Interview with Melissa Clarke, ABC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Pacific Islands Forum for Foreign Ministers, Australia’s Pacific Step-Up, UK Prime Minister, Persian Gulf.
24 July 2019

MELISSA CLARKE: Senator, thanks very much for your time at a busy point.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to see you Melissa.

MELISSA CLARKE: You're heading to the Pacific Islands Forum for foreign ministers in Fiji. How will you ensure that Australia remains the economic and strategic partner of choice for the Pacific states?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I think the Pacific Step-Up is the best way to answer that question. We obviously have made considerable progress in implementing key aspects of the Step-Up and one of those, in particular, is the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific which is operational as of this month. As I've gone around the region since I was appointed to this role last year, which is, I think, I'm up to my eighth visit to the region since I became Foreign Minister, as I've gone around the region, we've been discussing with our partners their infrastructure priorities and looking at what is possible for them in that space. So, the vast range of issues is fascinating. Our four focuses are on transport, on water, on energy and communications, and I think they are really backing in our commitment to being the economic and security partner of choice.

MELISSA CLARKE: There is the Step-Up, but other countries are renewing their focus in the region as well; New Zealand's got their Pacific Reset, Indonesia's got the Pacific Elevation, the UK, the Uplift, China obviously is paying a lot of attention to the region as well so it's a very competitive space, is the Step-Up enough to really distinguish us in the region?

FOREIGN MINISTER: So, you might characterise it as a competitive space, I think it's a busy space and I don't think that's a bad thing. I think the growth of the partnerships in the region is important. We welcome all comers, if you like, as long as they're contributing to the things that are important to the region, to security, to stability, and to prosperity.

MELISSA CLARKE: But in doing so, Australia is looking to invest and wants to encourage economic growth as are the other countries in this busy space, we don't have the same means that some of those other countries do, particularly China. How do we make sure we maintain that pre-eminence as a security and economic partner when on one of the most fundamental areas – the sort of financial support we can offer, we don't have as much to give as a country like China?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well I think one of the things we can say is we live here. This is our region, as the Prime Minister says, these countries are our Pacific family. And that is a very important starting point. We are engaging strategically with each of the countries in the region around the infrastructure financing for example. The cables also that we're investing in, the Coral Sea Cables, with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are another really good example of where Australia can respond to need, to demand as it's identified by our partners.

MELISSA CLARKE: So you point to the Facility, let's go to that. The Pacific countries also want to set up their own Infrastructure Financing Facility through PIF, so is there a risk of duplication here?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well the Asian Development Bank estimates the demand for infrastructure in the pacific between now and 2030 at $46 billion. So I think the risk of duplication is minimal but the importance of coordination is imperative.

MELISSA CLARKE: Pacific leaders have made it clear through the Boe Declaration last year that they see climate change as the most security challenge for the region, and many leaders have also made it clear they're not satisfied that Australia is doing enough. How will you respond to them when they raise this issue with you when you're in the region?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well I was present for the adoption of the Boe Declaration in Nauru last year at the Pacific Island Forum Leaders meeting and so we have continued our strong commitment to the Declaration. I've been very careful to enunciate that whenever I've had the opportunity in public statements and comments. We are investing $300 million across the region in climate resilience focused support with Pacific Island countries across the current four year period. We also have a $1billion commitment to developing nations across five years to 2019-20. So we are speaking strongly in that context and we also have been extremely clear, the Prime Minister leading from the front, that we will meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement and that is something that is very important to the region.

MELISSA CLARKE: Some of the Pacific leaders, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu for example, has made it clear that he doesn't think that that's enough and he has said that he would find it difficult, a partnership with Australia, if Australia doesn't do more domestically on climate change. So is there more the Australian Government can do domestically to show the Pacific that it is serious on this front?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well we are very serious and meeting our Paris commitments is the best symbol of that, in my view. We work very closely with Tuvalu, we're assisting them with the hosting the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting in August. I visited there myself in February, I think, to open Australia's post there in Funafuti. That is a very strong indication of Australia's commitment to that partnership, of our engagement, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu and I turned the sod together on what will be the permanent site of our post there.

MELISSA CLARKE: But nonetheless, he's made it clear that they would like to see Australia do more domestically, so are they just going to have to be disappointed on that front?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well I think that they should be pleased that Australia is meeting our Paris commitments. That is something which we are absolutely locked into doing, which the Prime Minister has articulated regularly, the Ministers in the portfolio have articulated regularly, which I reinforce as well.

MELISSA CLARKE: Can I just move to a few other issues to run through… Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister of the UK, how will Australia approach its relationship with the UK with a very different Prime Minister at the helm now?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, we congratulate Boris Johnson on his election as leader of the Conservatives and his swearing in as Prime Minister, and obviously I look forward to continuing what is one of our deepest and most enduring relationships. It has stood the test of time and I was most recently in London meeting with senior officials, awaiting the outcome of the ballot of course. But I know that the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Johnson will get together as soon as they can and I think that we will continue to have a very solid relationship.

MELISSA CLARKE: The UK Government has most recently joined the European Union in the Persian Gulf, the US also has its own operations in the Gulf, is there a role for Australia to contribute to security in the Strait of Hormuz?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well we're always discussing these issues with our allies and partners and most importantly we are very focussed on the imperative of safe and free movement through international waters in that way so we will continue to have those discussions. We have been contributing to the Combined Maritime Force in the Middle East for a very long time now, I believe we're on our 67th rotation of an Australian frigate to that Force – that's part of what we've been contributing for some time. But any further requests would of course be considered on their merits, and essentially a matter for the Defence Minister, of course.

MELISSA CLARKE: It is also a matter of foreign affairs though…


MELISSA CLARKE: Indeed, we have different approaches to how to manage it - we have an EU initiative and US initiative, if there is a role for us in ensuring security there, who do we work with?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, we would consider any requests on their merits and Australia always does. But we make a very significant contribution to security in the Middle East currently, and I know that as a Government which is very focussed on national security and Australia's national interests, we will always make decisions on further contributions based on those criteria.

MELISSA CLARKE: And it would only be based if the request came? We wouldn't make a move off our own initiative to say we rely on freedom of navigation in this area for our energy security therefore we proactively put up out hand to offer support?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well I don't think it's helpful to speculate on those sorts of things. They are key decisions around national security and Governments will make them in their own way.

MELISSA CLARKE: Wonderful. Foreign Minister, thank you very much.


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