Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Pacific Islands Forum, Kiribati withdrawal from Pacific Islands Forum, impact of climate change on Pacific Islands.

Patricia Karvelas: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese heads overseas on Wednesday, this time to Fiji for the Pacific Islands Forum where climate change is expected to be front and centre. Regional security and China’s growing influence also loom large as the Solomon Islands continues its pivot towards Beijing.

The high stakes meeting comes amid signs of strain within the forum with Kiribati withdrawing in protest after its preferred candidate for Secretary-General was defeated.

Pat Conroy is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. He’s heading to Suva today, and he’s our guest this morning. Minister, welcome.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Good morning, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: I think your mic is a little – are you on mic? Let’s just hope we can hear you a bit better in a moment

Look, this meeting comes amid signs of a thaw in relations between Canberra and Beijing. What will your message be to island nations about China and regional security?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: My message to the Pacific nations is that the Pacific region should look to our security needs first within the Pacific, of which Australia is a member, and only go to outside partners when those security needs cannot be met.

Patricia Karvelas: Now, we are hopefully getting you on mic. We’ve just got a little bit of trouble with the mic. We can hear you, but probably not clearly enough.

I’ll put this question to you – China is demanding Australia agree to four conditions for a reset in relations: to treat China as a partner rather than a rival; seek common ground while shelving differences; and reject manipulation by a third party; and to build public support featuring positiveness and pragmatism. Are those conditions reasonable?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: [Indistinct].

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. We’re going to just revisit this line. We are having trouble getting the Minister audible to you. You’re listening to ABC RN Breakfast, Patricia Karvelas with you.

Now, we are joined – and we are trying to resolve this microphone issue – by Pat Conroy, who is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. A pretty key meeting is about to happen where, of course, the Prime Minister will attend this Pacific Islands Forum. Now, no doubt you know this was a key theme of the election campaign – how to deal and strengthen ties with the Pacific in light of the rise of China and the way China has been doing deals in that region. The Prime Minister will be going.

Pat Conroy is the Minister responsible for the area. And, of course, it won’t all be about China at all – climate change is the big ticket item for the Pacific with, of course, climate change posing an existential threat there for Pacific Islanders. Lots of implications, and they have been putting pressure on governments, both past and now this new government on a stronger stance on climate change. 0418 226 576 is our text line. I’d love to hear from you this morning.

I believe we’ve got the Minister back and a little more audible.

Now, Minister, I asked you about – and I know you heard me, so I won’t go through the question again – but just China’s demands. Are those conditions reasonable?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Look, I think the key message – back to your original question – is that Pacific security should come from within the Pacific region, that the Pacific family should be looking for its security needs within the Pacific and only go to outside partners when they cannot be met. And that certainly was reflected in the discussion amongst Foreign Ministers that I was present at in Suva on Friday.

That’s the key message that I’m hearing from our Pacific family. And it’s reflected in the Foreign Ministers communique that’s been released, which is that it’s really important that we use the regional architecture of the PIF to support our security needs rather than engaging with outside partners first.

Patricia Karvelas: So on these demands from China – that we be a partner rather than a rival, we seek common ground while shelving differences – does Australia think that’s reasonable?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I can’t comment on that specific request, but what I can say is that what was a very clear message from Pacific leaders during the regional visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister is that there’s a strong desire for everything to go through a regional approach, to approach the Pacific Islands Forum rather than go to individual countries trying to seek agreement on these issues.

And I think that’s really important that we respect and renew the central architecture of the Pacific, which is the Pacific Islands Forum. It’s natural that China is interested. The United States is interested. France, the United Kingdom, India are all increasing their interests in the Pacific. But the key message I’m hearing and the one I’m supporting is that security has to come from within the Pacific first before engaging outside.

Patricia Karvelas: As you prepare for this meeting there are reports that the Solomon Islands has blocked Australian aid workers from entering the country as it moves closer to Beijing. Can you confirm that? What’s happened?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: The headline with that report is not true. The Solomon Islands have not blocked or refused entry for those five aid workers.

