Interview with Cullighan Tanda, FM100, Papua New Guinea

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: PNG-Australia partnership, shared love of rugby league, warm welcome for Australian PM’s XIII teams, Australia’s support for rugby league in PNG, developing player pathways, PM’s XIII men’s and women’s games, prospects for PNG team in the NRL.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: So, with us - today I am privileged to have with us all the way from the Land Down Under as we like to call it, and our closest neighbour and friend, none other than the Australian Government in this case and under the Albanese Government, we are privileged to have with us on the program, the Honourable Pat Conroy, Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Minister, first and foremost, thank you very much for your time and welcome to the program.


CULLIGHAN TANDA: On behalf of our curious audience, our listeners out there, and those tuning in via our mobile app from around the world. I wanted to ask you - how many times have you been in Papua New Guinea? Is this your first?

MINISTER CONROY: No, it's not my first. It's a long way from my first. It's my 6th visit in the 14 months I've been Minister. So, I love the country. Prime Minister Marape jokes I should take out Papua New Guinean citizenship, I'm here this often.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: That is true. Six visits in the space of 14 months. That's every two months you've been up here. My goodness. Did anything catch your eye lately?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, it's beautiful. I came in last night and you've got a bit of rain because it's been dry lately, so that was good to see.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: Usually in Papua New Guinea, we are very superstitious, so we might think that you actually brought rain with you.

MINISTER CONROY: I'm a politician, so it's tempting to claim that, but I won't.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: Now, of course, with the six visits that you've come through, how do you find the atmosphere in Papua New Guinea?

MINISTER CONROY: Look, it's tremendously hospitable and receptive, I think we're the closest of the neighbours and the dearest of friends, and whenever I come up here, I have really great conversations with people and there's a real sense of purpose of both sets of leaders and the citizens wanting to build a future together.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: Obviously, the partnerships between Australia and Papua New Guinea go back - all the way back by the 1975, of course, where Papua New Guinea peacefully gained its independence under the leadership of Gough Whitlam back in the day. In this case, since that time we've gone from strength to strength, our relationships have gone on. Today, of any course, coming - in this particular [Indistinct] from the National Football Stadium, where, of course, it is a round of sports weekend, weekend round of rugby, I'd say, and for us, we consider it our own little version of magic, here in Papua New Guinea. I wanted to say the Albanese initiative in terms of pushing rugby league into the Pacific, which has resulted in us seeing the Pacific Challenge Cup, that's going to happen in October, later this year.

MINISTER CONROY: Absolutely. Sport brings people together, and that's one of our goals, is to have sport bringing the people of the Pacific together. And in terms of Australia and Papua New Guinea, that sport has to be rugby league. It is the national sport of Papua New Guinea, and it is obviously the number one sport in Queensland and NSW, in Australia, two of the three biggest states. So, bringing us together through rugby league is a vision of Prime Minister Albanese. And when he had the honour from Prime Minister Marape and your people of being the first foreign leader to address your parliament, he talked about rugby league in that speech. Just think about that for a moment. Rugby league is so significant, the Australian Prime Minister used it as a centrepiece for his speech to your parliament, saying that we want to see a Papua New Guinean team in the National Rugby League competition and we're supporting that and teaming up where we can to support that. But even games like this, the Prime Minister's XIII games, the schoolboys, the schoolgirls, this is the first year we'll see schoolgirls playing against each other. That all brings our people together.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: Very true. In Papua New Guinea schoolkids could probably name the full Australian team here, but they can't even name the full parliament. In Papua New Guinea – that’s how much we love rugby here. Did you manage to speak to any of the Australian players that came? They received more than a warm welcome when they touched down at Jackson’s Airport.

MINISTER CONROY: Oh, absolutely. The response at the airport was rapturous. I was talking to some of the school kids. I went out for the captain’s runs this morning for the schoolgirls and the schoolboys, and their eyes were like still the size of saucers because of how they're being welcomed here - and the passion! And my message to them is, not only are you ambassadors for rugby league, you're ambassadors for Australia. What you do here, inspiring Papua New Guinean boys and girls to pick up a ball, play a sport, have a healthy lifestyle, is great. And I remember talking to a Kumul great, David Mead, who I've had a bit to do with, and he talks about how on every street corner there'll be kids playing – using – if they don't have a ball, they'll use an empty soft drink bottle as a footy. Just the passion here. And our countries are better when our people are closer together and rugby league does that.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: Very cool. David Mead couldn’t have said it better. He's been an awesome ambassador for the Kumuls. With – what you just mentioned kind of mirrors the speech that Marape gave – Prime Minister Marape gave during the fundraising dinner that happened. I think it was on Thursday that happened. He urged each of the players, and not just him, I think the master of ceremony – that our makeshift master of ceremony, Andrew Hill. He said they both mentioned the same sentiment. But we're saying in terms of our players, the regular players actually becoming ambassadors, saying they've got to be positive role models because them setting foot in the paddock really inspires – in particular the women. The role of our women, it can’t be described in words, I would say. And even the journey of the Orchids from just starting out a few years ago, to ending up at the World Cup, one game away from the Grand Final. It serves as a testament of how much the involvement of women in sport has risen in this country, particularly in the code of rugby.

