Sarah Martin, Guardian Australia Podcast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Solomon Islands, China, Climate Change, Climate Action, Pacific Island Forum, Pacific Labour Scheme.

Voiceover: This is The Guardian. [Music plays.]

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: The Pacific is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, they’re fellow human beings. There’s something like 15 million Pacific islanders living as close as four kilometres from Australia. And so, we should care about their future, and we should care about how we support their advancement both economically and socially.

Sarah Martin: Hello, I’m Sarah Martin, Guardian Australia’s chief political correspondent. This is Australian politics and I’m filling in for our queen, Katharine Murphy, while she takes a hiatus for her Quarterly Essay and for some well-earned leave.

Today, I’m speaking with Pat Conroy the Minister for Defence Industry and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. We talked about a number of issues important in our region. We discussed climate change, security, the situation with the election in the Solomon Islands, and what the increasing competition between Australia and China means for them and for other countries in the region.

Pat Conroy, thanks for joining the show.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you for the opportunity. I’m very excited.

Sarah Martin: Obviously, you took over the portfolio at a particularly fraught time. The Pacific came up quite prominently in the election campaign when it was revealed that the Solomon Islands was considering a security pact with China. We’ve obviously seen those tensions between the US and China play out quite openly in the Pacific since you’ve been elected. You’ve been in the job three months. Can you give us a bit of an overview as to how you assess the security situation in the region? Just an easy one to kick off with!

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I think it can be described in one word: “challenging”. The region, I describe it as facing three Cs: climate change, COVID and competition. And that’s the new paradigm that we’re in, and it’s one where I’m really enthusiastic about engaging in this role, because I can’t think of a more critical time where the future of Australia has been entwined with the future of the Pacific island region.

Sarah Martin: Why is that? Why is it so critical at this point?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I think for a couple of reasons. We’re both on the front‑line of climate change. Australia is being impacted by climate change right now as is the Pacific island region. And when you talk to people there, this is not a hypothetical issue. It’s occurring right now. They are losing islands right now. Their way of life is being threatened right now, and that shared interest in fighting climate change is something that’s so timely.

And obviously, we’re in an era of unparalleled strategic competition. We have two global powers that are both re-engaging in this region, well, one re-engaging and one engaging. And Australia’s entire security posture since 1945 has been premised on Australia being a security partner of choice for the Pacific region, and that is now being challenged, and so it’s a period where it’s an immense privilege to be the Minister for the Pacific.

Sarah Martin: It’s an incredibly important job given that challenging environment that you outline. You’re just back from Solomon Islands and met with Prime Minister Sogavare in Honiara. Can you tell us about that trip and your meeting with the Prime Minister?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: It was a fabulously interesting trip for a number of reasons. One of the reasons I was over there was for the 80th commemorations of the Guadalcanal campaign, which was the turning point of the Pacific campaign, which was obviously central to World War II. And the echoes of history were so powerful. I crossed a creek called Alligator Creek where if anyone has ever seen the HBO series Pacific is where the Marines landed and defended. I was at a number of ceremonies with Caroline Kennedy, the US Ambassador, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and heard them talk of their family’s experiences, and Caroline Kennedy met the son and daughter‑in‑law of one of the two Solomon Islands Coastwatchers who saved her father after PT-109.

So, the history was incredibly important, and then obviously the opportunity to have those bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Sogavare and three of his Ministers and to look at projects that Australia is working on now with the Solomon Islands Government. So, I opened an expansion of the Australian Pacific Training Coalition where we’re training meat workers and hospitality workers right now to come to Australia. And I met a couple of returned workers in Joseph and Gerard who’d been in Australia for three years without seeing their families, and their remittances kept their families afloat during COVID. The skills they’ve learnt mean they’re now opening businesses in the Solomon Islands that will further enhance their society.

