Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: AUKUS, China-Pacific relations

Greg Jennett: Okay, so Richard Marles is setting the tone for what could become ongoing dialogue between Ministers to check in on government thinking on all of this. We're joined from Newcastle by Pat Conroy, Defence Industry Minister and Minister for the Pacific. Thanks so much for giving us some of your time this afternoon, Minister, on a public holiday afternoon there in Newcastle. Richard Marles' discussion was not planned and we know that because he told us that there was no intention initially to speak to the Chinese General when he left Canberra. But now that it's happened, Pat Conroy, what significance should be placed on it more broadly by the government? Does it clear the way for other Ministerial contact?

Pat Conroy: Well, we've been very clear that we'll take every opportunity to have a dialogue to advocate for Australia's interests, whether it's lifting the trade sanctions currently imposed by China on our exporters, advocating for a rules based order in the South China Sea. We will look for every opportunity to advance that dialogue. And it was very significant that Deputy Prime Minister Marles had the first ministerial level discussions with the Chinese counterpart in almost three years. It is important, but as Minister Marles said, the time may change, but we will be advocating directly for Australia's interests in every single conversation we have.

Greg Jennett: So, one of the things that Richard Marles did raise, Pat Conroy, directly was the activity by Chinese aircraft directed against P-8 Surveillance Aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force. This was the dumping of chaff in close range to the Australians. Would one simple metric of success, from the Singapore talks, be the cessation of those activities? I mean, is that a sort of red line, if you like, for Australia moving on from these discussions?

Pat Conroy: Well, we've been very clear, we won't use that particular language, but we've been very clear, whether it's Deputy Prime Minister Marles or Foreign Minister Wong, that we support a rules-based order, particularly in the South China Sea, and the actions of the Chinese military have given rise to great concern. They have the potential to risk the lives of ADF personnel and the lives of Chinese personnel. And so I know Deputy Prime Minister Marles has been very clear in our opposition to that behaviour and our consistent support for a rules-based approach by all countries. But obviously, in the South China Sea context, China has been of significant concern.

Greg Jennett: It sounds like the expectations the Australian government, the Albanese government, if you like, is setting expectations very low here around altered Chinese behaviour, would that be fair? And I mean, I would bundle into that question. Clearly, you wouldn't expect them, would you, to relinquish claims over areas of the South China Sea or to halt their security ambitions in the Pacific? Do you expect any of those things to happen as a result of these initial conversations?

Pat Conroy: Well, look, I'm not going to speculate about how the Chinese government responds over the next period of time. But Prime Minister Albanese and the senior members of our government have been very clear that over the last few years, Australia hasn't changed, China has changed, the behaviour of the Chinese government has changed. And that's why you've seen a continuation of essentially the same attitude of this government as the last government in Australia to actions by China when they've broken the rules-based order. We've been very clear about communicating our opposition to that both publicly and privately. I think, as Deputy Prime Minister Marles said, we've got a slightly different tone, but the message is the same, that Australia will not change our behaviour. The Chinese government needs to respect the rules-based order. They need to lift the completely unjustified trade sanctions against Australian exporters. They need to be a respectful partner in the Pacific as well as the South China Sea. And that is a message you'll hear from every Minister in the Australian government going forward.

Greg Jennett: Yes. I think on the trade front, Don Farrell, the Trade Minister, has already flagged publicly his own ambitions to hold talks with his opposite number in Beijing. I think that's called the Commerce Minister there. Does Richard Marles' meeting sort of aid those discussions or the hopes for those discussions in as much as the Chinese should be under no doubt now about the trade sanctions. You're mentioning it yourself, Pat Conroy, but I suppose the question is, would they have those talks unless the Chinese were even interested in contemplating the removal of those trade sanctions?

Pat Conroy: Well, again, you're asking me to speculate about the motives of the Chinese government, and I'm not in a position to do that. But what I will say is we have used and will continue to use every opportunity in both public and private dialogue to highlight why those sanctions need to be lifted. Prime Minister Albanese did that when he was Opposition Leader, and he's doing it as Prime Minister, and we'll continue to do that. I'll make the point that the last government has been very clear that they had Ministers available to talk to their Chinese counterparts, the offers were not taken up. I'm glad that the Chinese government is now taking up those offers, but that dialogue has to be honest and forthright, and the Labor government will be very clear that we will put Australia's National interest first. That will always be paramount and will be firm but it's important to have a dialogue because these things do need to be resolved. But we'll always put Australia's National interest first.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, and just finally I understand my questions may come across to you as seeking views on the Chinese government, but I'm really asking for an interpretation of their behaviour. First, Richard Marles getting his meeting, and then Don Farrell seeking one. Does this in any way represent in your view, some sort of reset, or at least an initial attempt by Beijing to reset this relationship with Australia?

