Press Conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: visit to PNG, Australian development cooperation, the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility, Bougainville peace process, support for border surveillance.
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Right, good afternoon everyone. I’m Pat Conroy. I’m the Australian Government’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific. And it’s a pleasure to be here in Port Moresby on my first visit to Papua New Guinea as Minister.

My visit here demonstrates – is another demonstration, rather, of the new Australian Government’s commitment to our relationship with Papua New Guinea, our closest neighbour and one of our dearest friends. In fact, this is the third visit by an Australian minister in the last eight weeks. In the last eight weeks. And, as I said, it’s further demonstration of the strength of our relationship and the strength of commitment from the new Australian Government to engage with Papua New Guinea.

This is the second day, and I’ve had some very productive meetings so far, including yesterday with Foreign Minister Tkatchenko. We had a good range of discussions. I updated him on our budget announcements that are particularly relevant to Papua New Guinea. They include a very significant increase in investment in Overseas Development Assistance – foreign aid. The budget last week increased our ODA or foreign aid by $1.4 billion over the next four years, which is the largest increase in a decade.

It included allocating $1.9 billion this financial year to aid for Pacific nations, including Papua New Guinea. This is the largest contribution – annual contribution, Australia has ever made to Pacific development. And we are the largest bilateral development partner to the Pacific, including $600 million to Papua New Guinea, which we’re so proud and privileged to deliver.

I also updated Minister Tkatchenko on our reforms to the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme, a scheme that is critical to filling skills shortages in Australia, increasing skills development in countries like Papua New Guinea and providing very strong income streams home. To give you an example of the power of that scheme, the average Pacific worker sends back $15,000 Australian dollars a year under the scheme. So, I had very productive conversations about how we’re turbocharging that scheme, making it more attractive for Australian employers, increasing protections for Pacific workers, starting trials of Pacific workers being able to bring their families over for longer-term visas and starting a trial of 500 aged care workers in that scheme.

We also talked about our $32 million Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy to increase the engagement of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation into the Pacific and partner with Pacific media to help develop and mentor journalists.

We talked about the Pacific engagement visa where for the first time in the history of Australia we will allocate 3,000 permanent migration spots annually to the Pacific for permanent migration. And I also informed Minister Tkatchenko that we would be increasing our funding for Pacific aerial maritime security surveillance by 250 per cent to crack down on illegal fishing that robs Pacific Islanders and Papua New Guineans in particular of one of your greatest natural resources, which is your fishing stocks.

So that was a very productive meeting yesterday. This morning I travelled out and visited Kwikila Village and District Hospital, and this was a real privilege to take a tour of the hospital and visit a community outreach project where I saw community health workers and village volunteers vaccinating babies, weighing babies and toddlers, making sure that Papua New Guineans are given the best start in life. And that was inspiring to watch the process and – as someone whose wife is an immunisation nurse – I’m in awe of the work that is being done in projects like this. This is literally a partnership between the Australian Government, the Papua New Guinean Government, the central health district government and health authority and the local village that is saving lives right now. And I was so privileged to be able to visit that.

And I’m looking forward to my further ministerial meetings over today and tomorrow. I’ll be launching an AFL partnership with Papua New Guinea. I’ll be launching a development film festival, and then on Thursday, I’ll be travelling up to Kokoda to take part in the commemorations for the 80th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign, a campaign that really symbolises the deep and abiding commitment between the people of Australia with the people of Papua New Guinea.

So, it’s been a real pleasure to be here. It won’t be my last visit, but it’s certainly been a very enjoyable first visit. I’m happy to answer anyone’s questions.

Speaker: Thank you, Minister. Are there any questions?

Journalist: Regarding the labour Pacific program. Many of our people here in the country have been for quite some time trying to get into Australia for some labour work. And I think in recent times there have been some that have gone  but we would like it to increase. How is such [Inaudible].

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you for the question. The question, for those who didn’t quite hear it was some Papua New Guineans have participated in the Pacific labour schemes, but more would like to. How can we increase that scheme? And you’re absolutely right – it’s one of the shared goals that I have with the Papua New Guinean Government. I spoke to Mr Tkatchenko about this yesterday and, in fact, I had a good conversation with Prime Minister Marape about it in Brisbane a month ago.

It’s one where we want to see more Papua New Guinean workers working in Australia. We think it’s a win-win. It fills our skills shortage, it provides really strong incomes to families and communities back here, and it gives skilling upgrades. So, we’re doing a number of things to make it more attractive. One, we’re reducing the cost for Australian companies to employ Pacific Islanders to make it more attractive compared to employing backpackers from Europe, for example. We’re increasing protections for workers so that they are not exploited, and we’re also expanding the areas they can work in.

