Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Drive

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: PNG financial assistance; Manus Island asylum seekers; climate change; protests in West Papua; MPs’ access to Chinese briefings; criticism to China; Alan Jones’ recent comments about NZ PM Jacinda Ardern.
20 August 2019

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Federal Government has confirmed that Australia is in talks with Papua New Guinea to provide financial assistance to help with a budget shortfall. PNG’s Commerce Minister Wera Mori, who’s in Australia with Treasurer Sam Basil for bilateral talks, has told the ABC his country needs $1.5 billion to pay for infrastructure spending. Australia is promoting itself as the partner of choice for Pacific Island states, as China seeks to extend its influence to the region. Marise Payne is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Women, and I caught up with her a short time ago.

[Excerpt]

Marise Payne, welcome to the program. 

MARISE PAYNE: Good afternoon Patricia. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Papua New Guinea has reportedly requested a $1.5 billion loan from the Australian Government to help fund government spending programs. You held talks with PNG’s Treasurer today – has a formal request been made? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think the Treasurer of Papua New Guinea today, Sam Basil, clarified that the figure for starters is inaccurate. What the Treasurer is in Australia for- first of all, was a very successful PNG investment conference in Sydney yesterday, but also to discuss aspects of both short term bridge financing, and support for longer term economic reform. And we have been working with Papua New Guinea on economic reform and financing needs, frankly, over many years. We helped them to secure World Bank and Asian Development Bank loans. We last year helped them with their inaugural sovereign bond issue. So, these are issues that we discuss regularly, and I suspect given that this weekend and on Monday we go into our next Papua New Guinea Australia Ministerial Forum in Port Moresby, those discussions will continue. They have a long and well planned reform program, and we are well engaged with them. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so there’ll be more talks in coming days. You say that figure of $1.5 billion is inaccurate – so what is the sum we’re talking about? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, the Treasurer of Papua New Guinea said the figure was not correct. And we have a range of issues to discuss, and that includes the policies and the issues that face their government as they seek to develop their economy and grow their regional engagement. So, there’s not a figure to put on it at this point and time in discussions, but it is an important discussion in which Australia’s engaged. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so you’re saying there’s not a specific figure, but what you can confirm is that PNG is looking to Australia for a loan? 

MARISE PAYNE: Patricia, I’m not going to go into the details of the conversation that the Treasurer may have had with his counterpart Papua New Guinea Treasurer Basil. What I will say is that our partnership with Papua New Guinea on economic and financial matters is one of longstanding. I’ve referred to the work we’ve done with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank previously with their inaugural sovereign bond last year. We provide technical assistance on economic reforms, and that has been part of our engagement for many years. But of course, it is a much, much broader than that, and we look forward to developing aspects of its breadth as part of our Papua New Guinea Australia Ministerial Forum next week. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So there is a discussion about Australia financing a loan to PNG? You can’t give me the amount, but is Australia open to doing this, and what kind of timeframe are we talking about? 

MARISE PAYNE: So, the discussion is not at that point. The discussions that we have – as part of our Ministerial Forum, for example – traverse a range of portfolios across trade, across the economy more broadly, across foreign affairs, across defence. These are longstanding engagements, and ones which we look forward to pursuing at our Ministerial Forum next week. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So given we’re having a discussion, as you say, it will continue next week in talks – where would the money come from? Would it come from the foreign aid budget, or would you look to get the money from somewhere else? 

