Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC News Afternoon Briefing

  • Transcript, E&OE
Pacific Patrol Boat Program, Falepili Union, Nauru banking

Greg Jennett: Let's turn to the southwest Pacific now and Australia's defence relationship with Fiji has strengthened further. The island nation has taken possession today of its second Pacific patrol boat. Defence Industry and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy was on hand for the transfer in Western Australia. He joined us a little earlier. Also, we should point out that our conversation came before the death of Lance Corporal Jack Fitzgibbon was announced publicly, which is why we didn't address that in our conversation.

Pat Conroy, always good to have you on the program. Welcome back from HMAS Stirling, where you've officiated at the handover of a Guardian class patrol boat to Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Now, there were to be 21 boats under the Pacific Patrol Boat Program. Where is it up to now with the completion of this one?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Coroy: Well, this is the 19th boat produced under the Guardian-class Patrol Boat Program and we've actually increased it to 22. So, that's good news for the region. And it was great to spend time with Prime Minister Rabuka, who is a fierce advocate for a peaceful and prosperous Pacific, where countries play a role not just in securing their own countries areas, but as a regional approach to security. His concept of oceans of peace and zones of peace was really powerful and he talked about that in his speech today when he accepted the patrol boat.

Greg Jennett: And it'll be in service with the Royal Fijian Naval Service. What, immediately? Or have they got to commission it up and iron out bugs?

Minister Conroy: No, they've had a crew over here doing the work up already with the Australian Navy and the prime contractor, Austal. And in fact, I got to meet some of the crew today and they're very impressive. And the intention is that they will sail the vessel, the Puamau, over to Fiji shortly. So, it's ready to go. They've already got one patrol boat there. This will be the second one. And it will be critical not just to their maritime security, tackling things like transnational crime, particularly drug smuggling, but the scourge of illegal fishing in our region and also contributing to regional stability and security as well. So, it was a great day for the Pacific here.

Greg Jennett: I'm sure Prime Minister Rabuka is keeping an eye on Australia's future plans for the Royal Australian Navy around the surface fleet review. And I think while you're in the west, Pat Conroy, you're going to hold talks with defence industry and West Australian shipbuilders. As I understand it, there's a bit of agitation in defence industry about how much unique adaptation Australia might make to the general-purpose frigates that will be bought initially from overseas. Are you able to assure them that you will seek minimal design changes to these ships?

Minister Conroy: Well, I had a very productive roundtable with about 50 industry reps yesterday afternoon at the Henderson Maritime Precinct. And what we've done is something that no government before has done, which has provided 30 years of certainty to secure continuous naval shipbuilding in the west, as part of our effort to increase the major surface combatant fleet from 11 warships to 26. The vast majority of those will be built in WA. We're starting with landing craft, medium and heavy, then eight of the eleven general-purpose frigates, then rolling into the large, optionally crewed surface vessels.

So, we've delivered what no other government in the history of this country has done, which is continuous naval shipbuilding for decades to come, in the west. Look, there's a focus on those general-purpose frigates. What we've said is we need them into service as quickly as possible. That's why we'll be in contract next year, cutting steel in 2026, with the first one to be delivered in '29. To do that, we need minimal or no change to the actual design that's already in existence. We've chosen - the independent experts have identified four vessels from production lines that are already in existence that we can buy. But then what we'll do is move the production over to WA because they'll be busy building our landing craft. When they finish the landing craft, they will build eight of the general-purpose frigates. And while we don't want changes to it, we will be maximising local content. And we had a really good discussion about that. We will be putting into the contract a figure for local content that will be contractually enforceable. And this will deliver over 1200 well-paid, secure jobs to WA and hundreds, if not thousands, in the supply chain.

Greg Jennett: Have you got a guideline on what that local content figure might be? A ballpark?

Minister Conroy: Well, we're working through that, but what we want, the four companies we're working with, is to get them into a competition, because it will be one of the factors in who we choose will be what commitments they make around Australian industry content and Australian industry capability. That's critical, not just because it produces jobs, but it means that we maximise the economic value in Australia. And if we can do as much work in this country for the eight general-purpose frigates built here, it means that we maximise the ability to sustain them, support them in Australia. We don't want to have to rely on foreign supply chains to support these vessels. That's one of the lessons we've learned from the Oberon class submarines, for example, and what was done really well with the Anzac-class frigates and the Collins-class was maximum local support.

