Interview with Greg Jennett, Afternoon Briefing

  • Transcript, E&OE
Evacuation of Australians in New Caledonia, Nauru banking, nuclear power, Papua New Guinea Relationship

Greg Jennett: Well as we mentioned French President Emmanuel Macron is due to arrive in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia this evening on a trip conceived as a show of strength in the turbulent islands. The snap decision to fly halfway around the world was made at a Cabinet meeting with security officials in Paris last night our time.

President Macron then headed to the airport in the evening to embark on the trip.

A Government spokeswoman told French media the President would set up a mission in Noumea which has been flooded with police trying to quell more than a week of protests, vandalism and rebellion that left six people dead in the territory.


Prisca Thevenot: The Government is fully mobilised to guarantee order and ensure a return to calm. This is why a state of emergency was declared last Wednesday at 8 pm Paris time. 1,000 security forces arrived to reinforce the 1,700 law enforcement officers already present on the archipelago to restore republican order and protect the inhabitants.

[End of Excerpt]

Greg Jennett: Well, multiple Australian Government departments are involved in trying to get Australians and other foreigners out of New Caledonia at the moment. Foreign Affairs and Defence are leading the way.

Pacific Minister Pat Conroy is coordinating some of it. We caught up with him on that and other matters from his New South Wales electorate on the shores of Lake Macquarie.

Pat Conroy, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. Why don't we start out on New Caledonia. We had those two RAAF flights back into Brisbane last night, and I think you've indicated today that you are expecting further French flights to shuttle more people, including Australians, back to this country today. What do we know about those French flights? What are you expecting today?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Yeah, well, good afternoon, Greg, and you're absolutely right. We transported 84 Australians home yesterday evening through RAAF aircraft flights. There is a French aircraft scheduled to leave for Brisbane this evening, and we expect around 100 Australians to be on it. That number may move slightly, but we think around approximately 100 Australians will be on that flight.

There's about 500 Australians in New Caledonia, before we transported that first 84, and around 300 have indicated that they are seeking transport home.

So if the number is around 100 today on that French flight, more than half of the Australians seeking to come home will have got home.

Greg Jennett: And what do you envisage about the remainder of the 300 who have expressed an interest? Would that fall to subsequent RAAF flights or more by the French?

Minister Conroy: Oh, well, the French have indicated they intend to continue repatriating foreign nationals, particularly tourists. So the primary plan is more French flights, but as I've indicated publicly, we do have contingency plans, and we do have planes on stand‑by should there be an issue with that course of action, but as I said, a French plane is expected to leave for Brisbane this afternoon or this evening and we expect around 100 Australians to be on it, bringing 184, roughly, Australians home over the last day or two.

Greg Jennett: Okay. And further foreign nationals to be collected as well, non‑Australians?

Minister Conroy: Well, I imagine the French flight will have non‑Australians on it, and as I indicated there were a small number of foreign nationals that were on the two Royal Australian aircraft flights, that is perfectly normal and standard practice. For example, Fiji Airways transported stranded Australians back from Israel after the October 7 attacks.

So it's really important that we partner with like‑minded countries, we support each other while we can, but obviously Australians are our priority.

Greg Jennett: Okay, understood. Now when did the Australian Government become aware of President Macron's plans to travel to Noumea, and do you have any assessments from a security point of view about whether that is likely to help or perhaps hinder the situation in Noumea?

Minister Conroy: I'm not going to go into timelines of when we were informed about things, Greg, you can understand why, but what I can say, and I say this on behalf of the Australian Government, is that we welcome President Macron travelling to New Caledonia. We encourage all parties to abide by the Noumea Accords and continue discussions, and that's really critical.

So we welcome President Macron's travelling there, and we think it's important that both sides continue to talk and resolve this difficult situation.

Greg Jennett: You don't think it could inflame the tensions so obviously already there?

Minister Conroy: Well, I think it's really important that both sides talk to each other, and I think the gesture of President Macron travelling there is an important one, and we just urge both sides to support the Noumea Accords.

Australia is a proud member of the Pacific family, is very supportive of the Noumea Accords, and that both sides work together to find a way through the current difficulties.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, so just on that, Pat, the Australian Government's official line, and this is a quote, is that it unequivocally takes no position on New Caledonia's institutional future.

Why is it that, and can that position be maintained even if conflict becomes intractable in the territory?

Minister Conroy: Well, this is a matter for the two parties to resolve, it's not for Australia to, from the outside, dictate a view or say one side or the other. We believe, as in most things, talking through the issues is the critical way, the critical path to success.

Obviously the Noumea Accords have been around for some time and there's an established process around how to resolve those issues. Importantly both sides should just keep talking and try and find a way through their current circumstances. I think that's the appropriate course of action.

