Sarah Ferguson, 7.30

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Papua New Guinea landslides, Hamas-Israel conflict.

Sarah Ferguson: The Australian Government has committed an initial aid package of $2.5 million and is sending a specialised team to PNG tomorrow. Pat Conroy is Minister for International Development and the Pacific.

Pat Conroy, welcome to 7.30.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Thank you very much.

Sarah Ferguson: Now, what's the latest you've heard from PNG? Have you had any updates during the day today?

Minister Conroy: I've had limited updates during the day, but truthfully, information is quite limited at the moment. The site is very inaccessible. Helicopters are the primary way of reaching the site at the moment, so information is scarce. The best estimation from local agencies is that at least 150 homes have been wiped out and the death toll so far has been speculated of somewhere between 700 and perhaps 2000.

Sarah Ferguson: Now, obviously we've seen people desperately with their hands trying to reach people who are trapped. What are the prospects for getting machinery there that will enable that job to be done properly?

Minister Conroy: Some will be able to be transported by helicopters. The rest will rely on the roads being cleared. We have transported PNG emergency officials up via aircraft to Mount Hagen Airport and then helicopter to the site. We've got a C-17 transporting emergency assistance to Port Moresby tomorrow that will then transport through Spartans and Hercules aircraft to Mount Hagen, and then the rest will be done by helicopters. So, until we get the roads cleared, heavy equipment will be very hard to get up there.

Sarah Ferguson: And I think you're sending technical experts expertise along with. You've already obviously committed money. What will that technical expertise consist of?

Minister Conroy: A team of 16 in the Disaster Assistance Response Team is in country this evening. It's got three groups. It's got representatives from Queensland Fire and Rescue. It's got Department of Foreign Affairs officials and National Emergency Management Agency officials. It will have technical assistance around geohazards, incident control, they'll also be equipped with drones to map the site and identify, quite frankly, at this stage, more likely to be bodies rather than people living. But those drones will be very valuable in, obviously mapping the site. So, that's the initial assistance team and we stand ready to move and build on the $2.5 million of assistance we've also provided. We've also transported 750 family sized shelters because obviously there's hundreds of people displaced at the moment around Mulitaka.

Sarah Ferguson: And what do we know about the conditions, the geological conditions? Is the site, is the area around those villages in that province actually stable now?

Minister Conroy: My advice is it's not. And that the level of soil and mud covering the villages is six to eight metres deep, so there's extreme hazard there. That's why that Disaster Assistance Response Team is so critical, they're used to working with geologically unstable conditions, often in urban areas with collapsed buildings. And the drones will be critical. But we're moving as fast as we can and we're also prepared to transport teams from other countries who've offered assistance.

Sarah Ferguson: And what else do you think Australia will be able to offer in the days ahead? After this first team goes in, what do you anticipate will be our follow up?

Minister Conroy: Well, to some extent we'll be guided by the conditions there and their advice, but I think more shelter will be required. Food and water and sanitation is critical to the survivors and then supporting lift of heavy equipment through ADF helicopters and aircraft is obviously critical. And the ADF has been mobilised from early on Saturday to do that task. So, I think it will be a combination of all those factors as well as increased financial assistance to humanitarian partners such as Red Cross, to drive on the ground support.

Sarah Ferguson: So, that's on top of the $2.5 million that Australia has already committed?

Minister Conroy: Well, we're ready to provide more if it's requested. The $2.5 million was our initial assistance. That's on top of the $630 million of aid we provide PNG each year.

Sarah Ferguson: And for those people who've been injured, who have survived but are injured, do you know where they're going to be taken? Where's the nearest place that field hospitals can actually be set up?

Minister Conroy: I'm not aware of the exact details, but there are a number of field hospitals in the province and further afield, Mount Hagen, which is where we're basing the planes to then move the equipment onto helicopters, is a large highlands city so it has medical facilities as well.

Sarah Ferguson: The Prime Minister, of course, was in the country not very long ago. Have you spoken to him since this happened?

Minister Conroy: Not directly on this. Obviously, I had many conversations since his return from Papua New Guinea about how that went and our support for Papua New Guinea. I've been at PNG six times in the last 16 months. It is our closest neighbour and one of our greatest friends and I'm horrified by what's occurred. And I was exchanging messages with senior ministers of the Papua New Guinea government only this afternoon where they thanked us for their support and I was very clear that we stand ready to provide whatever they need once they make those assessments.

Sarah Ferguson: Now, we understand there are some complexities in PNG politics going on right now. Is that going to hinder the relief effort?

Minister Conroy: Well, I'm not in a position to commentate on the domestic politics in Papua New Guinea. That would be inappropriate. All I can say is communications has been very clear and direct. Within hours of the tragedy occurring, our high commissioner had talked to both Prime Minister Marape and the Governor of Enga province. We've been in regular contact with the PNG Defence Force and the emergency management officials leading at a provincial and national level and that communications is going very well. As I said, I communicated with senior ministers this evening and I know Penny Wong and Richard Marles have also communicated with their counterparts. So, it's strong and we'll work really closely together to get the people of PNG through this tragedy.

Sarah Ferguson: And did you send personal messages or were these all official messages?

Minister Conroy: I sent personal messages and I know – well, I would imagine the other Ministers have directly communicated rather than through official channels.

Sarah Ferguson: And what did yours say?

Minister Conroy: I expressed, obviously my condolences and just heartfelt regrets about what has occurred and was very clear that we stand ready to support PNG just as they've supported us both in recent bushfires and floods, but obviously through the darkest days of World War 2. So, I spent a lot of time with Papua New Guinean ministers and our relationship is very close and we really stand ready to provide whatever assistance they deem necessary.

Sarah Ferguson: I just want to move on to ask you a question about Gaza. The Foreign Minister said today that Israel's strikes on Rafah had, quote, horrific and unacceptable consequences. What is it about this particular attack that's caused the government, that's caused the Foreign Minister, to use such strong language?

Minister Conroy: Well, I personally was appalled by what occurred. It is horrific. We've been consistent in urging and requesting the government of Israel not to conduct an offensive in Rafah, where half of the Palestinian or half of the 2.3 million Gaza population is residing at the moment. So, I think it's the nature of the attack. We've called on Israel to refrain from attacking Rafah. We've called it for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire for the release of all the hostages by Hamas and immediate access for urgent humanitarian assistance. And that call can only cry – go louder after the images overnight.

Sarah Ferguson: Just tell me about those images. What is it particularly about this attack that's causing you to use the language you're using?

Minister Conroy: Well, to be frank, images of refugee tents on fire is particularly stark. There's no other way around it. I am horrified by it. We again urge Israel not to conduct offensive operations in Rafah. We urge Hamas to stop using civilians as human shields and to release all hostages. And we call for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire.

Sarah Ferguson: Pat Conroy, thank you very much indeed for joining us this evening.

Minister Conroy: Thank you.

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