Pat Conroy: Well, I think given the fact that the last Australian government did have Ministers available for almost three years and no meetings occurred. And the fact that under the new Albanese Labor government meetings are occurring, people can draw their own conclusions about whether that means that the Chinese government's attitude is changing. As I said, it does need to change. The Australian government has been very clear, under Prime Minister Albanese, that our national interests are paramount and that we need to lift these trade sanctions. And if we see a change in the attitude of the Chinese government, well, that's a great thing. We would certainly love for that to happen. I think that's in our interest, it's in the interests of a rules-based order internationally, and I think it's in the interests of China as well to see a thawing in that relationship.

Greg Jennett: All right. Can I take you to something that also was discussed by Richard Marles over the weekend, but which more directly intersects with your own responsibilities as Defence Industry Minister, Pat Conroy, and that is the AUKUS submarine arrangements? Does it seem feasible to you, based on the briefings that you've had since being sworn in, that the US might be open to the possibility of two American-built Virginia-Class nuclear submarines being made available to Australia within eight years?

Pat Conroy: Well, Prime Minister Albanese was asked about this on Saturday, and he made the point, as I do, that we're halfway through an 18-month process led by Admiral Mead into look at what the options are for the Australian Navy going forward. So it would be premature to speculate on the options. But I would make the point that what Opposition Leader Peter Dutton stated late last week was completely contrary to his position only two months ago when he was Defence Minister. So, it's reasonable to conclude that he's merely trying to politicise national security once again for a short-term political gain. And that's been called out not just by the Labor government, but people on his own side. I've seen reports that people have called it his first major bungle. The truth is that this guy will politicise national security any opportunities got when his record as Defence Minister was appalling. Under him, we had 30 major defence projects running cumulatively 80 years late. We saw three submarine options junked under this government. So I think that there is a huge problem when Peter Dutton gets involved in defence and his latest intervention is clearly against the national interest. We'll follow the process that has been established. We'll see what the task force under Admiral Mead reports, and then we'll make decisions based on the national interest of this country. What we won't do is repeat the procurement mistakes of the last government that led to 30 major projects running 80 years late. All right.

Greg Jennett: But just for the record, Labor's commitment to the AUKUS arrangements, and specifically the nuclear submarine component of it, is absolute and rock solid because the reason for the question of course, is Peter Dutton, in his op-ed piece, tried to justify writing it on the basis that he feared somehow Labor might be wavering or walking away.

Pat Conroy: That's completely rubbish. And I thank you for the opportunity to again restate Labor's absolute commitment to the AUKUS agreement and our commitment to acquiring nuclear propelled submarines in partnership with the US and the UK governments. Peter Dutton is simply trying to politicise national security again when he was a failed defence minister with 30 projects running 80 years late. Labor is committed to the AUKUS agreement. We are absolutely committed to nuclear propelled submarines. We're also committed to making sure there is no capability gap in our submarine capability. The previous government left some significant issues in defence procurement that Minister Marles and I myself are working very hard to fix up in partnership with Defence. So, Peter Dutton is truly just scrambling to try and wring petty political advantage out of issues that should be above politics. And it just shows the character of this man. There is nothing that he will stoop to try and wring a short-term political advantage which is clearly against our national interest.

Greg Jennett: Yes, and one last one. Because you are the Pacific Minister as well. We may not get a chance to discuss this with you before the PNG election period begins in the month of July. Pat Conroy, what role will Australia be playing in supporting and or monitoring those very important elections to our north?

Pat Conroy: Greg, you're right, they are very important elections. And we've been enthusiastically supporting and responding to every request from the PNG government. We're providing direct technical assistance to the PNG Electoral Commission. We're providing funding of up to $20 million for that technical assistance. We're providing 130 ADF personnel, including aircraft, to transport ballot papers and election officials throughout the country. Obviously, it's a country with a lot of challenging terrain, so using ADF air force planes has been a great advantage. So we're spending $20 million to support a very important democratic process. And on the figures I've seen, that's a record amount of support that the Labor Albanese government has provided in the PNG elections. And that's a great thing to support a country that's only three kilometers to our north. So we've got a direct interest in supporting a fair and free democratic process in PNG.

Greg Jennett: All right, we might monitor progress on that with you, perhaps during the course of, unlike Australia, a much longer election period in PNG. Pat Conroy. That's all we've got time for today. Thanks for joining us from Newcastle for afternoon briefing.

Pat Conroy: Thanks, Greg. Have a great afternoon. Bye.


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