Interview with Leah Lowonbu, Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Disaster assistance for Vanuatu, climate change, Security agreement with Vanuatu, AUKUS agreement, Pacific Labour Scheme.
Port Vila, Vanuatu

Leah Lowonbu, VBTC: Again, welcome, thank you so much, Honourable Pat Conroy, for your time, taking the time to come to VBTC sharing some insights into the deepening relationship that Vanuatu has with Australia.

Since the election in 2022 you have been vocal about stepping up in the Pacific, engaging more in the Pacific. How would you describe the relationship between Vanuatu and Australia?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Look, firstly, thank you for the kind invitation to be here. It’s a genuine pleasure. I describe the Australian-Vanuatu relationship as going from strength to strength. I can’t think in living memory when it’s been stronger. And that demonstrates the commitment not just of both governments but, quite frankly, the people of Australia and Vanuatu to deepen the relationship. You are one of our closest neighbours and one of our dearest friends.

Leah Lowonbu: And so Australia has played a very crucial role in responding to the current cyclone and disaster in Vanuatu and continues to do so. What are your comments on the humanitarian support here?

Pat Conroy: Well, firstly, can I pass on from the people of Australia our condolences about the tragic cyclones Judy and Kevin and devastation that they’ve brought throughout Vanuatu.

Australia has been privileged to provide support. Within two days we had HMAS Canberra travelling to Vanuatu, our largest naval ship. It had helicopters on board to help provide supplies, and we’ve provided about 500 tonnes of supplies. In addition to the Defence personnel who’ve helped rebuild villages and halls and schools, we’ve provided an initial $4.35 million Australian in support to non-government organisations to really get out into the community and help with things like food.

And today I announced with Foreign Minister Napat a further $8 million Australian in funding assistance for the Vanuatu Government to help with the recovery. You’ve been there to help us in our time of need, and it’s only right as proud members of the Pacific family that we support you as well.

Leah Lowonbu: Yeah, the community here in Vanuatu are really thankful for the support, the rapid response from the Australian Government towards this disaster. And will we expect Australia to provide more support in terms of the recovery phase and continued support to this disaster?

Pat Conroy: Well, we stand ready to listen to the priorities of the Government of Vanuatu. And if more assistance is required, we will be very privileged to be part of that. We are proud to be the largest development partner for Vanuatu. This year alone we’ll be providing support of around $120 million Australian and importantly that money is targeting priorities that your government and your people set. It’s not from Canberra or Australia; it’s what your government says are the priorities to help advance your nation. So if further assistance is required, we stand ready to support you.

Leah Lowonbu: Thank you. So with the cyclones that have happened, [indistinct] cyclones, they’re related to climate change. So what is Australia doing to assist reduced greenhouse gas emissions and other known polluters of the climate?

Pat Conroy: That’s an excellent question, and the new Australian Government, we’ve been in power for 11 months but we’re still relatively new, we were elected on a platform of strong climate change action both domestically and as part of global efforts. So domestically we’ve committed to reaching 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030 by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 on the way to net zero emissions by 2050.

We passed national climate laws last year and only two weeks ago we passed through the parliament the mechanism to actually cut pollution. And I’m very confident we’ll achieve those targets and play our part in the global effort to combat climate change.

But, importantly, we’re also part of the global efforts. So we’ve been proud and privileged to co-sponsor the resolution driven by Vanuatu to the International Court of Justice on Climate. I think the standing of Vanuatu in the international community has never been higher because of your championing of action on climate change. And we were privileged to support the ICJ effort.

We were also very privileged to be trying to secure support to host a UN Climate Conference in the Pacific in COP31 in 2026. We think that this is an excellent way of drawing the world’s attention to what is occurring in the Pacific. Sadly, no region is more impacted by climate change. Vanuatu, according to the World Bank, is the most disaster-prone country in the world, and climate change is driving that. And Australia stands ready to combat climate change, be part of a responsible global action on that to support Vanuatu.

Leah Lowonbu: Thank you. Australia is a big exporter of fossil fuel. Do you see that as a barrier to actually host the COP meeting with the Pacific nations?

Pat Conroy: Well, I understand people’s concerns about that. Obviously, the way the UN systems treat greenhouse gas emissions, it’s the responsibility of the country where the emissions occur to cut the greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s why Australia’s commitment to net zero emissions is so important, why our commitment to achieving 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030 is so important. And that’s coming off a relatively low base of just over 20 per cent.

But think about that – in only seven years' time eight out of 10 kilowatts of electricity coming out of Australia will be clean, carbon-free renewable energy. So that’s our commitment. And we think the UN Climate Conference will be a great way of shining the world’s attention on what is occurring in the Pacific. And Australia is really keen to play our part globally.

