Interview with Liam Fox on Pacific Beat, ABC radio Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE

Presenter: Two Australian ministers are abroad continuing the push to strengthen relations with Pacific Island neighbours. The Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles is in the Solomon Islands and met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare last night. Meanwhile the Minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy is in Palau and met with President Surangel Whipps Junior.

Mr Conroy says Australian aid to Palau is focussed on improving connectivity for transport and communications, and in that vein, he flew to Palau on the Brisbane to Koror connector flight which has been funded by the Australian Government to help encourage more tourists to visit the country.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: I did go on the Brisbane to Palau connector which the Federal Government is supporting financially. This is a very important project, we're supporting the extension of the Air New Guinea flight that flies from Brisbane to Moresby, then goes on to Palau, and that's incredibly important.

Palau is a country that needs greater connectivity. Most Pacific Island countries really suffer the challenge of remoteness and the need to improve connectivity. That's why we're supporting this connection as we're also supporting the North Pacific connector that links in places like Nauru as well.

Liam Fox: Can you say anything about what you discussed with the President; has he highlighted any areas they could use more help with at all?

Minister Conroy: Obviously greater airline connectivity is important. This country that's really economically dependent upon tourism, so more connections means more tourists, and so that was a good conversation and we're already supporting their increasing connectivity for data.

So this afternoon I will be part of the ribbon‑cutting ceremony for the Palau Cables 2, which is providing a second data cable for Palau. And that's incredibly important, whether it's just being able to talk to other people or have data‑dependent businesses, and we're really proud to be the biggest investor in that project, which is genuinely trilateral.

So we're putting in around US $11 million, but it's also being supported by Japan and the United States, and so that's been really important. And the other one is Palau's shift to renewable energy, and I'll be touring the Palau Solar Project, where again we've invested $22 million out of the $30 million total of that project to achieve 20 per cent renewable energy in Palau. That's a great project of solar panels, batteries, and it's one that's really important.

Liam Fox: Back to the Brisbane‑Koror flights, have you had any feedback as to whether it's resulted in any increase in tourists from Australia, or elsewhere?

Minister Conroy: Well, it's early days. There were tourists on the plane, but it's only been operating for a few months, and I think it's really important that the message gets out there that it's available. And I know that the Palau Tourism Authority is working hard with the Australian travel agents, the travel tourism sector, to really raise awareness of it, and there's great opportunities for that. So it's early days, and once people have confidence, and it's a regular flight, that you can come up, spend a week in this beautiful country and then go home, for quite competitive rates, I think it will attract more interest.

Liam Fox: Now, we've spoken to the President recently, and it seems there are two big issues for Palau. One is the issue of Japan's plan to release treated nuclear wastewater, the President recently went to Japan, went to Fukushima, viewed what they were doing there and said he now has trust in the plan.

What is Australia's position on this? Does it back Japan's plan, does it have a position at all?

Minister Conroy: Well, our position is like many countries in the region, which is that we're committed to the ongoing protection of the Blue Pacific, and we expect that any discharge of treated water by Japan will be fully informed by thorough scientific assessments, and we obviously have welcomed and strongly support the International Atomic Energy Agency's role, including its establishment of a taskforce at Japan's request. And I'll note that the IAEA has publicly stated that Japan's approach is technically feasible, and is in line with standard international nuclear practice, so I think the really important thing is that there's regular dialogue between Japan and countries in the Pacific. They're doing that, and as I said, they requested a taskforce from the International Atomic Energy Agency to really support what is occurring. So I think it's really important that everyone just keeps talking and everything is done on a rational scientific basis.

Liam Fox: The other issue the President has been vocal on is his call for a greater US Military presence in his country in light of maritime incursions by Chinese vessels. There was, according to him, a Chinese survey vessel there that was directly above their submarine cable. Did he raise that issue with you at all?

Minister Conroy: Well, the issue raised is principally a matter of sovereignty between the Government and people of Palau and the United States, but obviously maritime security is important throughout the Pacific. That's why we've got the Pacific Maritime Security Program, and that's why in the election, the Labor Party took a policy of doubling the aerial maritime surveillance. That's principally aimed at stopping illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which is a big issue in the Pacific. Pacific Nations lose at least US $150 million of revenue each year due to illegal fishing, and so we're very committed to cracking down on that and supporting countries like Palau's efforts to do that, but the specifics of what President Whipps is talking about is really a matter for him and the United States.

Presenter: Australia's Minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, talking there to Liam Fox.

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