And then I opened a new computer laboratory at Honiara Senior High School that had been burnt down during the riots late last year, and chatting with students, one of them a young lady called Joanna in year 12 who wants to be a lawyer, and that’s the future of Solomon Islands. And that was a real practical manifestation of how Australia’s aid is improving the lives of people in a region where one‑third of Pacific Islanders live on US$1.90 a day, which is the UN definition of absolute poverty. So, it was a really interesting trip where I saw how Australia is really partnering with the Solomon Islands to improve their fortune.

Sarah Martin: And obviously, a lot of what you’ve outlined is very important sort of soft diplomacy, but there’s a lot of pointy stuff going on at the same time as well. So, I’m curious to know in terms of the security pact signed with China, did you seek some clarification from the Prime Minister about the details of that? Has the Australian Government seen the pact yet?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: The final pact has still not been published, to my understanding. But importantly, both Prime Minister Sogavare and a number of his Ministers reassured me that Australia is the security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands and that they would come to Australia first if there’s any gaps to be filled, and we’re working with them right now. We’re constructing border outposts in their western and eastern borders right now that are very important. We’re obviously partnering with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. We’ve got Pacific patrol boats that are doing really important work in the region right now. So, we are the security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands. and I welcome those assurances from Prime Minister Sogavare, assurances he’s given Prime Minister Albanese when we met with him at the Pacific Islands Forum and with Foreign Minister Wong.

Sarah Martin: The Prime Minister has also said that if Australia doesn’t fill that gap, then it is prepared to turn to China to do so. I just want to scrutinise that a little bit more and ask: at what point do we say that filling that gap might be unacceptable to us? Clearly, it’s not unconditional. For example, your visit coincided with controversy over delaying the election. What if that election result led to public unrest and Australia was asked to fill that gap and we had concerns about the election outcome? Is that not an example of where Sogavare might turn to China to fill a security gap? Is that a risk that we are facing?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I don’t think it’s productive or, quite frankly, appropriate for a Minister in my position to engage in hypotheticals about what may happen if another hypothetical eventuates. In terms of the bill that’s before the Solomon Islands Parliament, it’s up to the Solomon Islands Parliament, which has been democratically elected and the people of Solomon Islands to decide whether that’s the way they want to go. And it’s got a long way to go. The bill can’t even be debated for another three weeks under their laws, and we’ll just see what process eventuates there.

But I think it’s really important to sort of set the context for all this, and the context is Australia is the largest development partner of the Solomon Islands. It’s our third largest development program. We’ve got 4,000 Solomon Island workers right now working in Australia under the Pacific labour schemes. We’re working really closely on a range of other programs, including through our Australian Federal Police and the ADF. And so, our partnership with the Solomon Islands is incredibly deep and it’s to the benefit of both nations, and it’s my job to work out how we can elevate that as part of our broader re-engagement with the Pacific.

Sarah Martin: Does Australia not have concerns though? I mean I know you say it’s a matter for Parliament to decide, but there is criticism this is fundamentally anti-democratic and, you know, the election should happen when the election is constituted to happen. Does Australia not have any concerns about that delay?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I note Prime Minister Sogavare’s assurances and my understanding is it’s contained in the bill that they would return to their regular four-yearly election cycles, and I think it’s really important to have regular democratic cycles. But again, we have to be very careful about interfering in the internal processes of other nations, particularly nations that are debating things through a democratically elected Parliament, and it’s important to respect those processes.

Sarah Martin: But isn’t it also important for Australia to make sure it - it sort of strongly supports democratic institutions in these countries where democracy can be a bit shaky? Isn’t it important for Australia to be a strong voice on that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: We need to stand up for our values and strong and healthy democracy is part of those values, obviously. I would note that the Solomon Islands Opposition Leader has urged Solomon Islanders who have concerns about this process to be part of the parliamentary process to put in submissions. So, there’s a parliamentary process that is actually working at the moment and we should be incredibly respectful of that. I think these are debates where we have to be very careful about how we approach them.

