Greg Jennett, Afternoon briefing

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Deal to supply boxer vehicles to Germany, visit to Fiji and sporting diplomacy, banking in Nauru.

Greg Jennett: A military vehicle manufacturing deal has been sealed in Berlin that will see 100 German-designed armoured trucks built in Queensland, and then exported to Germany.

Defence Industry Minister, Pat Conroy is across that. He's also Pacific Minister, so we spoke to Pat Conroy about matters in both portfolios a short time ago.

Pat Conroy, you've got a bit on your plate at the moment with some impending travel in the Pacific. But why don't we start out in your Defence Industry role. Some developments in Germany overnight with final ratification of a deal that I think you've been working on for a good year now, this is Rheinmetall Boxer military vehicles. Give us an overview of what's involved with this deal, and its value.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Yeah, well, the German Parliament overnight has approved the largest Australian Defence export deal in the history of the country, and that's to supply 100 Boxer heavy weapons carriers, they're combat reconnaissance vehicles, to the German Army, built in Brisbane, supporting 600 jobs directly at the factory and hundreds through the supply chain, worth in excess of $1 billion. And it's an agreement that we've been working on for over a year.

I signed an agreement with my counterpart last year in March, Prime Minister Albanese visited Berlin and advocated for it. It's a great day for Australian workers, a Future Made in Australia, and our strategic partnership with Germany.

Greg Jennett: You used the word "built", I noticed that others have used the word "assemble", how much of it is genuinely Australian?

Minister Conroy: Well, there are very significant levels of local content in these. Beyond the 600 workers in the factory there are 300 Australian companies that supply parts for it, Nupress in my home electorate in Cardiff, Marand Engineering in Melbourne, BlueScope and Bisalloy work on the steel, so this is an Australian product, and we should be really proud.

We're selling one of the most advanced combat vehicles to Germany, and it's going to employ over 1,000 Australians directly and indirectly and contribute over a billion dollars to our balance of trade.

Greg Jennett: How long does it take to produce 100 of these? It sounds very finite, doesn't it, and what happens when that's done?

Minister Conroy: Well, production will start in ‘26, well first delivery in ‘26, with completion in 2030, so it's a four-year window. At the same time, the Rheinmetall facility in Brisbane is producing around 200 Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles for the Australian Army. So, we'll have lots of work going on there.

Rheinmetall also support over 3,000 Army trucks and trailers and other things. So, there's lots of work going on in that facility.

Greg Jennett: All right. So, it doesn't just cut out at 2030?

Minister Conroy: Well, the production run for Germany does.

Greg Jennett: Yeah.

Minister Conroy: But there's lots of other work that Rheinmetall is doing in that facility for the Australian Army, and The Australian Navy, for example, and so this is one part of keeping that production line running, it's a great capability and its great export dollars for Australia.

Greg Jennett: All right. You are going to head to Fiji for a few purposes there. On the military front, what's ‑ on the Defence side of things, I suppose, you've got your Pacific hat as well ‑ but what are you doing with Fiji on the military side?

Minister Conroy: Well, I'll be visiting Fiji tomorrow and Saturday, and I'll be visiting the Black Rock Army Camp. That's a really important institution that provides training for the Fijian Army, and potentially others in the region, and it's got huge amounts of humanitarian warehousing where we've positioned humanitarian supplies should there be a natural disaster, and it's a great example of a regional approach to Pacific security.

I was with Prime Minister Rabuka last week in Perth where we handed over the second Guardian Class Patrol Boat for Fiji, so our security relationship, part of our much bigger relationship with Fiji is going really well, and my visit will just be advancing it that little bit further.

Greg Jennett: All right. And not for the first time, you'll also be engaged in a bit of sporting diplomacy as well, this time with Rugby Union.

Minister Conroy: Absolutely, the Australian Government, through the Pacific AUS sports program supports the Fiji Drua and the Fijian Drua, men's and women's rugby teams in the Super Pacific Rugby comp and Prime Minister Rabuka has invited me to watch them play the Waratahs.

Sporting diplomacy is a key thing we've got going on in the Pacific. When I go to Fiji, the first question journos ask me is not about climate change or geopolitical competition, is that will we keep supporting the Drua? Their women's team have won the comp both years they've been in it, it's great for advancing gender equality and it's just a great story for our region.

