Interview with Prianka Srinivasan, ABC Pacific Beat

  • Transcript
Subjects: Pacific Island Forum, Australia's relationship with Indonesia and migration between the countries.

Prianka Srinivasan Well, it's clear Australia's new Labor Government is keen to revamp its relationship with the Pacific with Foreign Minister Penny Wong visiting the region not once but twice just days after being sworn in. But beyond visits, just what will this new relationship look like? I spoke with new Pacific Minister Pat Conroy just yesterday. He says he wants to implement policy promises made on the campaign trail, including ambitious climate change targets and improving pathways to permanent Australian residence for Pacific Islanders. I started by asking him why Australia took the step of helping to facilitate an extraordinary meeting with Pacific Island leaders in Fiji this week.

Pat Conroy: Well, we're strongly of the view that a united Pacific is a stronger Pacific, and the Pacific Islands Forum is where the Pacific family in its all strength and diversity gathers to speak with a unified voice. In that spirit, we've been supporting Fiji as the chair of the forum in leading talks with leaders from Micronesia and other forum members with a goal of keeping our family together. And that's what the meeting today and tomorrow is all about.

Prianka Srinivasan Are you concerned, then, about a lack of unity in the Pacific Islands Forum?

Pat Conroy: Well, we've obviously seen over the last year some real concern by some PIF members about, obviously, recent events and what we've been focused on since the election of the Albanese Labor Government two weeks ago is working to support Fiji's leadership of the forum to provide a solution that is Pacific‑led and that is capable of achieving consensus and it puts the forum on a sustainable footing for the future. For us, that is critical. The PIF is a critical piece of infrastructure for our region, for our family and it needs to be put on a sustainable footing.

Prianka Srinivasan Now, central, I guess, to the disunity in PIF at the moment is around the leadership of that regional body. What are Australia's thoughts on that? Do they support Henry Puna's current position, or would they like to see a new leader step up?

Pat Conroy: It wouldn't be appropriate for me to talk about that publicly, but what I can say is we're open to supporting outcomes and attracting consensus amongst all forum members. We expect that landing a deal will require clear communications and a willingness from all forum members to compromise in a Pacific way, and we're just glad to be there as part of the process, supporting Fiji's chair of the forum in leading that process. But can I just reiterate that I think all sides will have to compromise in the Pacific way and it's really essential that the PIF continues along the consensus approach that has made it such a successful voice for our region?

Prianka Srinivasan Now, obviously this is coming at quite a critical time with China's Foreign Minister just visiting the region and having just left, in fact. We've also seen Foreign Minister Penny Wong visit three Pacific nations in just over a week. Is the new Australian Government playing catch‑up to China in the region?

Pat Conroy: Well, it's clear that the previous Coalition Government in Australia really dropped the ball in the Pacific. It's clear from, for example, the security deal signed between China and the Solomon Islands, which represents the greatest strategic blunder for Australia in our region since World War II, that some nations in our region felt that they needed to get their security partnerships through countries not of our region. And that's something that the new Albanese Labor Government is really committed to reversing in terms of our people in our region, Pacific nations, hopefully, will see that their security is best driven by a regional approach; and we're obviously, as Australians, part of the Pacific Island region and we're keen to work with all of our Pacific members of the family to secure our regional security, and that's our key focus. That's why Minister Wong has been so fast in visiting the Pacific. That's why you can expect follow‑up visits from both Minister Wong and myself and other Ministers of the new Australian Government, because we recognise that we need to repair the damage that's been done, that for Australia to be a full member of the Pacific family requires a lot more effort from Australia.

Prianka Srinivasan Mmm. I mean, is that to say that if China wasn't present in the region, if it didn't strike the security deal with Solomon Islands, would we have still seen the Foreign Minister visit these three nations in just the span of a week?

Pat Conroy: Oh, absolutely, and you only have to look at that time last Labor Government where between 2007 and 2013 there was a huge focus on the Pacific. We had many Ministers visiting regularly, really good discussions, really good policy to drive the joint interests of the entire Pacific Island family. So, I think it is not because China is more active there. It is because, quite frankly, we have a Labor Government back in power in Australia that you're seeing greater engagement from the Australian Government. Richard Marles, for example, Labor – Australia's new Deputy Prime Minister formerly was our Pacific spokesperson. So, you're seeing people at all levels of our Government very committed to our Pacific family, and that can only be a good thing for our region.

Prianka Srinivasan Now, as you mentioned there, China has penned this security deal with Solomon Islands and we've also seen it just recently try and make a regional‑wide agreement, which has been rejected. What concerns you around China's involvement in the Pacific?

Pat Conroy: Well, I think we should focus less on what China is doing and more about what our Pacific region needs, and our goal obviously is that Australia is the partner of choice for all the members of the Pacific family, and that's what we're focused on: making sure that it's not just about support for infrastructure investment or overseas development. It is about Pacific migration, Pacific labour schemes, our cultural and sporting affinities and making sure that all Pacific nations, if they see a need for security support or economic support, that their natural reaction is to talk to other members of the Pacific family, including Australia.

Prianka Srinivasan And why do you think China shouldn't be involved in that, because we've been hearing from Pacific leaders saying that they are sovereign nations, it's up to them if they want to strike deals with China? Are you concerned about those bilateral agreements being struck between China and Pacific leaders; and, if so, why is there that concern?

Pat Conroy: Well, every Pacific nation is a sovereign nation and the leaders of each of those nations have the absolute right to strike up agreements with whomever they like, and that's very clear – it's very important to state that from the outset. They're all sovereign nations that must be respected. What I'm concerned about is to make sure that they see Australia as a strong and active member of the Pacific family where – because, ultimately, the best approach to regional security has to come from the region. The best approach to security has to come from every country in this region working cooperatively together to advance their interests.

