Peter Stefanovic, Sky News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Pacific Islands Forum, Solomon Islands, China.

Peter Stefanovic: First, let’s go to Pat Conroy, Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Minister, good morning to you. Thanks for your time this Sunday morning. Realistically, what can come out of the Pacific Islands Forum?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, the Pacific Islands Forum is the critical piece of regional architecture for the Pacific region, and so one of the key tasks for Australia is to deliver a message that the new Government is committed to re-engaging in the region, to rebuilding a relationship that was significantly damaged by the last Government. So, when we’re there next week, the messages will be about us being there to listen, to respect our Pacific family, to let the Pacific family know about our very significantly different climate policies which really were at the heart of the frictions between the last Government and the broader Pacific region. And that’s certainly the message I delivered when I attended the Pacific Foreign Ministers forum in Suva on Friday.

That’s our key task in the PIF, but the PIF comes at a critical moment for the region both in terms of our unity as a Pacific family and, secondly, dealing with the increased interest from around the world in the Pacific region.

Peter Stefanovic: Beijing has sidelined its bid for a 10-nation pact. Do you expect it to eventually reheat that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Look, I think a lot of nations from outside the Pacific region are very interested. China is one of them and one of the key conversations we’re having at the PIF is around how it is critical that the Pacific security, our regional security, comes from within the region, from within the Pacific family, of which Australia is a proud member. So, that’s a message that is resonating at the PIF, that we must look towards our own security first before engaging with any outside partners.

Peter Stefanovic: But do you expect them to come again?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Oh, look, I think they’ve clearly indicated that they’re very interested in increasing their presence in the region, as is the United States, France, United Kingdom, India. This is a time of unparalleled interest in the Pacific region. And Australia as part of the Pacific family needs to help work on a regional approach to that.

Peter Stefanovic: And was that raised with you last week? What concerns were shared from other leaders to you about that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I think the conversation at the PIF was respectful of each nation’s sovereignty, but it’s fair to say that there was a consensus, as reflected in the communiqué that came out of the meeting, that the region is to look at itself first for security needs not only outside of the region where security needs cannot be met, and certainly Australia’s a vital part of that and we’ll continue to do that in multilateral forums such as the PIF and in our bilateral engagements with other countries.

But it’s clear that - it’s harder for us to say that we need to look to our region first if the region thinks we’re disrespecting it. And that’s what the last Government did in its approach to climate change, for example, which is the number one security threat in the region. So, obviously, our much better climate policies give us that opportunity to re-engage and look to the security of the Pacific in the region.

Peter Stefanovic: On that point, though, by committing more on climate change, and then you’ve got the Solomon Islands that’s pivoting towards China, and it’s making no real climate commitments. There is quite a serious contradiction in terms there, isn’t there?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, no, there isn’t because I think, rather than criticise other countries’ actions we need to take responsibility for our actions and as a developed nation, we have obligations that we need to fulfil, and part of that is net-zero emissions by 2050 and another part of that is 2030 emissions reduction target that’s consistent with a pathway of 1.5 degrees of global warming. So, while some people point to what China may or may not be doing, I can say to you in the Pacific, they regard the inaction on climate change under the last Australian Government as a critical failure of the relationship.

We signed up to the Boe Declaration in 2018 that said that climate change is the number one existential threat to the Pacific, and yet under Prime Minister Morrison not only did we do nothing on climate action, we then proceeded to bully and intimidate our Pacific family at the Tuvalu PIF in 2019 to prevent the Pacific coming forward with strong language on climate change. So, I think the criticism of the last Government by the Pacific was accurate and it undermined our relationship with the Pacific family, which then meant that they looked to other countries for influence and engagement.

Peter Stefanovic:  But, for instance, while we’re withdrawing from coal, China’s piling on more and more coal and will continue to do that for the foreseeable future. Would you expect Pacific Island nations to be more forceful in their language used against China on that point?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, the Pacific Island nations want strong action on climate change globally and, obviously, China’s made a series of commitments around climate change around achieving net-zero emissions around very significant investment in renewable energy and Australia, like the rest of the world, will expect with them keep those commitments and we’ll certainly be pushing them to keep those commitments. But I think that can I just reiterate, again, that Australia was in no position to lecture other nations about climate change under the last Government that took no action on climate change and, in fact, bullied nations in the Pacific to try to prevent them taking action.