Greg Jennett: All right, thank you for clarifying that. I might just take you to a couple of specific items in your Pacific portfolio now, Pat Conroy. Tuvalu, it has a new Prime Minister Feleti Teo. Now, he stated his desire to amend or renegotiate Australia's treaty with that country because he's concerned by the clause that says there must be mutual agreement, a tick off by Australia, in effect, before Tuvalu would be free to enter into any other security arrangement with any other country. The question is, will you enter into a renegotiation with Prime Minister Teo?

Minister Conroy: Well, if you look at the public statements from the new Governor of Tuvalu, who we obviously welcome, they've been very much focused on how do you operationalise the treaty, how do you implement the treaty's clauses, and we've been very clear that we will work with them to make sure that the implementation of the treaty is in accordance with both our expectations and wishes. Importantly, the new Prime Minister reaffirmed his support for the Falepili treaty, the most significant initiative we've undertaken in the Pacific since 1975.

He supports the treaty, he wants to make sure that we operationalise and implement it in a way that safeguards his sovereignty. And the treaty actually advances the sovereignty of both nations. They exercise their sovereignty. The Tuvalu people have exercised their sovereignty by entering this agreement. It's an agreement where the first time in the history of Australia, we've given a commitment to come to the aid of another country in the event of military aggression, a natural disaster or a global health pandemic. So, that's about enhancing their sovereignty and support and Australia making commitments we've never done before.

Greg Jennett: He obviously says, Pat Conroy, that there may be an infringement of sovereignty by the sentence, which I won't read to you, but you're obviously familiar with it, the sentence that says Australia's approval must be sought before Tuvalu could enter into anything else with another country. He sees that as a potential infringement. Are you telling him it's not?

Minister Conroy: Well, what I'm saying is, if you look at the statement the Prime Minister released, he talked about how do we operate - he will be seeking to talk with Australia on how we operationalise the agreement to safeguard the sovereignty of both countries, and we're absolutely committed to that. This agreement is something that the government of Tuvalu approached Australia on, and it was a gracious request that we agreed to, and we've worked through that. And the treaty reflects what the government of Tuvalu, on behalf of the people of Tuvalu, wanted. It's something that brings our countries closer together. It's historic. Granting permanent residency to every citizen of another country subject to meeting criminal checks is historic not just for Australia, but around the world. The support for climate change adaptation and the security guarantee that we've given, we've given to no other country. And obviously we'll work through those details with the new government. But I'm very confident he's supporting the treaty. The new government is supporting the treaty. We'll get on with implementing it in a way that both governments support.

Greg Jennett: All right, well, hopefully you'll get to meet him face to face before too long. And just finally on Nauru, Minister. President Adeang has been in Australia talking to Jim Chalmers and possibly others in the government. This year, Nauru will lose its only banking branch, that's Bendigo Bank branch. It's causing great angst there. Are you prepared to facilitate or even subsidise a replacement Australian bank in Nauru?

Minister Conroy: Well, I was in Nauru at the end of January, and part of my discussions with President Adeang and his Foreign Minister, Aingimea, was how to support Nauru remaining banked. The withdrawal of banking services is a challenge for most of the Pacific, and it's why Prime Minister Albanese and President Biden announced a Pacific banking task force during Prime Minister Albanese's visit to the United States late last year. We're working with Nauru. We are their largest development partner, and we will work with them to make sure that they have the economic infrastructure in place to sustain their economy. These are complex matters, but I'm confident that we can find a landing place that will make all parties happy.

Greg Jennett: Okay, well, we'll keep across that with you and who knows, maybe Jim Chalmers and others as that progresses throughout the year. Pat Conroy, we got across almost everything. Certainly a wide palette of subjects traversed today. Really appreciate it. We'll talk again soon.

Minister Conroy: Thanks, Craig. Have a good afternoon.

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