Greg Jennett, Afternoon briefing

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-PNG relationship, surface fleet review

Greg Jennett: Well, not too many announcements or new undertakings were made around what was largely a ceremonial visit. There was one, though. Pacific Minister Pat Conroy had the visiting Prime Minister around to his office to further support a PNG rugby league in its quest one day to get a top level professional team into the National Rugby League here, Australia.

Minister Pat Conroy: Prime Minister, on the event of us providing four years more funding for the mighty PNG Hunters in the Queensland Cup and to fund a female rugby league competition in Papua New Guinea, it's my delight to present you with a signed Maroons jersey.

James Marape: Thank you. Thank you, brother.

Pat Conroy: Thank you very much.

James Marape: Sincerely appreciate all the help and rugby league is not just a sport for us, but it's a national unifying program and I want to appreciate Australian Governments for continuous support and thank you very much, my brother Pat. Thank you. Thank you.

Pat Conroy: Thank you.

Greg Jennett: Well, straight from Question Time and his little dabble in rugby league diplomacy, Pacific and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy came and joined us right here in the studio. Pat Conroy, I'm glad you could join us here in the studio. It's been a rather hectic day, I suppose you could say a red letter day for the celebration of Australia-PNG relations. You've come directly from Question Time and before that, as we just saw, making an announcement of soft power involving the hard men and women of rugby league. Just explain to us what you've announced.

Pat Conroy: Well, today I announced with Prime Minister Marape an extension of our relationship through the Queensland Rugby League with the PNG Hunters team that plays in the Queensland State Cup. They've been really successful in that competition. We also announced that the Australian Government will fund a women's rugby league competition in PNG. This is essential for a couple of reasons. One, it's to prepare them for perhaps having an NRL women's side in the future. And secondly, it's about advancing gender equality in a country where that can be challenging at times. Rugby league really is a vehicle for gender equality in Papua New Guinea and I know some people may find that a bit challenging, but they've had some powerful lessons up there.

Greg Jennett: And so many people love and play the sport, so transporting and accommodating teams internationally or even domestically is expensive business. Is there a dollar figure on this commitment?

Pat Conroy: There is a dollar figure, but it's commercial in confidence because it's been negotiated with the Queensland Rugby League. It does offer value for money. As you said, rugby league unites our two countries. It is a national religion in Papua New Guinea and it brings us together, and those people to people connections are critical if we are to be the partner of choice for Papua New Guinea and in fact the entire Pacific.

Greg Jennett: We'll get to that broader relationship. One more on the rugby league side of it, though. Does this accelerate in any way the anticipated timeline towards a PNG full franchise within the National Rugby League?

Pat Conroy: Well, this is all about laying the groundwork. I announced in PNG last year five and a half million dollars to develop a player centre of excellence. PNG has kids playing on every street corner. What they've lacked is those pipeways- those pathways into high performance, from a twelve year old gifted kid to an 18 year old first grader. And all this funding is about developing those pipelines. So, if they are successful in getting that NRL franchise that they can hit the ground running and be successful from day one.

Greg Jennett: All right, every bit helps. Let's move to the rest of the visit. Have you taken the opportunity or others within the government today taken the opportunity to address a matter that we last discussed when you were in Dili very recently, China's offer of police and security support to Papua New Guinea? Has that been addressed with Prime Minister Marape today?

Pat Conroy: Well, as a rule, I don't refer to confidential discussions we have with other governments, but I'll point you to two public statements, one from Prime Minister Marape today in his historic address to parliament where he said Australia and Papua New Guinea are family. And secondly to Foreign Minister Tkatchenko’s statements two days ago after he met with myself and Foreign Minister Wong, where he said that Papua New Guinea would be working with its traditional partners, being Australia, United States, and would not be doing a security agreement with China. So, their public commentary from the Papua New Guinean government.

Greg Jennett: What about our own bilateral security agreement with Papua New Guinea? It's a matter of record that there is some political turbulence at home surrounding Prime Minister Marape perhaps facing a no confidence motion as early as next week. Would Australia consider any request for security assistance that stemmed from potential domestic political disturbances?

Pat Conroy: Well, I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals such as that, but I can say Australia is the primary security partner for Papua New Guinea. We've got strong policing cooperation already with Papua New Guinea. We announced a 200 million dollar implementation package as part of the bilateral security agreement, which involves more support for police training, a regional police training centre in Port Moresby and more infrastructure such as Police Barracks. And we provided some assistance around their January disturbances, particularly around AFP advisors and ADF cooperation to help transport police into Port Moresby. We stand ready to support their security needs, but I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals along those lines.

Greg Jennett: Okay. What steps are being taken around either the strengthening of ties today or through diplomatic channels to make sure that this momentum might withstand? Potentially, and yes, to use your word, hypothetically, any change of leadership in the political sphere in PNG?

Pat Conroy: Well, my job and the job of the Albanese Labor government is now to implement what we've agreed to. We've got to get the bilateral security agreement ratified through parliament through the treaties process and get the implementation package flowing through. Prime Minister Marape has made it clear that his two highest priorities are growing the Papua New Guinea economy and developing a stronger policing and security sector. And we're supporting that through resources and our job now is to get them into Port Moresby to support the work the Australian Federal Police is already doing up there so that we help their aspirations.

Greg Jennett: We'd be very keen to track progress on that through with you as it develops. Just at the risk of spinning your head on a day that's very much about the Pacific, I'll slip one in about defence industry, Pat Conroy. Richard Marles was on our program yesterday and told us that the surface ship review is coming very soon. We understand within a week or so. Offshore patrol vessels are of great concern to you. As recently as December, you vowed to get the Arafura-class back on track. Is remediating those ships, including ones not yet built, still a priority for you?

Pat Conroy: Well, with all the projects of concern process, the focus is on remediating projects and delivering the capability that the Australian Defence Force needs. It's very true that we inherited a very troubled project, one of the 28 projects under Peter Dutton that were running 97 years late and $66.5 billion over budget. We're working through how to remediate that project. We're the only government that's committed to continuous naval shipbuilding, not just in South Australia, but in Western Australia. We'll deliver on that commitment. That's not just good for jobs, that's good for providing a shipbuilding sector that's there for when the navy needs it.

Greg Jennett: All right, much more, I'd love to ask you about surface ship review. We'll get to that on a future occasion. But again, just to thank you on what I know has been a very busy day. Pat Conroy, thanks for joining us.

Pat Conroy: Thanks, Greg.

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