Interview with Hamish Macdonald, ABC Radio National

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Papua New Guinea, Bilateral security treaty.

Hamish Macdonald: Well, as Warwick mentioned, the Prime Minister will head to Papua New Guinea today in a visit aimed at strengthening defence ties. Our closest neighbour is hoping regional security and local visa processing will sit high on the agenda. But what does Australia want from the trip? Pat Conroy is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific and will be joining the Prime Minister on the visit. He joins me now from Cairns. Welcome to RN Breakfast.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Good morning, Hamish. How are you?

Hamish Macdonald: Very well, thank you. What's the purpose of this trip? What tangible outcomes are you after?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, the tangible outcome is a deepening of the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea, our closest neighbour, one of our most important partners around the globe but particularly in the region. And for Anthony Albanese to have the honour of being the first foreign leader to address the PNG Parliament just demonstrates the closeness of the relationship and the opportunity to deepen that. And that's what the two days of visits is about.

Hamish Macdonald: But it is about concluding this defence pact with Papua New Guinea. How close to that are we? And what would it mean in practice?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: The bilateral security treaty is about strengthening our cooperation, not just in defence but in a broader concept of security. Discussions are going well, and I expect to see further momentum for those discussions out of this visit. It's about making it easier for Australia to support the security aspirations of PNG and vice versa, noting that PNG soldiers supported us during the bushfire crisis of a few years ago. It's also about joint efforts to combat things like climate change and about strengthening the Pacific regional architecture with a Pacific family first approach to security needs throughout the Pacific. So, it's all about strengthening Australia's and PNG's relationship and making it clear that we're the security partner of choice for Papua New Guinea.

Hamish Macdonald: Sure. But in practice what would that look like? What would we be doing? If we're making it easier to assist or to train, what would be happening once this is agreed?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, without getting into the nitty-gritty of the detail of the treaty, which is actually being still negotiated, it's about opening up legal mechanisms for greater cooperation. So that could include hypothetically allowing more visits by Australian naval vessels or Papua New Guinea naval vessels to Australia. It could include greater military cooperation in training. So, it's about putting in place the legal framework to allow greater cooperation.

Secondly, it's also about expanding the concept of security, which means that we can cooperate in other areas. And, thirdly, it's all about also reinforcing and providing more momentum to the Pacific Islands Forum's decisions around security coming from within the Pacific first. So, they're the practical manifestations of what the treaty is looking at doing.

Hamish Macdonald: But Port Moresby, though, is building economic ties with Beijing. Prime Minister Marape is encouraging the Bank of China to increase operations there. The PNG government has closed its trade office in Taiwan. There's also some suggestion about the Chinese building some kind of military hospital in Papua New Guinea. Are we in a contest for influence with China in Papua New Guinea?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: No, what the Australian government is committed to doing, not just in Papua New Guinea but throughout the Pacific, is deepening our relationships and being the partner of choice. As Prime Minister [Marape] makes the point, it was the Australian Labor Party under Gough Whitlam that supported independence with Sir Michael Somare, so this is a tradition that the Labor Party embraces when we're in government.

And I would make the point, economically Australia is the biggest export destination for Papua New Guinea. We're the biggest investor in Papua New Guinea of around $24 billion. We invest more in Papua New Guinea than we do in Indonesia or India, for example.

Hamish Macdonald: Sure.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: So our –

Hamish Macdonald: Is it possible that Papua New Guinea might want to have multiple partners of choice on security?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: It's not for us to dictate what other countries do. All we can do is be the best possible partner in all fields, whether it's security through the provision of four Guardian Class patrol boats and the strong defence cooperation between the ADF and the PNG Defence Force. Or development assistance - we're the largest provider of development assistance to Papua New Guinea, and I had the privilege of seeing that in operation late last year where I watched kids getting their childhood vaccinations. We are literally helping Papua New Guinea save lives every day. And that's the practical manifestation of our deep relationship with the country.

Hamish Macdonald: Beijing, though, bankrolling a new military hospital in Papua New Guinea. Are we doing anything of that magnitude?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, other countries provide assistance, development assistance, to PNG. But, as I said, we are the biggest. We provide around $600 million of development assistance each year, and that ranges from health assistance – as I said, the health clinic that I visited – we've built hospitals, we provide big infrastructure support, we're helping redevelop six ports around Papua New Guinea right now. The defence cooperation runs at just under $50 million a year, including the provision of four Pacific patrol boats. We're supporting gender equality. We're supporting the development of PNG sports, particularly rugby league, which is a common bond we have with the people of PNG that is incredibly strong. So, our relationship is very deep, and this visit by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will only deepen it and symbolises our commitment to the country.

Hamish Macdonald: The Prime Minister will become the first Australian PM to address PNG's Parliament. What will his message be? I understand he wants to talk about defending democracy, making the 2020s a decisive decade for peace. What's the substance beyond that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Yeah, well, he'll be the first foreign leader full stop to address the PNG Parliament, which is a sign of the honour being accorded him and the people of Australia. So, his message around democracy is that it's incumbent upon politicians in both countries to defend democracy, and we defend democracy by demonstrating it's the best system to deliver actual benefits for the people that we govern. So that's about investing in stronger health outcomes, investing in stronger economic outcomes. So that's going to be a key message in his speech.

Another one is our commitment to turbocharge the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme, the Pacific labour scheme. At the moment, there's about 1,200 Papua New Guineans working out of the 34,000 Pacific Islanders working in that scheme, and this is a scheme that's lifting individuals and villages out of poverty. The average worker sends back $15,000 Australian a year, and that's in the context of a region where more than a third of the people live on less than a thousand dollars a year.

So that's the sort of message that will be in the speech by Prime Minister Albanese, that we want to work together to support the hopes and aspirations of the people of Papua New Guinea. As I said, there's only 4 kilometres that separates our nations. If you weren't worried about crocodiles, you could swim to Papua New Guinea – but you should be worried.

Hamish Macdonald: Okay. Well, I think Bob Katter is worried about the crocs. In terms of tangible outcomes, though, for the PNG population, I understand a longstanding grievance is the visa processing system and the fact that it happens in Fiji. What will change, and how will life become easier under whatever it is that you're going to promise?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I'm not going to announce initiatives that will be announced by the two Prime Ministers in the next two days. But we are aware that visa processing times is an issue. It's an issue throughout the world given the defunding of the immigration department by the last government.

Hamish Macdonald: But it would make sense to have some capacity to do it in PNG for PNG nationals, wouldn't it?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, the regional processing architecture affects a lot of countries. The fact that Fiji is the regional processing hub for the Pacific is more about administrative ease rather than forcing people to travel to country. They don't have to travel to Fiji; they send their documents or copies of their documents to Fiji. But as I said, we're aware that this is an issue for people and I'm hopeful that we can get a resolution of that issue.

People in Papua New Guinea are also very keen on our Pacific Engagement Visa, which is about creating 3,000 permanent migration spots each year into Australia, which will build a massive Pacific diaspora in Australia, which will deepen our people-to-people links. And there's also lots of interest in Papua New Guineans working and studying in Australia as well. So there's a lot of things we're doing around the visa system that hopefully will build links between the two countries.

Hamish Macdonald: Okay. Pat Conroy, we'll have to leave it there. I know you've got to jump on a flight. Thank you very much.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thanks, Hamish. Have a good morning. Bye-bye.

Hamish Macdonald: Pat Conroy is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, joining the Prime Minister on his visit to PNG today.

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