Peter Stefanovic: On Solomon Islands, Prime Minister Sogavare is taking control of the national broadcaster SIBC. Since the switch in 2019, he has been embraced and advised by China, taken steps to consolidate power, delayed elections and signed security pacts, all against the will of the people. That looks to me like the emergence of a dictatorship; is it not?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I’m not going to comment on the internal matters of other nations, but what I can say to you is that Australia under the new Albanese Government is committed to being the partner of choice for the entire Pacific region. And that means we need to use every lever of statecraft to be that partner of choice, not just overseas development systems, not just action on climate change. It’s using our Pacific Labour Schemes to link our economy to the economies of the Pacific, it’s using the soft power of broadcasting into the Pacific it’s using sport it’s using our maritime security cooperation. So, what I can focus on is what Australia can do to be the partner of choice in the Pacific and that’s why our election policy we took on the Pacific was so broad and so revolutionary compared to our previous iterations.

Peter Stefanovic: Right. But given those points that I made how is the security of the region not undermined?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Again, I’m not going to comment on the decisions of sovereign nations. I’ve seen reports around the broadcasting corporation, but again, it’s not my position to comment on the internal matters of other countries in the Pacific. All I’m focused on is what Australia can do to be a better partner.

Peter Stefanovic: Well, internal matters may well become external matters, so how will you support the people of the Solomon Islands if they end up revolting against Sogavare if he pushes ahead and delays those elections?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what other countries do. That’s counterproductive and doesn’t help the case. But Australia has a long track record of supporting the election infrastructure in the Pacific. We’re funding right now and supporting the elections in Papua New Guinea through a $20 million package, including having ADF personnel on the ground. So, we’ve got a strong track record of supporting democracy in the region, but again, I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals. That just isn’t productive.

Peter Stefanovic: Okay. What about a few other nations then what concrete actions would Australia take to confront Sogavare and ensure other nations like Tonga don’t fall into China’s orbit?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, it’s not about us confronting leaders in the Pacific. It is about us working with the Pacific on our shared aspirations. And I’ve had some very productive meetings with both the Tongan Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, and what we’re really engaged in is how we can advance the development of the region and our nations together. And one of the things that’s very pertinent to countries like Tonga is our Pacific Labour Schemes and our focus on making them the primary source of temporary migrant labour in rural and regional Australia. This is a win–win where our farmers and our regional industries get the workforce they need and we get strong remittance flows and skills transfers back to home nations. That’s an incredibly powerful form of cooperation that other countries can’t match, and that’s something I’m really focused on, turbocharging that, as well as the really innovative Pacific Engagement Visa where, for the first time, we will be preserving 3,000 permanent migration spots for people from the Pacific. That will increase our people-to-people links and build – strengthen our relationship with the Pacific.

They’re the sorts of things I’m talking about with Pacific leaders that will help repair the relationship with the Pacific and help make us the partner of choice, which failed to happen under the last Government, which led to the greatest security disaster of the last 50 years in the region under Prime Minister Morrison.

Peter Stefanovic: Given the heat that the Prime Minister has come under, over the last week anyway, for the amount of time he’s spent away so far this year, does he need to go to the forum and not just send Penny Wong?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, that cheap sniping from the Opposition just shows how immature and weak they are. Which forum are they suggesting the Prime Minister should not have attended? Should he not have attended the Quad? Should he not have attended the NATO summit? Should he not have visited Ukraine to support a democracy under attack right now? And to suggest that he shouldn’t go to the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting is a complete abrogation of our responsibility and demonstrates how unfit they are for Government. This is the critical forum in the Pacific, our region. And for a former Government that just dropped the ball in the Pacific, where Marise Payne was more interested in Paris than the Pacific, the fact that she refused to travel to the Solomon Islands, the fact that Prime Minister Morrison in his bullying actions to the 2019 PIF pushed nations towards China – Prime Minister Bainimarama of Fiji said that in 2019, that Morrison’s arrogance and behaviour would push nations towards China. So, for them to suggest now that Prime Minister Albanese shouldn’t attend the PIF just lays another level of incompetence on what they did in Government and, quite frankly, it’s completely against the national interest.

Peter Stefanovic: Pat Conroy, Minister for the Pacific, thanks for your time this morning. Talk to you soon.

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

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