MINISTER CONROY: Absolutely. And I was just having a chat with Elsie Albert, a great Orchid, great captain last year, who, sadly is injured, and it brings the country together and advances debates. I went to a program we were funding called around quoting gender equality and stopping gender violence, using rugby league as a teaching tool. And we can use rugby league for that. So, for example, when Prime Minister Albanese and I announced $7 million for the Pacific Rugby League tournament, not only are we funding the men's matches in PNG, we're funding the women's matches because it has to be on a basis of gender equality and bringing people together. And I remember Prime Minister Marape, in a speech to the launch of the consortium in May, talking about this as his Nelson Mandela vision to the United Nations. The most beautiful nation on Earth – 800 languages spoken. So, how do you unite it? How do you give the young people discipline and hope? And he says, just as Nelson Mandela used rugby union and the Rugby Union World Cup in 1995 to bring white and black South Africans together, a rugby league franchise in the NRL for PNG can bring those 800 language groups, 800 tribes, together to be united under one banner, which is Papua New Guinea.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: We pretty much might say – I’m saying – we're in a situation where sometimes for myself, as a commentator, on many occasions; sports and politics, I will think one day in PNG, I wonder, we’re kind of mirror what the Philippines is doing, in basketball. But the Philippines – basketball their national sport as well – but as far as performance, they're slowly getting up in the international rankings. For us in Papua New Guinea, one thing that definitely will have the country in rapture would definitely be seeing this afternoon's match with a positive – maybe a win for Papua New Guinea. Who knows?

MINISTER CONROY: Absolutely. That will be awesome. And I'm just watching the women of the Papua New Guinean Defence Force are about to defeat the women of the Australian Defence Force. They’ve got a minute to go, and PNG is up ten nil, and that's going to be great. And when – I remember when the Kumuls beat England in 2019, the sense of pride – I've got that jersey in my office that got presented to me by Prime Minister Marape. So, I've got a signed 2019 Kumuls jersey in my office.


MINISTER CONROY: And I've got a big brass plaque that's been put on it to have the school, so I can annoy any English visitors to it. So, I'm so ambitious for the Kumuls and Orchids to come through – and the potential! Like, we've got a nation of more than 10 million people who all support rugby league. We're investing with the Papua Guinean Government in the player pipeline. So, I've announced $5.5 million for elite sports academies for the kids, so they don't have to go to Australia when they're 13 and 14 to follow that elite pipeline. They can follow Justin Olam and Elsie Albert and play all their juniors here. And that will provide the momentum for a PNG NRL site and a Kumuls and Orchid side that are taking their rightful place as world champions one day, because you've got an advantage, I think. In Australia, it's the dominant sport in NSW and Queensland, only the first and third biggest states in Australia. There will be more rugby league fans in PNG than in Australia and say, we mobilise that population. You're going to be world beaters.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: Thank you very much for that announcement. When we talk about pathways for our young and future players, I think none more so important than the establishment of the academy. Once again, many, many thanks to the Australian Government, the leadership of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and other Cabinet members. When you head in the country. Again, the question – for the Papua New Guinea team in the NRL. Do you think – the Prime Minister Marape said we might be looking at 2050, sorry, 2025 when we turn fifty years old, in any case? But how soon do you think it might become a reality?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, the chairman of the bid Wapu Sonk has said publicly they're working on a timeframe which the NRL haven't announced, but they're working on a rough time frame of announcing the successful franchise in 2025 to play in 2027. So, I can't think of a better birthday present for Papua New Guinea, the 50th birthday of this proud young nation, than getting an NRL team. So, we're all working towards it. Obviously, there's lots of things – bridges to cross, but I think that's the timeframe that everyone's aiming at getting an announcement out. But we've got to obviously bring the PNG Government, the Australian Government together, the corporate sector here. I've said to all the corporate leaders in Papua New Guinea, there should be the biggest possible fight to get the honour of being the jersey sponsor for this team. There’s companies operating here, whether it's Santos or Digicel or the LNG people, they should all want to sponsor this team as a signal of their commitment to the Papua New Guinean people.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: And Minister, finally my last question – might be an important one today. Useful end. Predictions for the Orchids and the Kangaroos, and the Kumuls and Australia games?

MINISTER CONROY: I'm going to be brave. The politician will often say, ‘oh too close to call’. I'm going to predict an upset with the Orchids. I'm going to predict the Orchids win 14-12. And just to even it out, because I am a politician from Australia, I'm going to predict the Australian Prime Minister’s XIII get home just 16-10. But we'll see. The weather conditions, it's very windy, so it'll advantage the local players and a bit of heat will tire out those Aussie legs. So, let's see what happens.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: Minister Conroy, I’d like to thank you so much for your time. It's been a pleasure hosting you on FM100. Enjoy the rest of the match and we wish you a safe return back to Australia, and next time if you do come to Port Moresby [Indistinct].

MINISTER CONROY: I would love to. Thank you again for the opportunity.

CULLIGHAN TANDA: Thank you so much.


Media enquiries

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