Greg Jennett, ABC News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: China and PNG in discussions over policing cooperation, bilateral security implementation package, Pacific Australia Labour Viability Scheme.
Dili, Timor-Leste

Greg Jennett: Now, Pacific Minister, Pat Conroy is currently on a swing through the region at present. He joined us a few moments ago via what we must admit is a very scratchy phone line from Dili in Timor‑Leste. We do apologise upfront for the quality, but we reckon the content's important enough, or hope it is, to bear with.

Pat Conroy, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. Now you are in Dili. We find you there this afternoon supporting police and security in that country. But at the same time in neighbouring Papua New Guinea, the Foreign Minister Tkatchenko there has revealed his country is in the early stages, his words, of negotiating a Chinese offer of a security assistance pact.

What exactly do you understand about its contents and its status?

Minister For International Development and The Pacific, Pat Conroy: Well, I should be very clear that we are Papua New Guinea's security partner of choice. We're very privileged to have that position, and we don't take it lightly, and I would say that my good friend, Foreign Minister Tkatchenko has clarified the reporting overnight, and it's made it very clear that Papua New Guinea will be sticking with its traditional security partners, which are principally Australia and the United States.

I'm happy to report that the Australia-PNG relationship is as strong as it's ever been at the moment. Anthony Albanese was the first foreign leader to address their Parliament last year and Prime Minister Marape will be the first Pacific leader to address our Parliament next Thursday. So our relationship goes from strength to strength.

Greg Jennett: I apologise to our audience for a somewhat scratchy line. We're certainly getting the thrust of what you're telling us there, Minister Conroy. But what is the practical effect of this clarification that Foreign Minister Tkatchenko has issued today? Does it mean, to the best of your knowledge, it will not, Papua New Guinea will not enter into any form of security relationship with China?

Minister Conroy: Well, that's a question best directed to Minister Tkatchenko and the Government of PNG. All I can say to you is just restate a couple of facts: one, we are the security partner of choice for Papua New Guinea, as established, as manifested through things such as the Bilateral Security Agreement, and Minister Tkatchenko was very clear that in his own words today, he will – Papua New Guinea will be sticking with our traditional partners, which means countries like Australia and United States.

But obviously, other countries may make offers of equipment and other things. That's up to governments in the region and around the world to make decisions, but all we can do is look at what's been done in the past, which is a Bilateral Security Agreement with Australia.

Greg Jennett: You seem to draw great comfort from that agreement. We discussed it with you the day it was signed here in Canberra back in December. But that would be cold comfort, wouldn't it, if in parallel with that Port Moresby did go ahead and enter into any form of agreement with Beijing.

Minister Conroy: Well, again, it's something that's dangerous for ministers to do, which is to engage in hypotheticals. All I can say is that Mr Tkatchenko has been very clear today that he is sticking with Australia, that Papua New Guinea is sticking with Australia.

So, in terms of the chronologies, he said yesterday that they received an offer or a request from that other country and that it was going through its processes. But he also said that PNG will be sticking with Australia and other traditional security partners.

So I think it's probably not very productive to get into hypotheticals about our future actions. What we can do is be the best partner of choice for Papua New Guinea right now, which involves the Bilateral Security Agreement, it involves Papua New Guinea workers working in Australia under the Pacific Australia Labour Viability Scheme that evolves our very strong support through our official development assistance, which is the highest to PNG of any country, and our great people‑to‑people links, and support for Rugby League in their aspirations to get a team into the National Rugby League will bring our people, our governments together.

Greg Jennett: All right. Well, let's not pursue hypotheticals. What about trying to ground, on a factual basis, options that might be available to the Marape Government? There are transparency clauses in Australia's security agreement with the PNG Government. Can you or will you invoke that to obtain an understanding of what might be in the offer made back in September last year by Beijing, and by extension to this question, will you be raising it directly with the Prime Minister when he visits Canberra next week?

Minister Conroy: Well, as a matter of course, the Albanese Government doesn't talk about what we're going to raise with other governments, we raise it with those foreign governments, and where it's appropriate we'll report back to Parliament and the people, but we always have ongoing discussions with Minister Tkatchenko and the Papua New Guinea Government. I'm in regular contact with Minister Tkatchenko as is Foreign Minister Wong. We'll be seeing Prime Minister Marape this week.

One of the questions that I'm always asking every government in the Pacific is how can we be and continue to be their security partner of choice, are there gaps in their security, are there things that we can do to assist them to protect their people to provide a stable and prosperous Pacific because we only have a stable and prosperous Australia if the region we live in is stable and prosperous. So they're the sort of questions that I ask every Pacific leader when I'm meeting with them or corresponding with them.

Greg Jennett: Now, the January riots in Port Moresby have been cited publicly by the Chinese leadership as cause for concern held on its part. Does Australia hold any suspicions, Pat Conroy, that Chinese interests might have fomented any of the unrest on the streets earlier this month, so as to perhaps limit the Marape or guide the Marape Government security options?

Minister Conroy: Oh, I'm not going to speculate about what caused that unrest. Obviously, the public reporting pointed to a glitch in the pay system that led to some police officers standing down and unfortunately, some elements taking advantage of that.

But I think if we return to the principles-based approach, which is the Marape Government has been very clear that they want to invest in their law and order, that they want to support their Police Force efforts to get more police in, to get more infrastructure, to do more training of those police officers, and we're committed to supporting that.

That's why we announced a $200 million Bilateral Security Agreement Implementation Package to train their police to invest in infrastructure to continue the excellent partnerships with the Australian Federal Police, and importantly establish a regional training centre in Papua New Guinea that would train Papua New Guinean police [indistinct] the Pacific as part of our efforts to have Pacific security provided by the Pacific.

So, I don't think it's productive to go down the regular talking, and I'm not in a position to comment on any of that. All I can say is we're an incredibly strong partner to PNG and the relationship has never been stronger.

Greg Jennett: All right. Look, Pat Conroy, we are stretching the capacity of the telecommunications links and networks in Timor‑Leste, so we won't go any longer, as fascinating though some of the developments in the Pacific are right now. Let's hold up further questions for your return here to Canberra and wish you safe onward travels to Nauru. Thanks for joining us.

Minister Conroy: Thanks Greg. Have a good day. Bye‑bye.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7840
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555