Greg Jennett, ABC News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Pacific Island Forum unity, UNFCCC, Pacific Australian Labour Mobility Scheme.

Greg Jennett: Pat Conroy, thanks so much for joining us fresh from those talks in Suva.  After the dialogue discussion are you now more confident than you were before about Pacific Island Forum unity, or more specifically that Kiribati might agree to re-join? 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well the leader's dialogue had a lot of strong language around commitment to unity and the importance of a strong and united Pacific voice and that's a positive.  Importantly, several Micronesian leaders were very strong in the need to implement the Suva agreement and rebuild the architecture of the Pacific Islands Forum as the central architecture for the region. 

But I wouldn't say that I'm more optimistic about Kiribati re-joining.  I'm not more pessimistic but I think it's one where we just have to let Kiribati go through their paces, acknowledge that today is their national day and we all have to work hard to support Kiribati deciding to re-join the PIF, because Pacific unity is vital for our shared interest and I know that's what the Micronesian leaders have said and so has the Chair of the Forum, the Fiji Prime Minister, and that's something we're all working towards. 

Greg Jennett: The catch cry in these things collectively is always about finding consensus but what can Australia do through its own brand of quiet diplomacy directly with Kiribati, or other Micronesian countries but Kiribati right now, to entice them back into the fold? 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well we've been very clear that we will abide by the consensus that is reached at the PIF around how we restructure the PIF and acknowledge the tensions around subregional pacts and so forth. So I think that it's very important that Australia respects and is driven by the consensus. 

But you're absolutely right that we can support the process of talks.  For example, we flew several Micronesian leaders to Fiji in early June that led to the successful Suva agreement championed by Fiji Prime Minister Bainimarama.  So we're playing a facilitation role and we'll continue to do that, but I think it's important that its discussions led by Fiji as the Chair of the PIF and the other Micronesian leaders that are here that have supported the Suva agreement.  I think it would be counter productive for Australia to be too forward leaning in this area. 

Greg Jennett: In that sense do we discount announcements such as yesterday's $2 million additional assistance to help Kiribati through a period of drought, Australia's providing a very large desal plant for the capital of Tarawa, does that fit into this sort of regional diplomacy effort that's trying to be fermented here? 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well when I was asked about that earlier I made it very clear that that decision around that aid package is unconditional.  It's not conditional on Kiribati re-joining the PIF or anything like that.  We don't deliver aid like that.  We don't deliver aid with strings attached, unlike other countries that are interested in this region. 

That decision was made because of the very significant drought that Kiribati is facing, and it builds on the announcement of $600,000 of assistance we made a couple of weeks back.  So that is important work to make sure that there is drinking water in Kiribati. That's unrelated to the PIF issues.  It's just about us being the partner of choice for the Pacific region and supporting a country in need.  So I would be very careful and anxious quite frankly and separate those issues. 

We need to demonstrate to Kiribati that re-joining the PIF is in the interests of Kiribati and the region as a whole and we certainly won't be making conditional commitments like that. 

Greg Jennett: Okay.  Now on the role of China, it looms large over all of the discussions you're having there and that the Prime Minister will too.  Is it seeking to address forum members to the best of your knowledge over the next few days? 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I'm unaware of any specific overtures but the PIF led by the Secretary‑General Henry Puna and the Fijian Prime Minister as the Chair made a decision to not include dialogue partners in this PIF.  The focus was on concentrating on rebuilding PIF unity and so that's why the vast majority of the program, with limited exceptions such as the dialogue this morning with multilateral institutions, is focused on Pacific Island Forum leaders and Foreign Ministers talking to each other, working on how we can renew and energise the PIF architecture. 

Greg Jennett: So in what capacity then does the Vice President of the US Kamala Harris get to make some sort of pitch to members?  How does that fit into that picture? 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well as I said in my previous answer there are some limited and specific interventions that the Chair of the PIF has allowed and obviously that was a decision that Prime Minister Bainimarama made and so you'd have to go to the Fiji Government on why they did that.  But as I said there are limited exceptions to that focus but the overwhelming focus of the PIF is on rebuilding unity. 