Sarah Martin: All right. So, just sort of bigger picture, obviously, you know, Solomon Islands is just one country in the Pacific that’s obviously in Australia’s sights at the moment. Can I just ask what is Australia’s assessment of what China’s long-term plan is for the region? And I guess a sort of bigger question because I don’t know if people sort of get this, but why does Australia care so much? Why is it so important?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: The Pacific’s important for a number of reasons. Firstly, they’re fellow human beings. There’s something like 15 million Pacific islanders living as close as four kilometres from Australia. The closest border is four kilometres from Australia. So, these are the closest non‑Australian human beings to us, so we should care about their future, and we should care about how we support their advancement both economically but socially. As I said, a third of them live on US$1.90 a day. There are three million Papua New Guineans that live in districts that don’t have a single doctor. We see regular outbreaks of drug-resistant tuberculosis. Polio. These are things where we have an obligation as fellow human beings to help this region.

Secondly, obviously, in some parts of this region, we have an obligation as former colonisers. Like, it’s really important to recognise that we owe some of this region a debt. While Timor‑Leste is not part of the Pacific, we often group Timor‑Leste in with the Pacific because of development needs, geographic proximity. We owe a debt of gratitude to Timor‑Leste to the tens of thousands of Timor‑Leste people who died in World War II as a result of helping Australian service men and women. We’ve got a moral obligation to help in the Pacific.

And third, as I said before, our entire defence of Australia has been secured, has been approached on the basis that we are the partner of choice for security in the Pacific region. And so, we should care about the Pacific for a whole number of reasons. And that’s why we have a Minister for the Pacific. That’s why we have had eight visits from Australian Ministers and Prime Ministers in less than three months since we’ve been re-elected. That’s why Prime Minister Albanese has said publicly one of my jobs is to visit every single Pacific island nation and territory in the next 12 months. He’s set me an ambitious goal that I’m really passionate about meeting. So, that’s why we should care about them.

Other countries are interested in the Pacific. That’s natural. It’s not just China. The United States is re-engaging. United Kingdom, France, India has signalled an intent there as well. Japan has obviously a strong history there that they’re working on. So, this is an area of great sort of geostrategic competition. We’ve been there for a very long time. We’ve got close cultural and sporting links and affinities, and we should really be working on that.

Sarah Martin: Does Australia have any concern with the concept of Pacific island nations being “friend to all, enemy to none”?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Oh, I understand that that is the professed view of many Pacific island nations, and what I can say is that one of my goals is that Australia is the partner of choice whether it’s on development needs or security needs within the Pacific. And, in fact, the Pacific Islands Forum, the central sort of regional architecture for the Pacific, has been very clear in its statements that have been you been supported by all Pacific island nations that the security needs of the Pacific should be met by the Pacific family, and we’re part of the Pacific family, as is New Zealand. That’s my focus, that Pacific security needs to be met within the Pacific.

Sarah Martin: So, it’s also sort of become totemic of this sort of grand tussle between authoritarianism and democracy, and I think, obviously, that’s why it has captured so much attention. What can Australia do to sort of counter the push by China to gain more influence in the Pacific?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I’m not so much focused – I think, it would be a gross simplification to just contextualise the Pacific or even Australia’s engagement in the Pacific as a binary choice of going to countries and saying, “You must choose between Australia and another country.” I think that what I’m focused on is what I can control, which is deepening Australia’s engagement with the Pacific. The two things I say when I meet leaders and Ministers and community members for the first time is the new Australian Government will provide more energy. So, you’ll see more Ministers, particularly me, but not just me engaging with you much more regularly and, secondly, we’ll listen. We’ll listen to your priorities and act on those priorities, and climate change is probably the most significant example of that.

So, what I’m focused on is that. And what our election policy did, and what we’re continuing to do in Government, is use every lever of statecraft to deepen Australia’s relationship with the Pacific, whether it’s obviously Overseas Development Assistance, foreign aid, where we’re increasing it by $525 million. But as importantly, if not more importantly, turbocharging the Pacific Labour Scheme. They do a number of things. They fill skill shortages in Australia that we desperately need filled. Secondly, those workers develop skills that then contribute to their home economy and that benefits those countries, and thirdly it sustains families and villages and communities.