Leah Lowonbu: Pacific nations have raised concern about Japan’s plan to release treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean. What is Australia’s position on that?

Pat Conroy: Well, Australia’s position is that we are really glad that Japan is working with the International Atomic Energy Agency on strong verification processes that IAEA will oversee it and that Japan has committed to not release the water unless the IAEA have verified that the safeguards are in place. So we think that is a critical precursor to any release of wastewater from Fukushima.

Leah Lowonbu: So you’re here also to discuss some of the – or the security partnership agreement that was signed with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia, who was here. What issues were raised, and what outcome would these talks have to the agreement?

Pat Conroy: Well, it’s all about deepening our relationship. And this is my third visit to Vanuatu in five months, including the visit with Foreign Minister Wong where the BSA was signed. I’ve met Prime Minister Kalsakau four times in five months, and it’s about working as two close neighbours and good friends for a secure, stable and prosperous Pacific.

So we talked about operationalising the bilateral security agreement. That includes things like supporting your maritime security with your Guardian Class patrol boat being damaged in the recent cyclones. So we had good discussions about how we can support your security aspirations. We obviously have close cooperation. We’ve got a Defence Cooperation Program that supports the Vanuatu security services.

So that was critical. But it’s not just physical security; it’s also economic security. And that’s why we’re proud to support your economic development. That’s why we announced a $25 million budget support package earlier in the year. That’s why we’re so happy to have ten and a half thousand Ni-Vans working in Australia in the labour mobility scheme. And they on average send back somewhere between 12 and $15,000 Australian each year and get great skills and experience to come back and start their own businesses.

Leah Lowonbu: And on that, are there any plans to expand the scope of agreement, especially in regard to any military cooperation?

Pat Conroy: Well, we already have a level of cooperation through the Defence Cooperation Program. And we’re always very happy to work more closely. One of the election commitments we announced that we are now implementing is a School of the Pacific where we would help train the non-commissioned officer level of military forces. And there's very strong cooperation between the Australian Federal Police and your police. So we’re very happy to improve our cooperation because it makes the whole of the Pacific safer and more secure.

Leah Lowonbu: Australia has invested a sizable amount in security issues in the Pacific – the [indistinct] accord, a training camp, as you mentioned a military barracks et cetera. Is this influenced by China’s activity in the region?

Pat Conroy: It’s driven by this Government’s deep commitment to the Pacific. The Labor Party, which I’m a proud member of, has had a long and abiding support for Pacific sovereignty and Pacific advancement. We’re the party that worked with Papua New Guinea to grant independence in 1975. We’re the party that was signatory to the Treaty of Rarotonga under Bob Hawke. So we’re proud to have a Pacific identity, to be part of the Pacific family. And so all our measures are aimed at supporting sovereign governments like those of Vanuatu and the legitimate hopes and aspirations of the people of Vanuatu.

Leah Lowonbu: Thank you. So, concerning that, there have been concerns raised by some Pacific leaders and former leaders of the Pacific Island Forum about the AUKUS. Is it consistent with the view from the Pacific Island nations that climate change is the largest security threat rather than China? What is your comment?

Pat Conroy: Well, we’re taking very strong action on climate change because we completely support the Boe Declaration, which said that climate change is the number one security threat to the Pacific. That’s why we’re taking strong action domestically, and that’s why we’re being part of a global solution internationally.

But equally, we have to make sure that we have a strong and sovereign military as a nation. And the AUKUS arrangement is about sharing technology. And the one everyone focuses on is sharing technology around nuclear-powered submarines. And we do have that arrangement in place with the United States and the United Kingdom.

Importantly, prior to the announcement we briefed over 60 governments, including the Government of Vanuatu, on what we were doing. Phone calls were exchanged from Prime Minister Albanese, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and myself. And that’s really important to be courteous and respectful to nations so that there are no surprises. But, importantly, the acquisition of those nuclear-powered submarines is fully consistent with the Treaty of Rarotonga, which bans – which commits signatories to keep the South Pacific nuclear free. And we’re a proud signatory of that. And these submarines will be conventionally armed and they will not have nuclear weapons. And we’re proud to be a foundation signatory to the Treaty of Rarotonga which commits the signatories to not have nuclear weapons

Leah Lowonbu: Thank you, Minister. Will Australia look into making Australian workers scheme more sustainable for Vanuatu given the challenges to do with the labour shortage here in the country?

