Doorstop interview with ABC Papua New Guinea correspondent Tim Swanston

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: US-Pacific Island Forum Dialogue, listening to Pacific priorities, US involvement in the Pacific, Australia PNG defence cooperation, Bilateral Security Treaty, amplifying Pacific voices.
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Well, it's a great privilege to represent Australia at the US-Pacific Island Forum Summit being held in Port Moresby today. My role here really is to listen and respond to the priorities of Pacific Island Leaders, noting that we've already made very significant advances in our relationships over the last year of the Albanese Labor Government. The Budget released only a few weeks ago announced a further $1.9 billion in policy support for the Pacific on top of the $1.9 billion of aid we're providing this year alone. So it's all about Australia turning up, listening and acting on the priorities of the Pacific.

Tim Swanston: The kind of, certainly the defence agreements we're likely to see as well as the compact, it's certainly a reinvigoration of the United States relationship here in the Pacific. What does Australia sort of make of that reinvigoration, and does it effectively make Australia's life a bit easier potentially?

Minister Conroy: Well, we welcome US involvement in the Pacific, and this has been going on for the length of the Biden Administration. I was at the Pacific Island Forum Leaders week last week ‑ last year, rather - where they announced a very significant increase in the Tuna Treaty which gives financial assistance to Pacific island nations to combat illegal fishing. And I know talking to Pacific island leaders that they really enjoyed the dialogue with President Biden at their summit in Washington last year. So we welcome US involvement in the Pacific. They are a Pacific nation, and it's a great thing to see.

Tim Swanston: The Defence Cooperation Agreement will lay the framework likely for the US capability in, you know, certain PNG assets. One of those could be the Lombrum Base, which of course Australia's got a really key stake in. Has Australia been involved in any discussions about US assets at Lombrum and what that might involve?

Minister Conroy: Well I haven't seen the details of the Defence Cooperation Agreement. I note that it's an extension of the Status of Forces Agreement that's been in existence since 1989. So we'll see the details when they come out but broadly it's a matter for the Governments of Papua New Guinea and the United States.

Tim Swanston: As Australia of course looks to shore up its security ties with Papua New Guinea with the Bilateral Security Treaty, of course it would be very mindful of the kind of defence arrangements here in the PNG. Is it mindful of the potentially increased US presence here in the region over the coming decade or so?

Minister Conroy: Well we’ve, as you've said, got close relationships with Papua New Guinea, and already very strong defence cooperation, with exchanges of soldiers from our respective armies each year. There are ADF personnel embedded over here in Papua New Guinea, and we're negotiating a Bilateral Security Treaty right now that will be very broad in its scope reflecting the Boe Declaration of a few years back. So, our security relationship with Papua New Guinea is very strong. What they do with the United States is a matter for them, but we've got a record of working with Papua New Guinea right now.

Tim Swanston: On our relationship, we're hurtling towards the June-July deadline for the Bilateral Security Treaty. How are those talks going at the moment, and are you confident we'll reach an agreement and likely a signing in the middle of the year?

Minister Conroy: Our negotiations have gone very well, and we're reaching close to finalisation, and it does really reflect the breadth of the Boe Declaration, which said that security isn't just about kinetic warfare, it's about climate change, it's about natural disasters, it's about the right of countries to exist peacefully alongside each other. So it's a broad treaty and it's being negotiated in good spirit, and I'm confident that we will reach closure quite soon. I spoke to both Prime Minister Marape and Deputy Prime Minister Rosso about it when I was here in April, and I'm very confident that it will get done.

Tim Swanston: Will you be holding any further talks on the sidelines or anything like that with Marape to, you know, lock in that timeline?

Minister Conroy: Oh, we'll always take opportunities to have conversations today, but progress is going very well between our officials, and I'm confident that we'll get it done quite quickly.

Tim Swanston: So fingers crossed, a visit by yourself or the Prime Minister in the coming months then?

Minister Conroy: Well, I won't speculate about the nature of the signing, but I'm very hopeful that we will stick to the goal of an agreement around the middle of the year.

Tim Swanston: And of course, the United States has reciprocated, you know, because Biden was unable to attend, saying that Pacific Island Leaders are welcome later in the year. Would Australia like to be involved in those talks, or would it likely be involved?

Minister Conroy: Well, we had Australian representation at the summit last year with Ambassador Sinodinos representing Australia, so we'll provide representation at the level that's appropriate. It's very important that in these conversations that the voices of the Pacific island nations are the strongest and at the forefront, and we've absolutely supported that. One of the priorities of the Albanese Labor Government is amplifying the voices of the Pacific in every forum possible, whether it's supporting Vanuatu’s efforts to get an International Court of Justice opinion on climate change or supporting the efforts of the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu to deal with rising sea levels affecting Exclusive Economic Zones. We're proud to amplify the voices of the Pacific, and we'll continue to do that.

Tim Swanston: That's great, Minister. Anything else you wanted to add?

Minister Conroy: No, I just think, I just make the point again that we're really proud to be supporting the Pacific, $1.9 billion announced in the budget on top of the $1.9 billion of aid that is going to the Pacific this year, which is a record amount. The Pacific are our closest neighbours and our closest friends, and we're deeply committed to building our relationships.

Tim Swanston: Thank you very much.

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