Greg Jennett: The question might soon arise whether there'd be support for Australian teams, 'cause a few of those in the Super Rugby competition are finding it tough going financially.

Minister Conroy: Well, absolutely. I understand that. And in fact, when I made the sponsorship announcement of another four years late last year with Prime Minister Rabuka, it was a week after the Flying Fijians had beaten the Wallabies, so I was preparing for questions about why aren't we asking Fiji to support the Wallabies.

Greg Jennett: Well, exactly, that would be a valid question, I think, sometimes when you look at the score line.

Let’s move on to AUKUS, I suppose, with a question that regards Paul Keating. There's now stronger support of AUKUS around here than you, I think it's fair to say, Pat Conroy, you've even had to fight your own party at National Conference over it. That would pitch you against Paul Keating who has described it as the worst deal in all history.

Is the former Prime Minister acting against Australia's national interest in entering the Chinese Consulate in Sydney today at the invitation of Wang Yi?

Minister Conroy: Oh, look, from time to time former leaders will meet with diplomatic representatives from other countries. Former Prime Minister Keating's made a very strong contribution both as Prime Minister and Treasurer of this country, and in subsequent engagements, he's always got strong views about foreign policy. That's his right, and I respect it. I disagree with him on AUKUS, and us securing the most advanced submarine capability in the world, but he's entitled to his opinion, and I wouldn't read too much into it.

Greg Jennett: Is he playing into the Chinese delegation's hands by agreeing on this occasion in light of all those comments that have been put on the record before?

Minister Conroy: I think it would be a brave person to say that anyone influences Mr Keating in how he forms his opinions. He's entitled to them, and I respect his role as a former Prime Minister. We're getting on with the job of delivering AUKUS 'cause it's vital to our national security, delivering the most advanced submarines and other military capabilities in the world in a period where we're facing a strategic uncertainty. So that's our job as the Government.

Greg Jennett: Okay. Now another question with a Chinese focus to it. I think the last time we spoke to you, Pat Conroy, we did cover banking in Nauru. It's in peril, because the Bendigo Bank, the only bank from Australia, was due to wrap up at the end of this year.

Since we spoke Bendigo have agreed in Nauru to stay for an extra six months. Sounds like a bit of a stop-gap. And last week a Bank of China delegation visited President David Adeang to discuss banking there. Does this mean ‑ is this a statement of their intent, do you think, going there to talk to the President?

Minister Conroy: Oh, look, there's no doubt that lots of countries are interested in increasing their influence in the Pacific region. Banking is a critical challenge there, that's why we work very hard with Westpac to maintain their services in the Pacific.

President Adeang was out here a couple of weeks ago and met with Treasurer Jim Chalmers. We've made it very clear that we are supporting Nauru's efforts to find a replacement bank for the Bank of Bendigo when they finish their services there, and we'll keep working with them. We're proud to be the biggest development partner of Nauru, and we'll keep working hard with them.

Greg Jennett: So that sounds like a work in progress. It would have to be seamless though, wouldn't it; you wouldn't want to have a gap between Bendigo's departure in the middle of next year and the arrival of whoever the next operator might be. Isn't that an opportunity that would present itself to the Bank of China if there was a gap left?

Minister Conroy: Well, it's incredibly important that no one leaves Nauru unbanked, and that's why we're working on a solution. It's clear that countries who want to build their influence in the region look for vacuums to fill, and the Australian Government's working very hard to be the best development and security partner for the entire region, so there are no vacuums to fill.

Greg Jennett: And what would that involve, do you think? What ideas are being explored here? Is it effectively subsidising an Australian operation to maintain a presence there?

Minister Conroy: Oh, look, I don't want to go into those details, hypothetical as they are, about potential options. We're working with the Nauruan Government and we're working with the banking sector; importantly Prime Minister Albanese announced an agreement with President Biden to form a working group on supporting Pacific banking services through United States and Australia. So this is something where allies and like-minded countries are working hard together.

Greg Jennett: All right. Well, as ever, there's a bit going on in your dual portfolios at the moment, Pat Conroy. Really appreciate you finding some time for us on a sitting day, no less, to join us here in the studio.

Minister Conroy: My pleasure, Greg.

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