Interview with ABC News Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s cross-party delegation to the Pacific, Pacific Labour Scheme, China in the Pacific

Lisa Millar: Well, the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, is this week leading a cross-party delegation to the Pacific to demonstrate Australia's commitment to the region. On the trip is Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, who joins us now from Vanuatu. Minister, good morning. Just how critical is this trip to the relationship between the Pacific Nations and Australia?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, good morning, Lisa and this trip is indeed critical to our relationship with our Pacific neighbours, the Pacific family. And it's incredibly important to demonstrate to the people and the governments of the Pacific that no matter who is in power in Australia, that they have a close and abiding friend. And that's why Penny Wong, as the Foreign Minister and myself, as the Pacific Minister, are travelling to Vanuatu and on to two other nations with Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, and Michael McCormack, the Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific. It's essential that the governments of the Pacific understand that they will always have a friend in Australia, someone who will be a development partner and someone who will work closely for a peaceful and prosperous Pacific.

Lisa Millar: Yeah, so without saying, you talk about a friend, but of course this is all about the fact that China has been putting itself up as a friend. And after the arrangement that was made with Solomon Islands, the great fear was that Vanuatu would do the same. How confident are you in the assertions from Vanuatu officials, government that they won't go down that same track with China?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, these trips actually began during the Rudd-Gillard era, and they continued when Julie Bishop was Foreign Minister. There was a short pause and they're coming back again, so they shouldn't be seen in the context of competition with other countries. I've been very clear that the Pacific is grappling with the three C's of COVID, climate and competition and we have to be very honest about that. And we've had some very productive conversations with the government of Vanuatu. I was here only three weeks ago where I met with Prime Minister Kalsakau and we had a great conversation about security relationships and our economic relationship. We are the biggest development partner for Vanuatu. 10% of the Vanuatu economy is remittances from Vanuatu workers, the Vanuatu workers working in Australia. So our relationship is very close.

Lisa Millar: Yeah. Okay, so a couple of things. You've raised the workers, so I'll just pick you up on that because the officials have said that this is one of the things they're not happy with, the Pacific Labour Scheme, believing that it separates families for too long and it erodes cultural identities. What are you going to do about that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we're working to improve this scheme. This scheme is vital for filling labour shortages in Australia and it's vital for the economic development of Vanuatu. It is, as I said, 10% of Vanuatu GDP. This year alone. It's just under $150,000,000 in remittances coming back to the Vanuatu economy, but we recognise that there is a hardship on some workers. For example, we took to the election a policy of starting a trial of long-term workers bringing their families to Australia so that they don't have that family separation. That trial will begin shortly and that will really inform how we can improve the scheme further. But this is a scheme that is helping our labour shortages, delivering huge economic remittances back to Pacific countries and upskilling those workers. They come back with skills. I met a couple of returned Solomon Islands workers, Gerard and Joseph, who are starting businesses in Honiara right now, based on the skills they developed in Australia.

Lisa Millar: Yeah, and look, I know you're dancing around it with the way you're discussing China, but the reality is today one of the duties of the Australian delegation is to be having the formal handover ceremony of a newly refurbished wharf. And we knew that China was looking at building a port in Vanuatu. So, I mean, level with us, it is about China.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I've been very open with you that we're dealing with the three C's in the Pacific, and that includes geostrategic competition. There's never been a time where more powers are interested in being in the Pacific, but one of the key findings for the Pacific Islands Forum was that Pacific nations should look to the Pacific family first for their security needs and Australia is a proud member of the Pacific family. And that wharf you mentioned that we're opening today is to support the Guardian class patrol boats, a $2.1 billion program that's part of our maritime security programme. That builds on the Pacific patrol boats that we actually partnered with the Pacific in. So our security relationships with the Pacific and Vanuatu, for example, have been for over the 50 or 60 years. And that will continue. So, yes, there is competition in the region. I'm not denying that we're being very open about that. But in Australia, the nations and governments of the Pacific and the people of the Pacific will always have an enduring partner, no matter who's in power. And we are committed to advancing peace and prosperity in the Pacific.

Lisa Millar: Minister Pat Conroy, thank you for joining us.

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