Greg Jennett: Other Pacific Nations do have more progressive partisan positions, if you like, on these tensions in New Caledonia. Why does Australia adopt this strictly non‑committal position?

Minister Conroy: Well, it's about respect from the Australian Government. I'm not going to comment on the positions of other governments, that's a choice for them. Our position is to support the process and to encourage all parties to talk to each other. That's the position that Australia has. It's a long‑running bipartisan position. I don't think it's particularly controversial.

Other governments of other nations will have different views, and that's absolutely their right. Our view is encourage further discussions and negotiations.

Greg Jennett: All right. Let's move further around the Pacific, and I understand that Nauru's President David Adeang is coming to Australia this week. I'm not quite sure who he's talking to, but there's a lot of unfinished business between Nauru and Australia right now.

There is the existence of a bank, which we've discussed before, Pat, I think there's also ongoing speculation about Australian officials working on a Tuvalu‑style migration and security treaty with Australia. Will this be further progressed this week on this Presidential visit?

Minister Conroy: Oh, look, I don't respond to speculation for obvious reasons, Greg. I was in Nauru for the Nauruan Independence Day in January, and it was a great affair.

We've been very public, and we've discussed it before, as you alluded to, Greg, about our support for Nauru to resolve their banking issues.

Their only bank, Commercial Bank, is due to leave in the next few months or next year, and we're committed to supporting their efforts to find another banking solution to ensure that Nauruan citizens have the ability to have a bank.

We're proud to be the development partner of choice for Nauru, to be the partner of choice in most matters with Nauru, and we continue to work hard to have that position. Lots of Nauruans have rights to Australian citizenry, we've got great close connections, and we always try to deepen that.

Greg Jennett: All right. We'll keep across any further developments in the Nauru relationship.

Bringing it back home to domestic politics, and this is not unrelated to your electorate and surrounds in Shortland, Pat Conroy, the CSIRO report out today on power generation cost puts nuclear at about 9 billion up to around $17 billion. It's starting to look competitive on these numbers now, isn't it, with other zero emissions projects like Snowy Hydro, which is at 12 billion and counting? Would you acknowledge that?

Minister Conroy: Oh I don't in fact, Greg, and I reject that. When people read the report they'll be able to see that nuclear power is around five times more expensive than firmed up renewable energy. That's for small scale reactors, and slightly less than five times for large scale nuclear. Once you include ‑ and that's when you include the cost of transmission and storage to make renewable energy 100 per cent reliable, so anyone who's arguing that five times the cost is somehow comparable just isn't grounded in reality.

What Mr Dutton is doing is he's arguing for much higher power bills for Australians, and he need to come clean with the Australian public, including members of my community, about where he's going to put those power stations.

He said that they will go on sites of decommissioned coal‑fired power stations or coal‑fired power stations that are closing soon. So that means he's planning on putting them on the shores of Lake Macquarie and on the shores of Lake Munmorah, and that is utterly unacceptable for my community.

We do not want nuclear power stations in our community. People do not want that here. They do not want their power prices for wholesale power to go up five times. Peter Dutton should come honest and fight the next election on it.

I'm really willing to do that, because I know what my community wants. They want 100 per cent reliable renewable energy, which is the cheapest form of new power, instead of huge, very expensive nuclear power stations that won't even come online until the 2040s.

Greg Jennett: All right. I think we'll be having that debate. That's guaranteed. You can lock it in between now and the next election, Pat Conroy.

Look, just finally, Papua New Guinea and its interest in putting a team into the National Rugby League, the NRL, you were involved in talks in Brisbane on that last weekend. Can you say that this is progressing smoothly towards the incorporation of a Port Moresby‑based team in 2027 or in 2028?

Minister Conroy: Well, the NRL and the Australian Government are aligned on the way forward, we had constructive negotiations, but there are still things that we need to work through, not just with the NRL but with the Government of Papua New Guinea who need to have agency in this process as well.

But what I can say is I share the views of Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Marape that nothing would advance the relationship between our two countries than getting a PNG NRL side. Prime Minister Marape has said it would unite the 800 language groups in Papua New Guinea, he calls it sort of equivalent to the Mandela Rugby Union moment in South Africa in 1995.

And I'm just so enthusiastic about it, it will bring our two peoples together, it will deepen our people‑to‑people connections, it will bring huge crowds, huge energy and improve the National Rugby League's competition as well as bringing our two countries together.

But we are still negotiating, and I look forward to seeing how that progresses over the next month or two.

Greg Jennett: All right. I know how sensitive some of those talks are, and the amounts of money involved are substantial too, so I don't fully expect you to give too much away on your negotiating position there today, Pat Conroy, but we look forward to further announcements there too. 

Thanks so much for joining Afternoon Briefing. We'll talk soon.

Minister Conroy: Thanks, Greg, have a great afternoon.


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