Greg Jennett: Can I clarify Australia's position, Pat Conroy, on something that you addressed yesterday, this is the International Court of Justice having some involvement, maybe able to seek referrals on countries that don't meet their climate change obligations.  You seemed to support that yesterday, yet we were told on this program by former Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga that he's very worried about this.  No Pacific Island nation is a party to the ICJ.  Are you sure that Australia's backing the right horse here? 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well we're backing a process.  We're being very supportive of the Vanuatu Government's efforts to get a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly that would refer a number of questions to the International Court of Justice for their deliberations.  This is an important aspect of the climate change negotiations. 

We make it very clear that the UNFCCC negotiations is the primary focus for achieving climate action around the globe.  But we've been supportive of the process that Vanuatu has been pursuing to get the ICJ to look at the human rights implications of climate change and we're supportive of the process.  We haven't agreed on the resolution.  We're yet to see the questions that the Government of Vanuatu intends to put to the UN General Assembly, and we'll reserve our position until we see those questions, like every other nation.  No nation will support a resolution sight unseen. 

But I think it's important to note that there is unity in the PIF about the importance of this process and support for that was evident at the Foreign Ministers meeting I represented Australia at on Friday.  In fact I successfully got included in the communique a request for the Vanuatu Government when it decides on the resolution to include language around the ICJ looking at not just past major emitters but present and future major emitters as well, because it's very important that any questions that the ICJ looks at, looks at the contribution to climate change and the obligations on large emitters that are emitting right now or into the future. 

Greg Jennett: But do you see circumstances at the end game where they could be prosecuted, large emitters? 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well these are all hypotheticals and I think the Vanuatu Government has been very clear that any outcome from the International Court of Justice would be non‑binding on major countries.  It's an important process that we're supporting but we still think that the UNFCCC process is the most important process.  And look, this is just an example of where under the new Australian Government rather than stifling climate action, rather than trying to bully and intimidate Pacific countries to stop them talking about climate action, we're supporting their voice in multilateral forums because climate change is the number one security threat to the Pacific and we're very committed to being part of the solution rather than being part of the problem, which was evident under the last Coalition Government. 

Greg Jennett: All right.  Just finally, touching on domestic circumstances here.  I suppose, Pat Conroy, we do have a worker shortage in this country and your government has promised a visa shake up on several fronts that touch on Pacific Island nations, the Pacific Australian Labour Mobility Scheme, the permanent migration lottery.  Have you been able to provide any updates to Pacific leaders on when these schemes will start and satisfy them that you're not trying to plunder their own workforce for Australia's benefit? 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well we're actually consulting with Pacific leaders whenever we're talking to them at the PIF about those schemes and it's actually a really handy opportunity to really get their input into it to make sure that it is not a so‑called brain drain on those countries.  And I'm very confident that carefully constructed it doesn't have to be. 

This is a huge opportunity for both Australia and the Pacific if we can turbocharge these schemes.  For Australia it means we can fill labour shortages that are impacting in the country, particularly in rural and regional Australia, and it can deliver both strong remittance flows back to Pacific countries but also lead to skills development in Pacific nations.  One example of that right now is there's trials going on of using Pacific aged care workers in Australia in Northern Territory and Western Australia, and this is great because we've got a significant labour shortage there, and we'll be training those workers, so they come back to their home countries with really important skills for their countries. 

The issue of remittance flows is really important.  The average worker coming back from Australia would remit $6,500 at the end of their tenure and on average sends back around $2,000 every six months. And during the COVID crisis the Pacific workers who were still able to work in Australia and around the world really sustained their local economy.  So this is a really important measure that we're really committed to.  It stands in stark contrast to the last government that was more interested in doing dodgy deals with the National Party to get in workers from other places. 

We are very committed to working with our Pacific family to fill our labour shortages, then deliver strong remittances back to the Pacific and up skills their workers.  You've got to get the balance right, but those people-to-people links are really important in our relationship and it's something that other countries can't match, and so it's a huge advantage for us in this region. 

Greg Jennett: Sure.  And probably no better location to embark on those consultations than there at the PIF.  Pat Conroy, we'll let you go and do that.  Thanks for joining us today. 

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thanks Greg, have a great afternoon.


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