Interview with Anasiu Falekaono, Tonga Broadcasting Commission

  • Transcript, E&OE

Anasiu Falekaono, Tonga Broadcasting Commission:  Good evening and a very warm welcome to this special program with the Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, the Honourable Pat Conroy, and welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga. It is clear that Australia is stepping up with its assistance in the Pacific since mid-year and can you please brief us with the latest update on Australia's assistance to the Pacific - specifically Tonga?

Minister Conroy: Well, thank you very much for having me. It's a great joy to be here in the Kingdom and to further our relations. And we're really committed to being a partner of choice for the Kingdom of Tonga, and that includes obviously foreign aid. And this year alone we'll be providing $73 million of foreign aid, $30 million in budget support that I signed yesterday, $43 million of other forms of aid. But, importantly, that's just one part of our relationship with the Pacific that really supports all our countries.

The Pacific Labour Scheme is generating about $400 million of remittances back to the Pacific each year. Our support for maritime security through anti-piracy controls, anti-fishing poaching controls, our defence cooperation with His Majesty's armed force is another example, as is our Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy to support Pacific journalism. All of this is designed to really empower the Pacific and act on the priorities of the Pacific family.

Falekaono: I understand this is your first time here in Tonga. So, since you were here yesterday and you held meetings with government officials, what do you think that Tonga and Australia need to do to foster its relationship?

Minister Conroy: Well, I think the most critical thing is Australia listening to the priorities of the government and people of Tonga. So far, I've heard some very strong messages about pandemic economic recovery, dealing with the impact of that, supporting the growth of tourism, for example, in Tonga, is a critical path forward. Also dealing with the increasing number of unfortunate natural disasters and humanitarian relief. Yesterday I took the Deputy Prime Minister and the Lord Speaker on a tour of the Australian Defence Vessel Reliant, which is our new disaster relief vessel, which is just one example of how we're partnering. Because unfortunately disasters are becoming more common in the Pacific, and Tonga's on the frontline of that. Australia as a proud member of the Pacific family is committed to being there when it matters.

Falekaono: You mentioned about the word ‘listen'. I've read and heard about it, how the new Government of Australia now is willing to listen to the Pacific islands and Tonga. So why now?

Minister Conroy: Why now? Well, I think the operative phrase in that sentence is the new government. We have a new government. I come from the Labor Party, and we've got a very strong commitment to empowering the Pacific and a very strong history of policies to support the Pacific. And it's something that we have a fundamental moral obligation to do. We're a member of the Pacific family and that means helping other members of the family when they ask for help on things like economic development, on investing in the health and education of the people of Tonga, supporting gender empowerment, helping with infrastructure. We're committed to this. It's in our DNA, and it's something that we're proud to do.

Falekaono: You mentioned about the Pacific family, Australia's relationship with the Pacific and Tonga is included. One of the new issues we've raised with the Foreign Minister when she visited Tonga earlier this year was about a difficulty and challenge that the Tongan people face when they travel overseas for their studies. It's for the tuition fees. It's quite expensive for students around the Pacific to cater to these tuition fees. So is there any chance that Australia could assist with that?

Minister Conroy: I recognise that this is a very significant issue in Tonga and throughout the Pacific. In fact, I first met the Tongan Prime Minister in - it would have been late June - and it was the first issue he raised with me. I know it's an issue. We've got the Australia Awards which are scholarships to support study in Australia. We recognise that there's a huge demand to do more and, look, it's something I'm really committed to looking at.

And it's linked to the tremendous Tongan diaspora in Australia that we want to build on and deepen the people-to-people links between our two nations. We've got great links in sport, in the Christian faith, in culture, and we need to deepen that and education is a great example of it, as is the links, the cultural links, of the diaspora coming home. One of my constituents is Sione, from Sione's Foundation, who has done great work coming back to Tonga. So those educational barriers are something that I am focused on.

Falekaono:  Just the last question throughout this interview, Minister, Australia has committed to helping Tonga and the Pacific. What are the challenges that Australia has in dealing with the Pacific, and Tonga specifically?

Minister Conroy: I think, what I think, is more about what are our shared challenges rather than the challenges dealing with each other. Climate change I think is the number one challenge for every country in the Pacific. And we're committed to playing our role in fighting climate change. And bidding to host the UN climate conference with the Pacific to give the Pacific the voice. The Pacific is at the frontline of climate change through no fault of any Pacific island nation. Pacific island nations have done nothing to cause climate change, but we're seeing the impact every day. And Australia is committed to grappling with that challenge in partnership with the Pacific, so hosting the climate conference I think is a good pathway to doing that.

And, look, I think the greatest challenge is acting on the priorities that the Pacific communicate to us. Because we're proud of our support and we're privileged to provide that support, but we want to do so much more, whether it's investing in more infrastructure, helping your aviation services, helping support women into leadership roles, investing in education and health. I've just come from the hospital and can I pay tribute to the work of the health professionals and the population of Tonga in fighting COVID. The vaccination rates you've got are the envy of Australia. So, for me, it's more about what are the opportunities to work together to advance both our nations because we've got a shared destiny together. And it's one where we are united in every forum – except other than sport – and it's one that I'm really looking forward to doing more on.

Falekaono: Thank you. Any other comments you'd like to make to the Tongan people who are watching this interview?

Minister Conroy: I just want to reiterate that I have the best job in the Australian Government because I get to work with the Pacific and act on your priorities. And it's one whether it's seeing vaccinations being delivered, talking to nurses at the hospital, which I did, thanking them for saving thousands of lives, I've got a great job. And it's from deadly serious matters such as the pandemic and economic recovery to supporting more sports partnerships, whether it's rugby league or rugby union or your fine netball success, it's all about working in partnership. And we've got a huge Tongan diaspora back in Australia and it's one where it's a real joy to work with both the diaspora and the people of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Falekaono: Thank you again for your time. And that was our special interview with Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific, the Honourable Pat Conroy.

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