Press conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
Pacific Island rugby, Falepili Union, surface fleet review, PNG security, Vanuatu security

Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy: It's a pleasure to be joined here today by Joe Roff, the President of Rugby Australia. Today we announced a four-year extension of the Australian Government's partnership with Rugby Australia. This funds really important activities throughout the Pacific supporting elite participation by female and male rugby players throughout the Pacific, including supporting the Fiji Drua, and Fijian Drua teams competing in the Super Pacific competition.

Sport brings the Pacific together, and rugby's obviously one of those critical sports. So, today's another example of the Albanese Government investing in our relationship with the Pacific, bringing people together, the people‑to‑people links, sports diplomacy is critical to us being the partner of choice for the region, and today's another excellent example of that.

I'll invite Joe to say a few words, then we'll answer some questions.

Joe Roff: Thank you, Minister Conroy, and for your battle trophies that should be a cautionary tale in the chamber for the other Parliamentarians. I'd like to, on behalf of Rugby Australia, thank the Australian Government for the ongoing funding for the Pacific program.

What we're seeing in the Pacific is exponential growth in the women's game, which is shifting gender norms in that area as well as ongoing support for the high-performance programs of our Pacific Nations. With the runway through to the 2032 Olympics, where some of our Pacific neighbours have got genuine gold medal chances, the ability for Australia as a close neighbour and partner to share a love of rugby and provide holistic support through this program for the high-performance programs of these nations is a great commendation to the Australian Government's support for our Pacific neighbours.

Journalist: Minister, this sports diplomacy, how important is that in the contest for defence with China in the Pacific?

Minister Conroy: Well, I've made no secret of the fact that there are three Cs that dominate the Pacific, climate change, post-COVID economic recovery and geostrategic competition, and obviously the Australian Government is working every day, we're fighting every day to be the partner of choice in the Pacific, and one part of that is the people‑to‑people links, and its sporting diplomacy.

Over 50 per cent of rugby players in Australia at elite level are of a Pacific heritage. Rugby brings our region together, as does Rugby League, as does netball and soccer, so supporting sports diplomacy is a critical advantage we have.

It's also about helping these societies grow as the Chair of the Tongan Rugby Union said, it's a vehicle for advancing gender equality. Before support for elite female participation in Rugby Union in Tonga, wearing shorts was taboo for Tongan girls. That has now changed.

When I go to PNG, participation in elite Rugby League and Rugby Union is conditional on kids turning up to school and doing their classes. So, sports diplomacy doesn't just have a hard geostrategic advantage, it has a human development impact as well.

Any other questions on today's announcement?

Journalist: Just on the Rugby World Cup which Australia is hosting in 2027. How does this announcement play into that, and were you hoping to share the love in 2027 with the Pacific [Indistinct]?

Minister Conroy: I'll go first, and then you can ‑‑

Joe Roff: Yes, please.

Minister Conroy: Well, this one thing's about elite Pacific participation, so if anything, it's going to make the World Cup harder for Australia, but in a good way. And as I said in my remarks, the two moments for the '91 World Cup was Willie Ofahengaue playing for Australia and smashing the Poms, and Peter Fatialofa, Samoan Captain and piano removalist, leading a team to beat the Welsh.

So where Pacific rugby does well, world rugby does well, and this is about bringing, helping the Pacific Rugby Union, elite pathways going even better and making them more competitive in the Rugby World Cup.

Joe Roff: For Australia to be strong, we all need to be strong in this region. We need our neighbours to be strong to help us become strong, and a home Rugby World Cup in '27 and '29, fully professional women's teams in '29, we want to be bringing the World Cup back to Australia in the men's and the women's to show that we are the centre of the rugby world, and through this program, we're going to support the Pacific Island nations to punch above their weight, as they have always done based on their population. But in this day and age they need some high-performance program support around them, and this program, thanks to the Government, allows that to happen.

Minister Conroy: So no other questions?

Journalist: Your battle scars this morning; can you talk us through?

Minister Conroy: Well, we started the day with what was supposed to be a Touch Rugby Union game on the playing fields, and we were blessed to be joined by former Wallaby greats like Morgan Turinui as well as current Pacific women players from the new team and from the Brumbies. It was a great competition. I'd like to say the Aussie New South Wales team beat the Queensland team, and unfortunately, I copped a swinging arm to the face. It was worth it to win the game.

Journalist: It's pretty competitive based on [indistinct] Nita Green a bit later on in the match. Were you're playing nice, or playing ‑‑

Minister Conroy: Well, I wasn't penalised by the super referee, Mark Gasnier, so clearly a hit on Nita Green was clean, and quite frankly, if you're going to wear a, well, it's a Maroons, jersey, but it stands for ‑ if you're going to wear a Queensland Reds jersey or a Maroons jersey in a game down here, you're going to know about it. So, it's all clean, above board, and the team of light, New South Wales won, and that's the most important thing.

Journalist: Tuvalu has a new leader ‑‑

Minister Conroy: Okay, sorry, any other questions on rugby?

