Interview on ABC Radio Melbourne

  • Transcript, E&OE

Patricia Karvelas: Good morning, Minister.

Minister Payne: Good morning, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: The Australian Government will fund a new bilateral infrastructure program for Solomon Islands. I think it's going to be worth about $250 million in grants over ten years. Is this an admission the Pacific has been neglected and has allowed China in?

Minister Payne: Patricia, I think we have an absolute focus on a stable, prosperous and open Indo-Pacific. It's where we live, we are committed to building strong Pacific nations and strong communities, and the Prime Minister's visit to Solomon Islands today, my own visit this week to Fiji, are part of that engagement and, as you say, part of our Pacific step up.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, your Government has been in power for six years, so hasn't this come too late?

Minister Payne: Well I think if you look at the work we've done within the context of the Pacific Islands Forum, beginning with the first Pacific Islands Forum after our election in 2013, this has been a process which has grown through that context. But also, importantly, there has been a great deal of work done within the Pacific, between Australia and our Pacific communities, with Prime Minister growing our Pacific Fiji Partnership, to a Vuvale Partnership in January of this year. The Solomon Islands, of course, was strongly engaged with Australia over many, many years, 14 years if I recall correctly, and a great deal of commitment from Australia to the regional assistance mission in Solomon Islands. So, these are parts of our history, parts of the fabric of our region, and are very important to us and both the Prime Minister and the Government are indicating that with our initial trips since our re-election this week.

Patricia Karvelas: So the money will be from the aid budget, so Australia will continue to embrace this infrastructure funding at, essentially, the expense of some traditional areas: health, education, even governance programs. Isn't that neglecting our responsibilities in the region, given you're taking from one area to deal with another problem?

Minister Payne: Our responsibility is to have a development assistance program, which is, targeted, which is sustainable, and which is effective. It's also our responsibility to be, if you like, responsive to the needs and the expressed interest of countries with whom we are working. We know that across the Pacific, the Asian Development Bank has estimated that there is a $46 billion need for infrastructure support between now and 2030. Australia is going to play an appropriate role in that, working with partner nations in this case, such as the Solomon Islands, of course in Papua New Guinea, and in other countries to address where we are able to. We can't do it all, not by any stretch of the imagination, but we can play a role. What is important is we balance it against the rest of our commitments and we ensure that we continue to have an aid and development assistance program that makes a difference.

Patricia Karvelas: Sure Minister, but with respect, you are just redistributing existing funding, unless you can correct me, so it will be less money for key areas like education and health.

Minister Payne: Well we are still making significant contributions in all of those areas.

Patricia Karvelas: But it is less of a contribution, right?

Minister Payne: I don't agree with you, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: But it either is or it isn't. There is a certain amount of money and you are going to spend less on those areas.

Minister Payne: There is a certain amount of money, $1.4 billion of our development assistance support will go to the Pacific this year – a record level of funding. It will be committed across a range of areas where the countries with which we are working are identifying need and demand. Now, part of that includes infrastructure and if you look at the difference we've been able to make in countries like Papua New Guinea, to connect people with community, to connect businesses with customers, to make the basic infrastructure of that country much more effective, then we are making a real difference and it is enhancing of the entire community in doing so.

Patricia Karvelas: On another issue, the Chinese Defence Minister has said the state's very bloody crackdown on protestors around Beijing's Tiananmen Square thirty years ago was the correct policy decision and said the country has been essentially stable since then. What's your response to this?

Minister Payne: Australia now and over many years, in fact over the thirty years since the events of Tiananmen Square has stood firmly with the international community in remembering the tragic loss of life at Tiananmen Square in 1989. I understand the Minister in this case was stating, representing, the official position of the Chinese Government in that context.

Patricia Karvelas: And the official position of the Chinese Government is one that Australia is no doubt concerned about?

Minister Payne: Well, I have said that, and I will continue to say that we will always remember the tragic loss of life that occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and we firmly support individual human rights, the individual rights and freedom set out in international governance and always have. We are a member of the Human Rights Council. From time to time, we express our views in that context and privately with China on these matters.

Patricia Karvelas: What does it say though, how does this play into the vexed relationship we have with China?

Minister Payne: I am sorry Patricia?

Patricia Karvelas: How does this play into the very vexed relationship we have with China? This is one of the worst human rights abuses that we have seen in our lives and yet we pursue a relationship with China and we use very careful language denouncing this act.

Minister Payne: Well I think the Chinese Australia relationship is one, which I have consistently said, as has the Prime Minister, is a relationship that we value very deeply. It is, as you have noted, as have others, it is our largest two-way trading partner, we have a very strong comprehensive strategic partnership which we are growing with China. It is founded, I think, and I've said before on two aspects on shared interest and mutual respect. But, there will always be issues on which we don't agree. I can't identify another country in the world with which we agree on absolutely everything. So, where there are issues on which we don't agree we manage those on a basis of mutual respect and I think Australia's clear statement of acknowledging and remembering the loss of life that occurred in 1989 is part of that.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you accept though, that Australia needs to be more vocal on human rights issues? I mean tomorrow is the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre? Doesn't this provide the perfect example and moment to refocus on human rights?

Minister Payne: We have a very strong voice on human rights across the world including in the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Patricia Karvelas: Should it be stronger though?

Minister Payne: Well, I was the first Foreign Minister to address the Human Rights Council since Australia took up our elected position on the Council and I did that earlier this year and raised a number of matters of concern around the world, where we expressed strong views. I think we are a strong advocate, we are a consistent advocate and our role in the Council of course is part of that. We are also a very, very effective, I think, and strong campaigner for a rules-based global order, for the rules which have guided us over many, many decades around the world, in a range of policy areas, but importantly it gives us that structure, that construct within which we work, to ensure that we are not working in a might is right circumstance that countries who are part of the international community are able to do so in a constructive and positive fashion. We encourage, strongly through our advocacy, nations to contribute to economic security, to stability and to prosperity in everything that they do, importantly in our region of the Indo-Pacific and indeed more broadly.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, before I let you go, what do we know about the missing climber Ruth McCance and her whereabouts, what sort of information has DFAT been able to establish?

Minister Payne: Well certainly, our thoughts and concerns are with her and with her family in what is a very, very difficult time. The authorities are still continuing the search for those who are missing, and our consular officials are working with her family to support her family as best we are able, but I do recognise this is a very difficult time in very trying circumstances.

Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for your time Minister.

Minister Payne: Thanks Patricia.

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