Greg Jennett, ABC News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Security deal with Papua New Guinea, Bilateral Security Agreement, Virginia-Class submarines.

Greg Jennett: Well, let's go straight away to that security deal just mentioned ever so briefly there, wrapped in words like "historic" and "legally‑binding". Australia has sharply escalated its security ties with Papua New Guinea. If a domestic security decline happens in PNG, Australian Federal Police could be more readily called upon to help. If a hostile third country threatened it, Australian Forces could more readily be called to protect it.

The Minister for the Pacific and Defence Industry, Pat Conroy, was involved in its negotiation, and he joins us live in the studio now. Welcome back to the program, Pat. So we've had Prime Minister Marape here, and Anthony Albanese, yes, using those terms; "historic", "comprehensive". Is PNG now an Australian protectorate?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Absolutely not. As Prime Minister Albanese said, we met and negotiated as two countries, the closest of neighbours, only four kilometres apart, but two equals. PNG's got a proud police force, a proud military, and we're privileged to work towards a closer partnership. This is a hugely significant security agreement that is much broader than traditional security, and it will advance the interests of both nations.

Greg Jennett: What’s the legally‑binding part of it? Who may seek penalties from whom in the event of a failure to uphold or fulfil?

Minister Conroy: Well, the entire agreement is legally binding. Unlike other countries, we released the entire text of the agreement when all was signed, and it's legally binding upon both governments. We've entered into obligations that we will fulfil as will the Papua New Guinean Government.

Greg Jennett: With consequences if they are not?

Minister Conroy: Well, it has treaty‑like powers and it's recognised as such under international laws. Most of our treaties internationally, interestingly, are called agreements for stylistic purposes and other reasons. So this is the equivalent of a treaty, and it is legally binding upon both parties.

Greg Jennett: I will take you through a couple of clauses or articles, as they're called, but just a practical element. With it comes a new package of support for the Royal PNG Constabulary, $200 million over four years. What will that do?

Minister Conroy: It's divided between a package of money that supports uplift of the police, so investment in more infrastructure and training for the Papua New Guinean police. They're trying to grow their police force from a bit over 5,000 to 10,000 over the next four or five years, so we're supporting them with infrastructure, a new training centre in Port Moresby that will not only train Papua New Guinean police, but Pacific police, if they're interested.

We are also supporting law and order, so investments in recruiting judges, forensic laboratories, corrective service, cyber, climate change action, initiatives against gender‑based violence. So it's a whole gamut of security uplift for our closest neighbour.

Greg Jennett: At any given time in the near term, how many more or how many in total AFP officers could be in PNG at any one time?

Minister Conroy: Well, AFP have an advisory role in Papua New Guinea right now, it's a very close policing partnership. What we're supporting is training of more Papua New Guineans, so uplifting from five to 10,000, but also supporting through our policing operation agreement. Papua New Guinea's efforts to hire police men and women from Australia and other Commonwealth countries to fill short‑term gaps in their middle management while they train those new police leaders.

So that is happening right now, and those first police will be on the ground quite shortly, I'm hopeful.

Greg Jennett: Okay. Can I take you to a clause or article that ensures no country, for example, China, could be a security partner on better terms with Papua New Guinea than Australia would be here. I won't read it out to the audience, but is this insurance against Port Moresby double dealing with nations like China against Australia's interests?

Minister Conroy: Well, this clause more directly refers to the treatment of foreign personnel in Papua New Guinea. So if our soldiers of the Australian Defence Force are deployed to Papua New Guinea, that clause guarantees us the same treatment as the best agreement they might have struck with another country. So it's making sure that us, as their closest security partner, get equal treatment to other partners.

Greg Jennett: Okay. Now coincidentally, the ABC's learnt that a number of senior police from across the Pacific region and diplomats will go to China as soon as tomorrow for consultations or training of some sort. Were you aware of this?

Minister Conroy: I was aware that there was an initiative like that in the pipeline. It's very important that countries will obviously partner with whoever they want around their security needs. We are really privileged to be the security partner of choice for most Pacific countries, if not all of them, and today's Bilateral Security Agreement signing is a symbol of that, as is our strong support for security around the Pacific Games where the largest contingent of operational security was provided by Australia. So we are proud to be the security partner of choice.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, partner of choice from Australia's point of view, to most, if not all Pacific Nations. But invitations like this, programs like this being run by Beijing must prove to you that China is still actively seeking its own predominant security role in the Pacific.