As I said, a third of Pacific Islanders work on US$1.90 a day or just under $700 a year. The average Pacific worker sends back US$6,000 a year. So, almost 10 times what a third of Pacific Islanders are living on. This is about lifting Pacific Islanders out of poverty. There’s also our sporting links that are really important. There’s our Pacific Engagement Visa where for the first time in the history of this country, we will assign 3,000 permanent migration spots to a specific region of the globe to build a diaspora that we want to build and connect with. We’re using every lever of statecraft. Our cooperation through the Australian Defence Force is another great example. We’re using all that to promote Australia as a partner of choice by acting on the needs of Pacific Islanders, and it’s through that that we can be that partner of choice.

I don’t say it flippantly, but there will never be a Papua New Guinea Rugby League team in the Chinese Rugby League competition. I’m yet to see many Pacific Island workers getting employment in China, for example. So, they’re areas where we can work to a greater extent there. And it’s when we invest in the region as well, so when we fund development projects, particularly infrastructure, there won’t be strings attached. They will be transparent. We will be acting on the needs of the actual country we’re dealing with. It will be high quality and we’ll engage as much as possible on local content. And that gives a double dividend of not just building the piece of infrastructure. It’s using local workers to build a project. And they’re things other countries don’t do particularly well, and so they’re areas where we can deepen our relationship.

Sarah Martin: Mmm. There was a lot of criticism of the Morrison Government when the security pact was signed between the Solomon Islands and China. Is the Australian Government concerned that other security pacts are to come? Do we see that as inevitable, and is there anything we can do about that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, again, I have to be careful about speculating about the motivations of other countries. It’s not particularly productive. But China has attempted to secure a regional security pact and the response from the region, particularly was again through the Pacific Islands Forum that things should be done on a regional approach. But look, I think it’s natural for countries within the Pacific to be focused on how they can satisfy their security needs. So, all I can focus on is: how does Australia be that partner?

Sarah Martin: But does that mean that other pacts are inevitable, do you think?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: That would involve me speculating on the motivations of a number of other countries.

Sarah Martin: Not based on speculation. I mean, presumably, you would have information as the Minister that you know, whether other security deals were imminent or likely.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Look, I think people can see from open source information that other countries are interested in engaging on the security needs of the Pacific. We’re focused on what we can control and really ramping that up. So, one of our other election commitments was doubling the funding for aerial maritime surveillance to help combat illegal fishing. This is something that robs over US$150 million in revenue from Pacific countries. The tuna fishing stock is probably the most critical resource to many Pacific nations and so we’re supporting a crackdown on illegal fishing, and it’s something that Australia can offer that other countries can’t because often they’re the source of the illegal fishing.

Sarah Martin: I guess the other thing that Australia can offer is, you know, a robust defence of really important democratic institutions, things like a free press. We know that China has moved into that space in the Pacific. We know that Solomon Islands is looking to take over the national broadcaster, and there’s been a lot of concern in that country about that. Australia used to have the Australia Channel. It used to have shortwave radio transmission. Are those sorts of things important for Australia to consider restarting as part of those tools of statecraft that you are talking about?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: They absolutely are, and as an example of that, we announced during the election period a $32 million investment in the Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy. That does two things. One it is about giving greater resources to the ABC to broadcast into the region and fill a need that is out there, but as importantly, it’s to increase training and mentorship for Pacific island journalists, because that’s incredibly important that they have the skills and resources to be a free and independent media, and we’re really committed to that. We’re also looking at obviously what’s happening in other methods of communication. But the $32 million is a really important way of doing that.

But there’s also little things. For example, in press conferences I do in the Pacific, and I know Foreign Minister Wong did this a lot and so did Prime Minister Albanese, we all equally call on local journalists as much as Australian journalists. I know some Australian journalists get frustrated by that, but it’s really important that we give access and answer the questions of Pacific island journalists, because we need to build that free and independent media.