Patricia Karvelas: What have they done then?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: There is a delay in processing those visas. Australian aid workers and officials have been entering the Solomon Islands throughout the Covid lockdown. My advice from the department is that these five advisers’ work is administratively complex. They work across multiple government agencies and there’s a bit of a delay in processing their visas because they’re administratively complex.

Patricia Karvelas: I’m sure lots of things are complex. Is it usual, though, to see this kind of delay?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: My advice is yes, that this is – has occurred in the past and that no visas have been blocked; there’s just a delay in processing these specific five visa applications. But there are many Australian aid workers in the Solomon Islands right now and many visas that have been processed over the last few months for entry.

Patricia Karvelas: How significant is the decision from Kiribati to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum, and how long could it last?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, Pacific unity is incredibly vital, and that’s why we welcomed the Suva agreement reached under the leadership of Fiji last month. In fact, we supported that process by flying a number of Micronesians leaders to the meeting. So we’re very committed to Pacific unity. It’s very important. And so we’re working very hard under the leadership of Fiji to engage with the government of Kiribati and to encourage them to re-engage in the process and not go through with their formal decision to leave the Pacific Islands Forum.

It’s a powerful voice for our region. As I’ve said, it’s the central architecture for our region, and losing Kiribati would obviously not be a good thing, and that’s why we’re working hard to avoid that.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. How does it play into the strategic competition in the region, Minister? Will Kiribati be drawn closer to Beijing?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, without speaking on behalf of the government of Kiribati, their publicly stated concerns are about issues around regional balance within the Pacific Islands Forum, how the agreement was reached in Suva last month. Certainly their letters that have gone to the PIF aren’t about China; they are about how the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum was selected and how to ensure a regional balance amongst the three sub-regions of the Pacific.

So I don’t think people should be perceiving their move within the context of China’s increasing engagement in the region. It’s more associated with how do we renew the architecture of the Pacific Islands Forum to make it representative of all three regions and how do we make it sustainable. And I think that’s why the Fiji government as the chair of the PIF is working hard with like-minded countries like Australia to resolve these issues.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, after Penny Wong’s meeting with her Chinese counterpart last week, at the end of last week, has anything changed in that relationship?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I think we obviously welcome increasing dialogue with China. We continue to make the point that Australia hasn’t changed; China’s attitude has changed over the last few years. But that dialogue is really important, and we’ve got a number of issues that we’re working to resolve there. And one of the key messages out of Foreign Minister Wong is that while the Australian government has changed our national interests has not changed and our approach to China has not changed. And that’s an important message for China to hear.

But it is important that we meet with their ministers. The Deputy Prime Minister has done so with his Defence counterpart, and it’s very pleasing that Foreign Minister Wong has done so as well.

Patricia Karvelas: So dialogue, yes, but no change in terms of the entrenched positions of both sides?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, as I said to you, Australia’s view is that our national interests haven’t changed. There are significant issues that we need to resolve, such as the trade blockages, such as the detention of several Australian citizens. And we’re working hard on that. But this is a process that will take a long time if it – and we are committed to that dialogue.

But, as I said, our national interest has not changed. The attitude of the new Australian government is essentially the same as the last Australian government on the issue of China and their increasing assertiveness in the region.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, Australia is using this summit to send the message about our commitment to tackling climate change. Now you’ve said the 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 is a floor, not a ceiling. Are you prepared to go higher?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Our election commitment is what we’ll implement. But I can say that at the forum our renewed and increased action on climate change has been welcomed by Pacific Island nations. In fact, the Foreign Ministers communique that’s been released states specifically that they welcome Australia’s renewed commitment to the climate change priorities and welcome our interest in hosting a COP.

So I can say to you, whenever I’m engaging with Pacific leaders either bilaterally or through forums, there is real enthusiasm on Australia’s climate policies, a palpable sense of relief that we are finally listening to the region’s priorities and respecting things like the Boe Declaration that we signed up to in 2018 that said that climate change is an existential threat to the region, including Australia. So I think that it’s giving us a huge opportunity to rebuild our relationship with the Pacific, and that’s why Labor’s climate policies are so important.

