Press conference, Vanuatu

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Climate change, 75th anniversary of the South Pacific Commission, COP27, Cybersecurity.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Good morning. I'm Pat Conroy, Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific, and it's a real pleasure to be in Vanuatu for the 75th anniversary of the SPC and it's a tribute to the Government of Vanuatu and a demonstration of their leadership throughout the region that they've brought together an excellent conference. I'm also very much looking forward to meeting with the Prime Minister at the conference and saying hello to the Foreign Minister. I'm the first Australian Minister to be here since the new Government was formed and it's a privilege to convey Australia's messages that we're privileged to be the partner of choice for the people of Vanuatu on development, on security, to be a partner on a peaceful and prosperous Pacific that advances the interests of all members of the Pacific family. Very happy to answer any questions.

Journalist: Mavuku here, Daily Post. Could you tell me how Australia is helping Vanuatu with the cyberattack?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we immediately made offers of assistance and we sent in a team to assist with that disgraceful cyberattack and the response and we are working through the process of bringing the Government IT systems back up to speed. But it's a tribute to the Government of Vanuatu that they've been so accommodating and took up our offers of assistance.

Journalist: The rumour has it that it's a ransomware attack. Is that true?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: It's probably not appropriate for me to go into the details of it. The really important thing is in this age, Governments and organisations and businesses are under constant scrutiny from malicious actors and it's very important that the Pacific family works together to make sure that all our systems work properly and when a system does go down, members of the Pacific family are there to help.

Journalist: There's a controversial comment that the Leader of the Opposition Bob Loughman made. He said, “Don't let Australia in. They will look into our secrets. Let's keep it local, keep the partners within the Pacific region and keep Australia out.” What do you have to say about that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Probably not appropriate for me to comment about comments from individual politicians, but I'll make a point that Australia is a proud member of the Pacific family. We're a member of the PIF. We're a member of the SPC. And we're proud and privileged to help other countries in the Pacific family when they require assistance. We have no ulterior motives. We just come in and help where we're asked and only where we're asked because we respect the sovereignty of Pacific nations, but whether it's development assistance, being part of the fight against climate change, supporting Vanuatu workers in Australia through the Pacific Labour Mobility scheme, we're there to support the aspirations of the people of Vanuatu and that's what we're here for.

Journalist: I want to switch gears and talk about COP27. What are your reflections on that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Oh, I think it it's a tremendous tribute to the advocacy of Pacific Island nations that we finally got an agreement on a loss and damage fund. For me, the two most important outcomes were a commitment to a loss and damage fund and Australia, under the new Australian Government, was proud to support the Pacific voice and support the efforts to establish that fund and settling to stop backsliding on the commitment to 1.5 degrees and keeping warming to 1.5 degrees. There was a real effort by certain countries to backslide on that and that's unacceptable. We need to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees. To me, COP was a success and that was privilege to represent Australia there. And it's important that we join together to fight against this existential threat.

Journalist: One last comment regarding the Guardian‑class vessels back [indistinct], a lot of maintenance; now it's down again. Could you please drop a comment on that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I'm also Minister for Defence Industry so it's an issue that very close to my heart. We're really privileged to support Pacific nations through the provision of Guardian‑class patrol boats. These are great patrol boats that will really help with the security of the Pacific. Really importantly, we need to resolve all the issues. I was at the Henderson shipyards where they were built only a week and a half ago and I was meeting with the company, Austal, involved, to get an update on how they intend to fix these flaws. I'm confident that most of them will be fixed very quickly. There's one outstanding issue that we're working through the process, but we stand ready to help every Pacific nation to make sure those patrol boats are available because they're a great asset for the military and particularly the police forces of the Pacific.

Importantly, Australia has said where they aren't available, we stand ready to fill the maritime security gaps with other assets so that no Pacific nation has to suffer disadvantage because of the availability. But they're a great piece of equipment that I think will really add to the sovereignty of Pacific Island nations.

Journalist: Honourable minister, if you could talk a little bit about the work the Australian Government is doing to work with the Vanuatu Government in terms of the issues with [indistinct] seasonal workers. There's a lot of complaints and all that. If you could talk a little bit about that.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Absolutely. And, in fact, I had a meeting only on Wednesday with seasonal workers from Vanuatu working in Australia right now, including with union representatives from the National Union of Workers of Vanuatu. This is a really important scheme for both countries. To give you an idea of the importance of this scheme, one‑third of Pacific Islanders live on AUD$1,000 a year and the average worker sends back AUD$15,000 a year. So, it's an incredibly powerful scheme, but it's very important we do a couple of things. One, that workers are protected. And out of our Budget handed down last month we are increasing protections for workers to make sure that they aren't exploited. Secondly, we're putting in place systems to upskill workers so when they come back to countries like Vanuatu, they've got even more skills to contribute to the local economy.

I'll continue to meet with workers. The High Commissioner of Vanuatu is incredibly active in this area. I meet with him regularly and he's a really passionate advocate for workers' rights and, ultimately, what I can say to you is: this scheme is vital to Australia for filling our labour shortages and we think it's essential for the economic development of countries like Vanuatu. As I said, $15,000 a year on average being sent back home, but this scheme will only work if workers are protected and have a good experience in it.

Journalist: What about the issue of workers absconding? How is that being dealt with?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: We are working with that issue with Pacific Governments. One thing that I'm particularly focused on is workers being able to move from one approved employer to another. Often, the abscondment occurs because a worker might not have had a good experience with a particular employer. If that happens, I would rather they move to another approved employer, do their work and then get to come home. That's a complex issue that we're working through but the new Australian Government is committed to that scheme. We're committed to that scheme being the dominant source of temporary migrant labour in rural and regional Australia. It's great for Pacific workers to send money back and get great skills. I was only in the Solomon Islands two months ago where I met with a couple of returned workers, Joseph and Gerard, and they had come home after three years in Australia. They were setting up businesses in Solomon Islands, contributing to local employment. And I know Vanuatu provides the greatest number of workers and so the success of this scheme is really important for Vanuatu as well.

Journalist: So, the Climate Minister for Vanuatu, Ralph Regenvanu, made a comment recently about Australia needing to cut down on new fossil fuel subsidies for them to support – for Vanuatu or the Pacific to support their bid to host the next COP meeting. What are your comments or reaction?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I understand and respect the staunch advocacy for action on climate change. The Pacific is the region most impacted by climate change, and that's why Australia is stepping up. The new Australian Government is incredibly committed to taking action on climate change and moving as fast as possible to renewable energy. We recently passed our new climate laws, which enshrine a 43 per cent reduction target within Australia by 2030, and we're moving very quickly. By 2030 we aim to have 82 per cent renewable energy in our system. In our last Budget, we've established the Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Facility to help Pacific countries and we are allocating over $2 billion over five years for climate finance throughout the world, including $700 million in the Pacific. So, we're on the front‑line fighting against climate change.

I respect the Climate Change Minister's views and I'm very happy to work with him. As an example of that, I represented Australia at the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers meeting held in Suva a few months back and one of the actions of the new Australian Government was to support the Vanuatu Government's efforts to get an International Court of Justice decision on climate change. That was a significant change from the last Australian Government. We're here to support the voice and amplify the voice of the Pacific and we'll continue to do that. Thank you very much.

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