Pat Conroy: Well, I had really productive conversations with various ministers here about that scheme. It’s a scheme that if it’s to be successful has to work for the Government and people of Vanuatu as well as Australian business. And we have about 36,000 Pacific workers in Australia right now, 10 and a half thousand of them are Ni-Vans, so more than a quarter come from Vanuatu. And it’s a scheme, as I’ve said, the average money being sent back is between 12 and $15,000 Australian a year, so it’s lifting workers, their families, their villages out of poverty. But it has to be more than that. It has to give them skills, and we have to make sure that the right people are coming over.

So I emphasised to the Government of Vanuatu that they have total control on the numbers of Ni-Vans coming to Australia and who comes over. Because it’s about being an outlet for people who don’t have jobs or don’t have secure jobs so that they can come and work in Australia, earn an income, get good skills and come back to Vanuatu and start their own businesses. And that its objective, and we’re investing more in the pre-departure process so that people understand more what their pay will be, what their working conditions will be. We’re investing more in training them when they’re in Australia. And then also training them and helping them start a life when they come back to Vanuatu.

We just had a pilot project where we tutored 40 Ni-Vans on how to set up their own businesses coming back from Australia. And I’m proud to say 37 of the 40 have started very successful businesses contributing to the Vanuatu economy. But, again, I stress this scheme only works if it works for Vanuatu. And that’s why a lot of the control rests with the Government of Vanuatu.

Leah Lowonbu: Australia has announced the implementation of the Pacific Engagement Visa, and just from what you just said, how is this going to be a solution to what we’re trying to address – the labour shortage here in Vanuatu, because we’re looking at more families moving to Australia and staying in Australia.

Pat Conroy: The Pacific Engagement Visa is all about growing the people-to-people links between the countries of the Pacific and Australia. And we do that by allocating around 3,000 permanent migration spots each year to grow a Pacific diaspora in Australia.

I’d make a couple of points: firstly, that 3,000 is spread throughout all of the Pacific, and the numbers from each country will be developed in consultation with the governments of each country. So the Government of Vanuatu can agree to either not participate in the scheme or have quite a low number or a higher number. And so that’s my first point, so that we deal with that labour shortage issue.

Secondly, the requirement around the scheme is that people must have a job offer in Australia and pass health and character tests. And, importantly, there is a random ballot selection process, like the US green card system or what New Zealand does with a couple of countries. And that means that someone who’s a school leaver has as much chance of winning a spot as someone who’s a doctor or a lawyer. And that way we deal with those issues around so-called brain drain where if you didn’t do it that way you’d obviously be pulling lots more teachers, doctors and lawyers out of the system, whereas this will be much more random.

Leah Lowonbu: So you mentioned about the discussion with the Honourable Prime Minister. Are you advising that the current government should step up more in managing the number of workers going to Australia and staying there?

Pat Conroy: No, my position that I’ve put to the Honourable Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister is that if there are issues with the scheme let’s work together to solve them. Some of them are cultural dislocation. So when I was last here in December, I had some great discussions with the National Council of Chiefs. So one thing we’re looking at doing is supporting some of your chiefs to come over to Australia and support Ni-Van workers more, as well as more sort of traditional support through cultural liaison officers where we have Vanuatu nationals supporting Vanuatu Ni-Van workers in Australia. So, again, it’s one where the Government of Vanuatu is critical to this process. If they would like a change to the scheme, we will deliver a change to the scheme. It has to work for everyone involved. But I will say that it’s delivering more than half a billion Australian dollars a year of remittances back to the Pacific. That is a huge economic boost to countries around the region.

Leah Lowonbu: Thank you, Minister. So a lot of people are commenting about the new visa and questioning whether Australia is thinking also to provide visa-free travel to Australia and some of the concern coming from locals here in Vanuatu.

Pat Conroy: I understand that concern and that pressure. And I understand where people are coming from. What we have announced as a result of very strong advocacy from Prime Minister Kalsakau is bringing visa processing back into Vanuatu. So as a direct result of a meeting between Prime Minister Kalsakau and Prime Minister Albanese in February – sorry, in March in Australia we will be establishing a visa processing office in Port Vila, and we expect that to be up and running around July this year. Importantly, that means that visas will be processed either in Australia in the majority of cases, but if there are problems or there’s the need to speed it up, there is the Port Vila office that will really speed up visa processing.

We acknowledge that visa processing takes too long sometimes, and that’s why the Port Vila office will be there to help the people of Vanuatu get good access to Australia.

Leah Lowonbu: Thank you, again, Honourable Pat Conroy, for your time here at VBTC and, again, talking to us. And I hope you enjoy the rest of your time here in VBTC.

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