Journalist: Tuvalu's got a new leader. When is the Falepili Union Agreement, are you confident it's going to continue in its current form?

Minister Conroy: I'm incredibly optimistic about the Falepili Treaty that was agreed between the Government of Tuvalu and Australia. Importantly, this was a request from the Tuvaluan government that we answered - it is in the interest of both countries. I would make the point that the new Prime Minister of Tuvalu was one of the three eminent people that developed the proposal. They then handed it to the Tuvaluan Government of the time, and the Tuvaluan Government then asked us to look at it.

So, we stand ready to act on the priorities of the new Tuvaluan Government, but I'm firmly of the view that the Falepili Treaty is in the interests of both nations, and we stand ready to implement what is the most significant Pacific policy an Australian Government has implemented since 1975.

Journalist: Minister, can I ask, has our High Commissioner or our representative in Tuvalu had specific conversations with Mr Teo either in the lead‑up to this vote or immediately afterwards? Has he given a further commitment to this [indistinct] Union or if he intends to ratify it? Can you give us a sense of what was discussed ‑‑

Minister Conroy: Stephen, my long‑standing position is that I don't disclose confidential discussions that I have with foreign governments, or my [Indistinct] have with foreign governments, or whether they're even taking place. You'll never see me disclosing confidential discussions via text messages to Journalists or disclosing text messages from foreign leaders.

We'll go through the normal course of action with the new Tuvaluan Government. We'll respond to their priorities. I am very confident that the treaty is in both countries' interests, and we're ready to move forward on it right now.

Journalist: The treaty as is, or are you open - if there's requests to renegotiate elements of it?

Minister Conroy: Well, we stand ready to respond to the Tuvaluan Government's views and their priorities. We'll see what comes of it. I make the point that the treaty was determined by the Tuvaluan Government, based on recommendations from a three‑person panel of eminent people including the new Tuvaluan Prime Minister. I'm confident that the treaty will be implemented, but we stand ready to listen to their priorities.

Journalist: Can I ask this on the Australian pilot that was kidnapped yesterday, are you able to provide any more information about response from PNG Police how long he was held for and how a situation could have been quite difficult was resolved, it seems, within hours?

Minister Conroy: Look, I'm not in a position to provide those details at this time, but what I can say is that the Papua New Guinea government responded swiftly. They are committed to investing in their law and order sector. We're supporting that through our $200 million bilateral security implementation package. I'm very grateful for the swift action from the Papua New Guinean police.

Journalist: Do you believe Defence Department officials sugarcoat their advice to you and Minister Marles?

Minister Conroy: Department of Defence officials have always been honest and professional in their dealings with me. They are dealing with some of the most advanced projects in the world, and I'm always confident that the Department of Defence officials go to work every day committed to doing the best possible job they can for our country.

Deputy Prime Minister Marles and I made it no secret that we're on a journey of excellence with the Department of Defence, and we'll continue to work through that. But the Department works very hard every day, and I've never known them not to present honest and accurate advice to me.

Journalist: The Surface Fleet Review was released last week, and a lot of the work was done in WA. With the dry dock, has the Government committed to that yet, in WA; if so, when will it start, when is it needed, and what sort of a cost figure could you put on that?

Minister Conroy: So, as was stated at Senate Estimates, we will work through the requirements for dry dock facilities in the West based on both a need for the surface fleet and the nuclear‑powered but conventionally‑armed submarines. It's important that those two projects work hand‑in‑hand, so we're looking at what infrastructure is required for both of those endeavours.

But you're absolutely right to point out that the surface fleet response is a winner for WA. In the course of doubling our fleet to 26 major warships, in the course of getting them faster, WA and South Australia are massive winners in that. We will create 3,700 jobs, and my message, as it was last week, to the welder in Perth, or the pipe fitter in Adelaide, is you will have decades of work building Navy warships defending our nation.

Journalist: Minister, can I just quickly ask ‑‑

Speaker: Last question, guys, we've got to wrap it up.

Journalist: Just quickly on another security agreement in the Pacific it hasn't been mentioned for a while with Vanuatu, it's now been 15 months, maybe 14 since it was notionally signed by the then Prime Minister and Penny Wong, and it hasn't yet begun the treaty process [indistinct] here in Australia, and it's [indistinct] stability in Vanuatu. Are you able to give us a sense, is that still a live issue with Vanuatu? Is Australia still pressing to sign that treaty, and where does it [indistinct]?

Minister Conroy: Well, we continue to engage with the Vanuatu Government about that treaty and their border security needs. We are privileged to be the security partner of choice for Vanuatu, and you can see that every day with the assistance and support and training we provide.

We'll continue to discuss with them whether changes are needed to that treaty, where that treaty was signed by Prime Minister Kalsakau at the time, we've had a couple of changes of government since then, and we stand ready and we continue to talk with the current government about what their needs are and whether further work is needed.

But we are the partner of choice for Vanuatu, and that occurs regardless of whether that Bilateral Security Treaty is ratified or not. Thank you very much, everyone.

Journalist: Thank you.

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