Minister Conroy: Well, there's no point denying that there isn't geostrategic competition in the region, that would be an insult to your viewers, Greg, but the key thing is, we don't say we're the security partner of choice, the Pacific says that, and we act on that, and we fulfil the commitments given through the Pacific Island Forum Leaders communique, which says if there's a gap in security in a Pacific country, they should ask other Pacific countries first to fill them, and we stand ready to fill those gaps, as we've done with Papua New Guinea, as we've done with the Solomon Islands, as we'll continue to do around the region.

Greg Jennett: Okay. Can I take you to another article, I think it's called Article 5, which is at the extreme end of the threat spectrum. "In the event of an external armed attack on either party, the party shall consult for the purpose of deciding what measures should be taken either together or separately. "Consult" doesn't actually impose any obligations, does it?

Minister Conroy: Well, that language ‑ it's interesting you pointed that out ‑ that language is very similar to the obligation under the ANZUS Alliance we have with the United States and New Zealand, so I would argue that's very strong language that implies a shared security future for both countries.

Importantly, the clause before that also says that if there's a major security development in the region as a whole, one party may request to talk to the other to work on a shared approach to that security challenge.

So this agreement, and particularly that clause is about recognising that Australia's security and prosperity depends upon PNG's security and prosperity and vice versa. PNG's four kilometres away from Australia, you could swim to PNG if you weren't worried about crocodiles, and our security future is entwined with theirs.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, I heard the Prime Minister suggesting you could swim there, and I shuddered a little.

Minister Conroy: That's why I put that caveat in.

Greg Jennett: It shouldn't be advised, yeah, definitely. Last question on the PNG security matter. Does it oblige Australia to share highly sensitive and protected intelligence information which wouldn't currently be shared with that neighbour?

Minister Conroy: I'm not aware of a clause that goes to that particular issue. This is a partnership of equals; it's focused on how we support each other's security. Importantly, it's much broader than purely defence or policing, it covers things like climate change, gender‑based violence, natural disaster, cyber threats. This is the broadest security agreement I think we've ever done in the Pacific in terms of breadth of issues, and it just demonstrates the Albanese labor Government's commitment to supporting our Pacific brothers and sisters.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, I think there were articles though, weren't there, on sharing security information, which may or may not extend to intelligence.

Minister Conroy: Yeah, I think we'll share information obviously, but the level of that will be dependent upon the circumstances and the details of the clause.

Greg Jennett: All right. Now crossing over from your Pacific to your Defence Industry portfolio, AUKUS, word is coming out of Washington DC that there might have been something of a political breakthrough there. What's your understanding of the proposed laws in the US that would enable the sale of up to three or more Virginia‑Class submarines to Australia; does it look more certain now?

Minister Conroy: It certainly looks more positive. We've seen the reports overnight that negotiations around their National Defence Authorisation Act are advancing well with an intention of attaching three AUKUS‑related pieces of legislation to that bill. That would allow the transfer of the submarines, it would our Australian companies to be involved in the supply chain for America's Virginia‑Class submarines so we can get experience building submarines and contribute to their supply chain gaps.

So it's very positive news. I'm very confident the legislation will get through, and that the next step in the milestone of advancing of our national security by acquiring a nuclear powered, but conventionally armed submarines will be there very shortly.

Greg Jennett: It does seem to be a positive move. Does it decouple from the US's point of view a funding package for its industrial base, that is more submarine production within America, decouple that from the three pieces of legislation that you just ran through there?

Minister Conroy: Well, we're still getting information on the details. Importantly, the United States has already put in billions of dollars to uplift their industrial base. They've moved from 60 per cent availability to almost 70 per cent availability of their submarines, and they're getting closer to producing two Virginia‑Class submarines a year, which is critical to them being able to sell up to three submarines, or two in service and up to three new‑build submarines to us.

That is critical. We're confident they're making those investments 'cause it's critical to their national security, and it's critical to our alliance that we keep building our partnerships.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, I expect we might get further reports out of the US explaining exactly what has happened there in the last 24 hours or so. Pat Conroy, I'm going to thank you and farewell you. I think there might be bells ringing in the Parliament before too long, and in saying farewell, thank you for your involvement/participation with this program throughout the year.

Minister Conroy: My pleasure. Have a safe and happy Christmas.

Greg Jennett: You too.

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