Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: COVID-19, Pacific Islands Forum, Climate Change, Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme, Passports

Greg Jennett: Well, let's follow up on that as well as some important regional developments with the Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts, who joins us now in the studio. Great to have you here, Minister. I might get you to put your local MP hat on first of all, because on this question of pandemic leave payments – we are talking primarily about casuals, of course – as a local MP, are you or your office aware of hardship that is emerging for people who have had to isolate with no pay for seven days?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, look, Greg, I can't say it's something that my office has been contacted about recently. And we should say that the situation with the pandemic has evolved significantly during the course of these payments. You know, the original isolation requirements were quite extensive both in the time frame and the number of people that they applied to. And since then the situation has evolved significantly. As the Prime Minister suggested earlier, this was a program that was designed to end by the previous government at the end of the financial year and we're confronting a situation with a trillion dollars of Liberal debt. So we need to make decisions about priorities.

Greg Jennett: Sure, but would you acknowledge that throughout the course of the pandemic governments – either federally or at State – have constantly had to adapt? Things that had been circled on the calendar to stop or to start had to be revised, budgets had to be put down – the management of them put down the order of priorities because of public health. So circumstances change. Why don't governments – in this case the Albanese one – adapt to them?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we are adapting. We've brought new energy and engagement into the fight against Covid since the election of the Albanese Government, expanding access to antivirals, expanding access to the fourth dose of the jab, the immunisations. And we've been very clear that we'll work together with State governments. We're not going to pass the buck to them, not going to argue with them in the public domain and that's why Anthony Albanese has convened this new meeting of the national cabinet on Monday, acting collaboratively with the Queensland Premier, who requested that meeting to occur next week.

Greg Jennett: And just finally on this, could there be a possible way out – which is a question we posed rhetorically at the start of this program – that doesn't actually involve the full reinstatement of the $750 per week but actually moves Australia towards what the UK and others are doing – and that is removing some of the isolation orders or downgrading them at least?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, I'm sure there'll be many ideas discussed at that national cabinet. I'm not going to pre-empt that. I won't be in the room. So Anthony Albanese as Prime Minister has made it clear that he wants to bring Australians together, solve problems collaboratively, and I'm sure that that's the spirit that that meeting will engage with.

Greg Jennett: All right. Let's take you more squarely to the things that sit in your own portfolio as Assistant Foreign Minister. The Pacific Islands Forum has wrapped up, and critical conversations that Anthony Albanese had around that, particularly with Manasseh Sogavare, the Prime Minister of the Solomons. Do we think or, do you believe, that it has settled once and for all Australia's fear of Chinese military bases being located there?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, the Pacific Islands Forum I think has been a really great success. It's been a forum for a lot of collaborative dialogue and working together by 17 of the 18 members of the Pacific Islands Forum. The Prime Minister had very constructive conversations with Mr Sogavare. And Mr Sogavare made it clear that there wouldn't be Chinese military bases on his land. And, you know, we take him at his word on that. He's made it clear that Australia is the preferred security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands, as it has been for a very, very long period of time.

Greg Jennett: Good faith discussions would, you know, make it understandable to take any leader at their word. But it's not always about the Prime Minister of the Solomons, is it, in these situations? The creeping nature of Chinese deployments, could it possibly mean that even a country like the Solomons and its Prime Minister wouldn't know if China had transformed, say, a logistics base into something with military capability?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, look, we always encourage all participants in the region to engage transparently in the Pacific Islands. But we've made it clear that we – our view is that the security of the Pacific Islands is a matter for the Pacific family, of which Australia and New Zealand are members. And that's the way that we've engaged with other members of the Pacific Islands family – openly and transparently – on these security questions.

Greg Jennett: Can we be certain that Australia's position or the Albanese Government's position on climate change has truly won over all member nations of the Pacific Islands Forum? Yes, there is a communique that says everyone's on the same page with climate crisis. But then we heard Frank Bainimarama as host sounding off against major emitters, Australia included. So is that actually settled?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, I think there was a really constructive and collaborative discussion about climate at the Pacific Islands Forum this year. The communique makes it clear how welcome Australia's new commitment, the Australian Albanese Labor government's new commitment to action on climate change is in the Pacific Islands. It's an existential threat for them, the most important issue for their prosperity, their way of life, and it's really been welcomed.

Now, of course there's going to be a sharing of views. That happens between trusted friends and partners in the region. And those conversations are respectful and productive.

Greg Jennett: But if they are or were to demand higher goals, higher targets than 43 per cent, where would that leave your position?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we made it clear that the 43 per cent emission reduction figure wasn't plucked out of thin air. You know, that was a figure that we landed on because we knew that's what we could deliver with the policies that we committed to at the last election that the Australian public endorsed. We've also been clear, though, that that's not a cap, that's a floor on our ambition. That's what we know we can deliver with our current policies. And that's what we told our partners and our trusted friends at the Pacific Islands Forum.

Greg Jennett: Okay. So indications – well, yeah, I guess it does leave open the possibility that you can go higher, although you're absolutely explicit there'd be no revisiting of the 43 per cent?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: We know that the 43 per cent is what we can achieve with the policies we took to the Australian public and had endorsed at the last election. Now, if we are more successful and achieve greater reductions, that's fantastic. You know, what we've committed to is the way to get to that 43 per cent floor.

Greg Jennett: Okay. Kamala Harris made an important intervention from Washington DC in the middle of – well, just ahead of the summit itself. How important is that, that the US is simultaneously stepping up its diplomacy, it's funding and generally its presence in the Pacific? I take it that was highly coordinated with Australia beforehand.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, look, we welcome this engagement, particularly on growing the economic prosperity of the region. There's a lot that we can do collaboratively on things like fisheries management that means a lot to Pacific Island nations. And that was a big part of the Pacific Islands Forum – putting the interests of Pacific Islands at the forefront of the discussions, not other people's interests, not other people from outside the region's interests. So that's what we really welcome about the engagement of the United States in the forum.

Greg Jennett: All right. Now, there's a body of work for Australia to get on with that hangs over from, you know, undertakings and policies that were actually put in our domestic election campaign. One is pushing ahead with visa processing so that labour mobility schemes and general worker problems here in Australia might be addressed. How can we know that progress is being made there? In fact, is it being made?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Absolutely it's being made. So for context, at the election we committed to expanding the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility program and improving the conditions for labourers coming to Australia under that program. In particular, we've expanded long-term arrivals coming to Australia, their ability to bring their family. And that really matters for people coming to work in aged care, for example, because if you're a woman coming to work in aged care, four years away from your family, from your children, it's a big ask.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, so –

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: None of that matters if we can't –

Greg Jennett: If you can't get the visas.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: – if we can't get the visas through. And there are significant delays in the visa system at the moment. And for that we apologise. It's a hangover that was left to us by the previous government. We've directed more resource into that issue. And my colleague Andrew Giles in that portfolio is – that's a really high priority for us dealing with it.

Greg Jennett: And inroads are being made, are they?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Inroads are absolutely being made. And I have sympathy for him, because I had a similar issue in passports in my portfolio.

Greg Jennett: And how's that's going?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: And we're making progress there too. We're putting the resource in to deal with the hangover left to us by the previous government and we're turning it around.

Greg Jennett: Well, that might come as some relief for future travellers, I imagine. Tim Watts, thanks for joining us today with your views on, yeah, a bunch of developments really in the Foreign Affairs portfolio.


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