I should stress it’s not just the 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030; it’s the legislated net zero emissions by 2050; it’s the Pacific climate financing facility that will help with climate change in the Pacific; and it’s the interest in hosting a UN climate conference, a COP, in partnership with the Pacific that’s engendering real enthusiasm in the region.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, is Australia prepared to support Vanuatu’s push to get legal advice from the International Court of Justice on the climate change obligations of nations? And what would the practical effect of that be?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we’ve said publicly that we support the process and we applaud Vanuatu in taking it to the UN General Assembly. And, in fact, the Foreign Ministers communique from the PIF that I helped negotiate last Friday asked the Pacific Prime Ministers – the Pacific leaders, rather, to endorse that call. So we are supportive of the process.

We need to – all nations need to work through what the specific questions to the ICJ will be that Vanuatu will put in their resolution to the UN General Assembly, but obviously this is a really important resolution that will help increase momentum for action on climate change.

Importantly, it does talk about – any questions talk about the obligations on all major emitters past, present and future. Because it’s very important that we just don’t look at what has occurred in the past in terms of emissions but continue to put pressure on all countries, particularly major emitters, into the future to reduce their emissions.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, Australia likes to talk about the Pacific as family. It’s the kind of language we hear. What obligations do we have to accept climate refugees from the Pacific if their islands become uninhabitable?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, this is a real challenge, and it’s one where we’re working hard, first, to avoid climate change where we can through our commitment to international action, secondly, to support adaptation in the Pacific Islands, and that’s why Labor’s announcement of a Pacific climate financing facility was so important because that will support funds for adaptation of Pacific Islands. And then, third, we’ll need to deal with the inevitable human movements within Pacific nations and around Pacific nations that come around from climate change.

That’s why, for example, we’re working with them to broaden our economic links through our changes to the Pacific labour schemes to really turbo charge them. And that’s why, very importantly, we announced the Pacific engagement visa where for the first time Australia will reserve a specific portion – in this case, 3,000 – permanent migration spots each year for Pacific Island citizens. That is revolutionary and it’s helping our relationship in the Pacific.

Patricia Karvelas: So is this all in preparation for what’ll might be a likely outcome where we will see people needing to come to Australia as climate refugees?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: It’s more focused on building our human-to-human links, our people-to-people links and building the Pacific diaspora, which is a real advantage that we have over other nations that are interested in this region.

But you’re absolutely right that one of the aspects of climate change we’re going to have to deal with is islands that are disappearing, and how we handle human movement around that is a critical question into the future. New Zealand has looked at specific visas. That’s an issue that I think will come up in future PIFs.

The other part of that that I’ve been really delighted to support efforts from small island states is around changes to the maritime law. Because one of the challenges is when islands disappear the exclusive economic zones around that island, the rights to the fishing and sea bed mining, disappear as well under current UN laws. And so I’ve been very vocal at both the PIF and at recent multilateral meetings at CHOGM in supporting the efforts of the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu to change maritime law so that if a Pacific nation or any nation loses an island because of climate change they don’t lose the economic exclusive zone around that island, that has a huge economic benefit for them.

So there’s all these implications of climate change that we have to deal with, but the main message I give and the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister give to the Pacific region is we’re there to support them, to amplify their voice in multilateral forums on all these issues. And we’re there to actually take action on climate change and support the hopes and aspirations of the entire Pacific region rather than to bully and intimidate them, as Prime Minister Morrison did at the 2019 PIF, which the Fijian Prime Minister said directly led to countries looking towards China.

So a new Australian government with a new attitude supporting the aspirations of the Pacific is advancing our national security and the national security of the entire region.

Patricia Karvelas: Many thanks for your time, Minister.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Have a good morning.

Patricia Karvelas: Pat Conroy is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. And apologies for having some microphone issues at the beginning of that conversation. You’re listening to ABC RN Breakfast, Patricia Karvelas with you.

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