Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Afternoon Agenda

  • Transcript, E&OE

KIERAN GILBERT: The Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, is in Samoa as part of the government's ongoing engagement with the Pacific. He joined me a short time ago where I began by asking him whether Australia is winning the contest for influence in our region.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY, PAT CONROY: Well, there's no hiding the fact that there are three C’s that dominate the Pacific, which is COVID, climate change and competition. There is a geostrategic competition in the Pacific and what Australia can do is strive to be the partner of choice for the region. We're a proud member of the Pacific family and that's why I'm out here in Samoa reminding people, working with people, saying, we're here, we're turning up, we're listening to your priorities because a peaceful and prosperous Pacific is in our interest.

GILBERT: And you've committed an additional $20 million as part of this economic growth plan for Samoa, which like a lot of countries in the Pacific, was smashed during COVID. Is that part of being the good partner or the partner of choice, as you put it?

CONROY: Yeah, well, we're proud to support the Pacific as it recovers from the COVID pandemic. Just like Australia, Pacific nations closed their borders. And these are countries that depend hugely on tourism as a key driver of economic revenue. And so Samoa has slowly come back from a COVID induced recession and we're proud to support their growth and recovery because it's incredibly important to our peace and prosperity as well. So I did announce today that we'd allocated $20 million of additional budget support and that money has gone out to support pensioners and people with disabilities within Samoa, to really survive at the moment with the COVID induced recession and that's the critical part of being the partner of choice. If you want to be the partner of choice, you've got to turn up when asked to. You've got to listen to the priorities of our partner nations.

GILBERT: The Samoan Prime Minister during her recent visit to Australia, and I know you met her and listened to her comments, where she said that her nation and others in the Pacific want to be consulted more over regional security. In that context, is Samoa comfortable with the recent developments around AUKUS?

CONROY: Well, I'm hesitant to speak on behalf of Prime Minister Fiamē she can speak for herself, and she has. In fact, she said publicly that she was briefed on AUKUS. She understands why Australia is doing it and she's broadly comfortable with it. Obviously, it's up to Prime Minister Fiamē to talk more about that, but they're her public commentary and that's consistent with remarks from Prime Minister Mark Brown, who's the incoming chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, who made statements as recently as yesterday on this same topic. We've done a lot of effort in briefing nations, I think, between the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Defence Minister, Richard Marles and myself. We briefed over 60 countries on the AUKUS announcement and people are broadly comfortable with it and they understand why Australia is doing this, understand that this is about deterring conflict and advancing our defence, and importantly, they accept their assurances that this is about nuclear propelled submarines, not nuclear weapons.

GILBERT: Do you think again, I don't want to have you put words in the Samoan leader's mouth, but is the concern from that country more relevant to say that security pact that was signed on a bilateral basis between their neighbour, the Solomons, and China?

CONROY: Well, Prime Minister Fiamē has been a staunch proponent of a regional approach to security. The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders communique from late last year made very clear that countries of the Pacific should look to each other to fill security gaps before going outside the Pacific family. And that's the policy of Australia, and that's the policy of the Pacific Islands Forum. Our firm view is if there's a gap in a country’s security in the Pacific, they should ask the rest of the Pacific family to see if they can fill it first. And Australia stands ready to do that. We're proud to be the security partner of choice for so many countries in the Pacific, like we are the development partner of choice. That's why we signed a bilateral security arrangement with Vanuatu. That's why we're negotiating a bilateral security treaty with Papua New Guinea right now. We stand ready to be the security partner of choice. And as the PIF leaders concluded last year, we should look towards other members of the Pacific family first before going outside the region.

GILBERT: Joining me from Apia, Samoa. Pat Conroy, Minister for the Pacific. Thanks for your time.

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