Sarah Martin: Mmm, but do you have concern that we’re seeing that free and independent media across the Pacific – seeing that value be eroded?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Look, I think there’s been a lot of reporting about the lack of resources for some media organisations there and speculation about where some parts of media are getting trained, and that’s partly because a void was created when the last Government abandoned the Pacific, particularly through cuts to the ABC and, look, I’m not going to be in a blame game, but we do have to recognise a void was filled because the last Government created that void.

Sarah Martin: But shouldn’t those countries and those countries’ leaders also be in line for some criticism for allowing that situation to develop?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Again, this is one where I’m not going to go into that territory. I think we should focus on where we can add value to Pacific media, and that’s through training and mentorship and supporting the ABC to broadcast into the region.

Sarah Martin: Is it not problematic that the Government doesn’t seem prepared to criticise any of our Pacific island nations for these sorts of things? I’ll ask you another one. Obviously, Kiribati has just attempted to – has interfered with the judiciary, has attempted to deport David Lambourne. Are we critical of that erosion of the separation of State and the judiciary?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: My understanding is that that process is still going through a number of steps, and again, I sense your frustration but – and that’s understandable, but we have to be in a way where we can raise our concerns with other countries and not use megaphone diplomacy. It doesn’t actually benefit anyone for us to do that. We will always engage and promote Australian values and that includes values around democracy and that’s really important. But we have to do it in a calm, measured way where we respect other nations, and we work with democratically elected governments to pursue their needs and priorities. I think sometimes the last Government was more interested in bullying Pacific nations than actually working with them.

Sarah Martin: So, are we doing that quietly? Are we expressing quiet concerns about some of these human rights, sort of press freedom issues?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: This podcast has got a fabulous listenership, so if we were expressing things quietly, I would hardly come on here and say that.

Sarah Martin: There’s no one in this room, just you and me Minister! So, you mentioned it earlier; climate change obviously, has been a huge concern of Pacific island nations for a very long time and since the change of Government there’s obviously been – Pacific island leaders have welcomed the Government’s shift and focus on climate action. But we also have leaders like Frank Bainimarama urging the Government to go further to ensure that global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees. Why aren’t we heeding that call?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I would say a couple of things. There was a genuine palpable sense of relief on the election of the new Government when we engaged in the Pacific. You could feel it in the Pacific Islands Forum and every forum where I talked about our renewed commitment to taking action on climate change, and people understood and respected our policies. And we kept emphasising that the 43 per cent is a floor, not a ceiling. I’m confident Australian business can do more once we’ve got the architecture in place and it’s a pathway to net‑zero emissions in 2050. And it’s not a policy in isolation. It’s partnered with achieving 82 per cent renewable energy by 2050. Our Pacific Climate Infrastructure Facility, they’re all working together on this area.

Another way where we’re actually being really positive about climate, instead of blocking climate action, which is what the last Government did most infamously at the 2019 Tuvalu Pacific Islands Forum, we’re amplifying the voice of the Pacific in multilateral forums. For example, the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu has been raising the issue on behalf of the PIF around when islands disappear, under current UN maritime laws, you lose the economic zone around them. You lose the Exclusive Economic Zone that gives you the fishing rights, the resource rights. So, in every international forum where I’ve been, where there’s been opportunity, and the last one was at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting where this has been raised, I’ve been supporting the efforts of our Pacific brothers and sisters to get these laws changed so that the climate change that is inevitable doesn’t mean that these countries and Australia included, loses the Exclusive Economic Zone. That’s just one example of where we’re being a partner.

On the need for more climate action, look, our policy is what our policy is. It’s miles stretched ahead of the last Government, and we’ll just keep working on delivering that policy, and I understand why people want us to do more.

Sarah Martin: Would love to talk more about Pacific and your new role. It’s an incredibly fascinating area that you have as your portfolio, but, unfortunately, you’ve got to go and catch a plane, I think, so we’ll have to wrap it up there. But thank you so much for joining us.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you, Sarah; it’s a real pleasure.

Sarah Martin: Thanks so much for listening. I will be back with you next week. This episode was produced by Daniel Semo and Allison Chan. The executive producer is Miles Martignoni.

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