacific territories. And I think we're going to see more progress in that regard in the coming year. This is good, because the more partners and the more investment, the more actors, the more delivery in the Pacific, I think is the best approach. And so France is engaged and interested, and I think you'll see from early next year, next year will be an exciting year in the French-Australia Pacific engagement.

GERARD HENDERSON: Thanks Minister. Now, there are a lot of people here tonight, so I'll be brief. We could've gone all night, but we don't. We've finished on time and we're right on time. So many thanks for a very comprehensive analysis tonight. There's a very important paper, which we'll publish, and Sky News is here, and the podcast is active. But I'm sure lots of people will be looking at it. I have followed Australian foreign policy for half a century and more, and I'm not aware of any such concentration on the Pacific as has occurred under the Morrison government with you as the key minister, so congratulations on that and well done tonight in telling us what you are doing in the first year or so.

[Applause]

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