Jenny Marchant and Dan Cox, ABC Newcastle

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Kigali, Rwanda.

Dan Cox: At a quarter past 7, Prince Charles and Camilla are in Central Africa right now. But so is local MP Pat Conroy. He's the MP for Shortland, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. He's one of the politicians from commonwealth countries gathering for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – CHOGM.

Jenny Marchant: CHOGM. So, they have the meeting usually every two years. This one, though, like so many big gatherings, has been delayed by Covid. This year it is being hosted in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Pat Conroy as Shortland MP and Minister for International Development and Pacific is there. He'll be joined later on this week by Richard Marles the Deputy Prime Minister and the Defence Minister. So there are a lot of high-level meetings, as you can imagine. There's always a bit of an awkward photo shoot, too, at CHOGM.

Dan Cox: Yes, there is. Pat Conroy joins you now. It's good morning, or good evening?

Pat Conroy: It's 9 o'clock my time, but good morning to you all.

Dan Cox: What's your role there?

Pat Conroy: Well, I'm participating in the Foreign Ministers meetings and dialogues. It's our job to develop the communique that the leaders of the Commonwealth will then sign off on when they arrive. So the Commonwealth obviously represents 2.5 billion people around the globe. So there's some very important issues that we're canvassing, from climate change to regional security to dealing with the post-Covid recovery.

Jenny Marchant: So the communique, is that like a commitment that the various Commonwealth countries will sign? You're there working out what it is that the countries are agreeing to?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Absolutely. What we're working to as a community of nations, a commonwealth of nations, in fact, that we'll agree on shared priorities. So the negotiations are going on right now around what that will cover. And it can include joint actions on climate change, economic development, human rights, which is something that the Commonwealth has spent many decades on, to other issues on things that are more current, like the war in Ukraine, for example.

Dan Cox: We often hear about countries making commitments about climate change, for example. Do these kind of communiques and meetings actually do anything?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, they're a forum to explain what governments are doing. So, for example, I've participated in a climate change forum this morning where I announced to delegates our climate policies and explained how we have changed course since the election in terms of increasing our targets, seeking to achieve higher rates of renewable energy and playing a role globally. But obviously a main commitment there that people are very focused on is implementation.

At these sorts of forums people have heard high-faluting words a lot – and what they're seeking is obviously governments delivering. Because many of the nations, for example, the Pacific nations, represented at CHOGM, these are nations that are suffering the impacts of climate change, the impacts that might actually wipe out their nations. So what they're interested in is actually delivery rather than just words.

Jenny Marchant: Will this meeting change the way the Australian government approaches or implements that climate change policy?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: It won't. Our policy is the policy we took to the last election, which we're committed to implementing. But significant parts of that policy are linked to international actions. So, for example, we've announced a finance facility to work with our Pacific family to help those countries invest in clean energy so that they can get the benefits of solar like many households in our country have, and to deal with climate change adaptation, deal with rising sea levels that are occurring no matter what we do on climate change. So those international aspects of our climate policy, for example, where we're communicating and working through where we can work together. As I said, CHOGM covers two and a half billion people, so there's significant common interests where we can advance the national interests as well as working with our partners both in the region and globally.

Dan Cox: How can the government's representatives like you strengthen the relationships between Australia and the other Commonwealth countries at meetings like this?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, many of the Commonwealth nations are nations close to us. So, for example, I was seated next to the Prime Minister of Tonga at a lunch today hosted by the New Zealand Foreign Minister. So it was a real opportunity to talk to them about our shared interest in the Pacific, which everyone's very focused on at the moment. And more broadly I was having meetings with the UK, one of the UK ministers, to talk about how we can advance investment in clean energy so that we can both set a dividend, the economic dividends, of investing in clean energy, the things that deliver jobs to the nation and jobs to us locally.

Jenny Marchant: Why bring the commonwealth leaders together when there are other gatherings around the world for larger and more comprehensive alliances of countries, for instance?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: It's a good question. But the commonwealth has had a very strong record on promoting human rights and democratic values. It was instrumental, for example, in the campaign to stop apartheid in South Africa and push for democratic reforms in other nations that were members of the Commonwealth. And it's important as a multilateral institution. It is a forum where Australia has a lot of influence as one of the most economically advanced nations in it. And it's a good way of meeting with like-minded countries.

So, as I said, there's about eight Pacific nations represented here, so it's a good opportunity to talk to our Pacific family about shared interests. And, as I've said, the Commonwealth members covers two half billion people, so it covers over a third of the entire population of the globe, and it's spread throughout the entire world. So it's rare to get a conference that covers so many countries but in a way that's still relatively manageable.

So I was meeting with small island states that covered countries as diverse as Tonga and Tuvalu, all the way over to Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies – or the Caribbean, rather – and these are countries that we wouldn't get the opportunity to engage with normally. And so it is a good opportunity.

If you look at other multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum, they are really important but CHOGM has delivered really good results for Australia in the past and it's part of the new Albanese government's policy of re-engaging in the world. It's really important that we advance our interests globally, and part of that is turning up. And one of our criticisms of the last government was that they weren't interested in turning up and advancing our interests.

Dan Cox: Minister, thank you for taking some time out from the CHOGM meetings. Enjoy your time in Rwanda.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you very much. Have a good morning.

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