This is not just a scheme about fruit picking or working in meat works, as important as they are. As I said, 500 aged care workers as a trial. We’re looking at other industries such as hospitality and tourism. And one of my main messages to the ministers in the Papua New Guinean Government is what can we do more to make it more attractive. And at the moment there’s about 800 Papua New Guinean workers in country. We’d like to see that grow. We’ve got a budget allocation for 35,000 Pacific Islander workers this year. And so, I’d love to see a four-digit number for Papua New Guinean workers. And one of my conversations will be what are the practical things we can do to change it, do we need more training here, do we need more assistance with the paperwork. We know visa processing generally has been too slow so how do we speed all that up? Because, as I said, it’s a real win-win if we do it properly.

Speaker: Next question. Do you mind coming forward? Unfortunately, the mics are…

Journalist: Minister, good afternoon. [Indistinct] from NBC. Your Deputy Prime Minister on his last visit to PNG last month. He said he supports PNG-Bougainville peace process. As the Minister for International Development, what is your, how would you provide support for Bougainville?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, our position on the Bougainville peace process is unchanged, as the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed. We – it is entirely a decision for the two parties and the process that is to be guided there. And we’ll abide by that obviously and we’ll provide support to that process and the two parties involved. We’ve got, obviously, a track record of supporting the Bougainville peace process and we’ll continue to be there supporting both parties and the formal process that is established.

Journalist: [Indistinct]

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, one of the key messages that I’m delivering in Papua New Guinea is we’re here to listen to your priorities and your needs. We want to understand what are the development needs of Papua New Guinea and then provide assistance in that – in whatever way we can.

Of the $1.9 billion allocated to the Pacific, $600 million will go to Papua New Guinea. We’re proud and privileged that Papua New Guinea is the largest development partner we have. And that range of assistance already crosses the gamut from health – and I was at a health facility this morning – to education, to security – so, for example, the things around aerial maritime surveillance for illegal fishing to the Guardian Class patrol boats – to infrastructure. So, we’re proud to support 1,800 kilometres of roads in Papua New Guinea in the national highways.

So, we’re here to listen to what the needs of the Papua New Guinean people are and to fulfil those. A couple of messages that I’m delivering is that when we provide the development assistance first it responds to the local priorities, so priorities of our development partners. Secondly, we provide it transparently. Thirdly, it comes with no strings attached. Fourthly, if they’re infrastructure projects or projects with a physical presence we are to build infrastructure of the highest possible quality. And fifthly, and very importantly, we want to maximise local labour in those projects. We want to see a double dividend. So, if we build a road or a bridge, not only should the people of Papua New Guinea get the economic benefit of that road, they should get the economic benefit of having Papua New Guineans build that road. And this is very important and it’s something where we’re listening to our development partners in making sure we prioritise all five of those conditions.

Journalist: Minister Conroy we acknowledge your presence in our country, thank you. I would just like to ask, as you mentioned, we have Papua New Guinea’s receiving the largest contribution. So, can you give a reason as to why out of all the countries in the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea is receiving the biggest contribution of $1.9 billion?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you for that question. So, the question is why is Papua New Guinea receiving the largest allocation from our Pacific assistance? It’s an excellent question. There’s a few reasons for that. The most important one quite frankly is Papua New Guinea is the largest country in the Pacific. Of the 15 million people who live in the Pacific there is obviously around 10 million in Papua New Guinea – somewhere between 8 and 10 million. So, you are the largest country in the Pacific.

Secondly, you are our closest neighbour. People don’t believe me in Australia when I say it’s only 4 kilometres between Papua New Guinea and Australia, and if you’re a strong swimmer and weren’t worried about crocodiles – you should be worried about crocodiles – you could swim between our two countries. So, you are our closest neighbour.

And, thirdly, we have to recognise we owe an obligation and debt to the people of Papua New Guinea firstly because Papua New Guinea was a colony of Australia, and that provides bonds that we must maintain and support your development. And obviously the bonds of the sacrifices that the people of Papua New Guinea made during World War II on the Kokoda campaign is another example of the deep relationship we have with PNG.

So that’s why I’m so delighted to be here. That’s why I’m the third ministerial visit in eight weeks. And that’s why hopefully you’ll be sick of the sight of me over the next three years because it means that I’m doing my job of getting to PNG with the excellent High Commissioner and his team symbolising our close relationship with you on this shared journey of development.

Journalist: [Indistinct] from Inside PNG. Australia and PNG, well, the priority also in border surveillance, given that in the media yesterday it was reported that the Australian pilot that flew the plane over – attempting to smuggle cocaine has been jailed for 18 years. So, would the surveillance be something that Australia would look at?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: It’s something that we’re happy to examine. Obviously one of the products of the CSP – our comprehensive and strategic partnership – is a commitment to negotiate a bilateral security treaty – BST – that Prime Minister Marape and Foreign Minister Tkatchenko have talked about. Foreign Minister Wong was here in late August to start that process. And obviously, border security is one of the topics that the BST may cover.

We provided more assistance in the budget for Australian Border Force staff to be more present in the Pacific where it makes sense for Pacific nations. And we’re always happy to work on how can we secure our borders together. Because obviously, it’s in our shared interest to have a stable, secure and prosperous Pacific.

Speaker: I think that’s it for questions. Thank you very much for your time.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you very much for your time. Have a lovely afternoon.

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