Interview From Port Vila, Vanuatu

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-Vanuatu Bilateral Security Agreement, Pacific Maritime Security Program, climate change, Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) program, meeting returned workers at Mele village.

Kieran Gilbert, Sky News: I’m joined live now from Vanuatu by the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, and the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thank you both for joining us this afternoon. Pat Conroy, first to you, can you give our viewers a sense of what this new bilateral security agreement covers?

Minister Conroy: Thanks, Kieran, and first, can I pass on my condolences as well, to the families of the two slain police officers, and the family of the civilian as well. The Bilateral Security Partnership is a very important crystallisation of the security partnership that already exists between Vanuatu and Australia. It does three important things: it formalises a security dialogue, which is essential; secondly, it expands the base of what is considered security in line with the Boe Declaration, so it looks at cooperation for policing, for military, for cyber, for climate change, importantly; and thirdly, it opens up options for cooperation, further cooperation between the two nations, so it's an important step that really is crystallising the security partnership that's already there. We were at a wharf today that Australia had rebuilt in partnership with the Government of Vanuatu, next to a Guardian Class Patrol Boat that is part of the $2.1 billion Pacific Maritime Security Program. So, our security partnership with Vanuatu goes back 40 years, but today's agreement is an important step in that process.

Gilbert: Simon Birmingham, how has the show of bipartisanship been received there?

Shadow Minister Birmingham: Kieran, it's been very valuable to send this bipartisan message, that regardless of who is in government in Australia, we are committed to partnerships across Pacific island nations. Today in signing this security treaty, it's a treaty that was first announced or the intention to deliver it by Malcolm Turnbull. It was negotiated during the period of the Morrison Government, it has been signed now by the Albanese Government. It is but one demonstration. We were there, as Pat just said, for the upgrade of important wharf facilities, delivered again under governments in Australia, transitioning from Coalition to Labor, as is our support for the Guardian Class vessels, but indeed reaching out beyond those areas of security cooperation. We've just come from visiting a local community, where we were able to sit down, talk to local people, hence the floral tributes around our necks, and make sure that we are understanding clearly their perspectives and priorities about how we continued to work together as Australia with Vanuatu.

Gilbert: Pat Conroy, has there been a reassurance, as we sign this bilateral agreement, that Vanuatu has not been in security talks with Beijing as we saw unfold in the Solomons?

Minister Conroy: Well, I think that the important point to make is that Prime Minister Kalsakau made the point that Australia is the principal security partner for Vanuatu, and he echoed the remarks that was in the leaders' communique from the Pacific Islands Forum, that the governments and peoples of the Pacific should look towards the Pacific family to assist in security matters first. And this is just one part of our enduring relationship with Vanuatu. The Pacific labour scheme's another great example where we have almost 10,000 ni‑Vanuatu workers in Australia filling our labour shortages, developing skills, and sending nearly $150 million back home each year, and we got to meet some of them today. So, our relationship goes beyond security to economic and cultural, and it's just a great example, and having the bipartisan trip here just emphasises to the people of Vanuatu that no matter who is in power in Australia, they'll have an enduring friend in Australia.

Gilbert: Is it fair to say, Simon Birmingham, that the number one security concern‑concern full stop‑when it comes to the Pacific is the issue of climate change?

Shadow Minister Birmingham: Well, the Boe Declaration makes that clear in terms of the diversity of challenges that Pacific island nations see that that creates for them, challenges obviously in terms of their lifestyle, their land, their ocean, but also health and other systems, which it's important for all of us to recognise, and with that, to work as closely as possible with those Pacific island nations. But of course, the security challenges do go deeper and extend further, as is recognised by them too. There have been some of the most challenging and contested times, especially in our region, and Australia and Vanuatu are stronger when we stand together, which is what today's signing indicates that we are both committed to doing.

Gilbert: Now, Pat Conroy, you mentioned the labour mobility scheme. I understand that some officials there have raised concerns with you, Pat, and the government about the scheme. What are some of the worries that have been raised with you?

Minister Conroy: Well, worries have been raised, but it's in the context of a general appreciation for what the scheme is delivering, as I said, nearly $150 million a year being delivered to the Vanuatu economy, which is 10 per cent of their GDP. But there are some concerns, particularly around family separation, particularly for people on long-term visas of up to four years. That's a long time to be away from your family. That's why in the last budget, and in fact we took it to the last election, the Albanese Government has committed to a trial of allowing 200 Pacific workers to bring their families over.

But this scheme overall has been very positive for Australia and the Pacific, and we met some great workers today. For example, Georgie, who's actually worked in my electorate in a flower farm. The money he's actually been able to earn and send home has meant he’s started a development business, building homes for people in his community, or Christelle, who used her skills in apple farms and the money she earned to start up an agricultural business here where she grows potatoes, and she's employing women only staff.

So, yes, we need to work on the family separation issue, and we really are committed to that, but this is a story of great development and great partnership. We've got almost 10,000 ni‑Vanuatu workers in Australia, they're making a huge contribution to our economy, developing skills, and we're expanding the industries they're working in to the care economy, and then they come home and set up their own businesses. It's a great success story, but we can do better and we will do better.

Gilbert: Pat Conroy, Simon Birmingham, I know you've got other commitments this afternoon. I appreciate your time, thanks.

Minister Conroy: Thanks, Kieran.

Shadow Minister Birmingham: Thanks Kieran.

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