And China, no doubt, will continue to be active in the region, as will other countries. For example, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, have all shown a real interest in stepping up their involvement in the Pacific Island region, and obviously that's really important to acknowledge. But what I'm focused on is increasing engagement of the Australian Government in the region, working on a consensus approach with our Pacific family, demonstrating that, for example, we are truly committed to the Boe Declaration that states that climate change is an existential threat to the entire region, including Australia, and that we respect our Pacific family by taking climate action seriously, for example.

So, we can only control what Australia does and that's what we're very focused on.

Prianka Srinivasan Now, Minister Conroy, we've seen the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, have a much heavier role in the Pacific and building relationships with Pacific leaders. What do you see your role as Pacific Minister being in the new Government?

Pat Conroy: Well, my role obviously is to support the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister in their Pacific engagement. I'll obviously be visiting Pacific Islands very regularly and I've tasked the Department of Foreign Affairs with working out a visitation program that obviously will be done in consultation with Pacific Islands Governments, and my key task is the implementation of our very extensive agenda. We released what I believe is the most comprehensive Pacific policy an opposition ever has undertaken and it's my job to implement that and to be the point person for the Australian Government in the Pacific.

I do think it's really important that the first contact, the first visit, from the new Labor Government is the Foreign Minister to demonstrate our renewed commitments. One of my key criticisms of the last Government is that the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, was more concerned with Paris than the Pacific, and that was to the detriment of both the Pacific and Australia. So, the increased activity from Minister Wong is a great thing. I will be supporting her and following up with my own visits. And you'll see a full‑court press. You'll see regular visits from Australian Government Ministers across a broad range of portfolios that have a natural interaction with the Pacific, whether it's Defence, Climate Change, the Pacific, Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister. Quite frankly, one of the key signs of success from the new Australian Government is that Pacific governments get sick of Australian Ministers visiting. That's a good sign. That means our engagement is there in a respectful way.

But it's very important to point – to note that it's not just about visits. It's not just about coming to announce agreements or announce further initiatives. It's delivering those initiatives [inaudible] … making sure, for example, that the Pacific Engagement Visa builds a strong diaspora of Pacific Island nations in Australia, making sure that the Pacific labour schemes do become the primary source of temporary labour for rural and regional industries in Australia, and that provides huge remittance flows back to the Pacific and deepens the economic sustainability of Pacific Island nations. Those are the key signs of success for Australia, is the implementation of those initiatives, and that's my overriding task.

Prianka Srinivasan Now, you spoke about implementation there. We have heard the Government and also Foreign Minister Penny Wong during her trip to the Pacific talk about supporting the Pacific Islands as they face the impacts of climate change. Now, leaders in the Pacific have explicitly called on Australia to stop supporting coal projects and to make ambitious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. What is your government willing to do, and what are they committing to when it comes to climate change?

Pat Conroy: Well, we have committed to very ambitious and scientifically responsible emissions reduction targets. We went to the election seeking a mandate to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030. We will deliver that. And that's on a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050. We'll also be supporting that by delivering 82 per cent renewable energy within Australia; seeking to host a UN COP conference within Australia in partnership with our Pacific family – that's very important. That COP bid will be in partnership with the Pacific – and obviously, we've committed to international initiatives such as a climate financing vehicle for the Pacific. So, what you'll see is a real commitment from the new Government to climate action because, as I said, we are a signatory to the Boe Declaration that states that climate change is the number one threat to the Pacific and, quite frankly, the last Government disrespected the Pacific family by not taking that seriously. So, we will take action, and we will work with our Pacific partners on that.

Prianka Srinivasan And now I also know that, and as you've mentioned, the government has committed to clearer pathways for Pacific Islanders to come to Australia, not just as labourers but also to have permanent residency and citizenship here. Can you tell us more about that and when, actually, these policies will be implemented?

Pat Conroy: This is a real ground-breaking initiative, the Pacific Engagement Visa. It's the first time that the Commonwealth of Australia, the Australian Government, will allocate a specific number of permanent migration visas for a region, and it's a sign of our support and our enthusiastic membership of the Pacific family that we want to make it easier for Pacific Islanders to live in Australia, to be permanent migrants and eventually become citizens, because that diaspora is so important. Quite frankly, I think it's a disgrace that in 2019, for example, there was only 621 Pacific Islanders who became permanent migrants to Australia, which represented only half of one per cent of the total permanent migration to Australia.

We've announced that every year there will be 3,000 permanent migration slots allocated to the Pacific Islands. They will be done on a pro rata basis amongst the Pacific Island nations so that we genuinely give people from each nation an opportunity. Importantly, they need to have a job offer in Australia so that there's an economic opportunity for them in this country. It's really important, because it's one way that we build greater linkages between the Pacific family and Australia, of which we are obviously a member of that family. And I'm seeking to implement that as quickly as possible, working in conjunction with the Department of Home Affairs, and it obviously manages the visa arrangements. That is a really important thing.

And people have said to me previously they find it very hard to migrate to Australia compared to other countries around the world, and I think it's ridiculous given the fact that PNG, for example, is our nearest neighbour; it's only three kilometres away from Australia, there's up to nine million Papua New Guineans, but it's very difficult for them to travel to Australia or even settle in this country. But we do need to be sensitive to the concerns of some Pacific Island nations around the implementation of this scheme. We need to make sure that it is a scheme that works to advance all nations in the Pacific and builds on the economic sustainability of the entire region.

Prianka Srinivasan Minister Conroy, thank you so much for your time.

Pat Conroy: My pleasure. Happy to chat.

Prianka Srinivasan That was Australia's new Pacific Minister, Pat Conroy.

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