MARISE PAYNE: Patricia, that’s not part of the discussion at this point in time. These are engagements that we have regularly with our counterparts. They set out the challenges and the issues that they face in terms of their reform program, and we’ll consider those on their merits. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Acting Labor leader Richard Marles says Australia will only be effective in the Pacific if its aim is to be- is to help, rather than to counter China; how much is China a factor in the Government’s consideration of these requests? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think it would be useful for Mr Marles to take a very close look at our engagement in the Pacific Step-Up. It traverses a range of portfolio areas and activities: people to people links across churches, across education, across schools, our Defence Cooperation Program, which I’ve mentioned already, our Australia Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific – which helps with some of those key infrastructure needs that for example, the Asian Development Bank has identified will be very, very significant by 2030 in the vicinity of US$48 billion by 2030. So, those sorts of challenges are ones which we are working closely on in our partnerships in the Pacific. And in the last few months alone, I myself have been in the Solomon Islands, in the Cook Islands, in Fiji on two occasions, as part of those discussions, and seen the level of interest in our engagement, and very much look forward to continuing to deliver that. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The PNG Government is offering asylum seekers on Manus Island the opportunity to relocate to Port Moresby, where they would still be provided with accommodation and healthcare. Do you think that’s a good offer? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think these are domestic matters for the Government of Papua New Guinea. They have worked long and hard with the Australian Government in relation to the presence of those people on Manus previously, and they will make their own decisions around location in Papua New Guinea. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: It appears Australia’s conduct at the Pacific Islands Forum has damaged our relationship with some leaders and nations in the region. Was there a way for Australia to defend its interest without alienating our neighbours? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well Patricia, I think it’s an interesting interpretation. I’ve been a participant in the Pacific Islands Forum myself, and I read a take out of the Pacific Islands Forum meeting by the Prime Minister of Samoa, Prime Minister Tuilaepa – venerable and highly respected leader in the Pacific region – one of the observations he made in his read out was that these are often robust discussions and you would expect them to be. They’re discussions where leaders are able to come together to speak in a frank and open way amongst themselves and this meeting was no different. But what Australia was able to reinforce is our stepped up engagement. Our commitment in the region is taking place in close consultation with our Pacific partners and certainly has the region's long term development challenges, including the tackling of climate change, absolutely front of mind. Last year, we committed to supporting the Boe Declaration in Nauru, which acknowledges first and foremost that climate change threatens the livelihoods, the security, the well-being of Pacific peoples, and we have been working solidly since then on our engagement. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu has threatened to withdraw from the Seasonal Guest Worker Scheme after the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack suggested Pacific Islanders would survive climate change because they could pick our fruit. Were those comments unhelpful? 

MARISE PAYNE: I'm absolutely sure that the Deputy Prime Minister did not mean to cause any offence whatsoever and- 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] But yeah, offence was caused. 

MARISE PAYNE: And if that is the case, then I can assure anyone who is concerned that no offence was meant to be caused. What I absolutely know though is that the engagement between Pacific Island countries and the workers who come to Australia is very much a partnership. I know for example that the Seasonal Worker Programme has returned over $140 million in remittances and savings to both the Pacific and Timor-Leste over the last eight years. There's been 38,000 jobs in Australia across industries like agriculture and like tourism and it is a very, very important partnership. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you understand why they were offended? 

MARISE PAYNE: I understand that they may, in some cases, have been offended or have raised concerns but most importantly, the Deputy Prime Minister meant no offence- 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] Have you reached out to them to make that clear? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I talk regularly to my counterparts around the region. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There are reports that thousands of protesters in West Papua have set fire to a local parliament building. They're angry at mass arrests of Papuan students in Indonesia. Are you worried by these reports? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I'm always concerned about reports of violence, particularly in relation to protest activity, and I certainly encourage a peaceful approach to these matters on all sides. But Australia very clearly recognises Indonesia's sovereignty over the Papuan provinces. This is a bipartisan position. It's the one that is underlined by the Lombok Treaty between Australia and Indonesia and in fact represents the wide recognition in the international community. But where there are concerns about violence, those who are responsible should be held to account. I condemn violence in that context whether it affects civilians or authorities. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has requested that all MPs be able to access briefings on China from DFAT and our security agencies. In fact, she's written to you specifically to ask this. She says there needs to be leadership on our China position, given MPs like Andrew Hastie are speaking out. Will you facilitate this? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I heard reports of that on the weekend. I'm frankly not persuaded that there is a need for that process. Members of Parliament, including members of the Opposition, are able to be part of the relevant committees in the Parliament: the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, both joint and Senate committees – each of which receive extensive briefings from agencies and departments, and of course, Senator Wong is well aware that. She's been on those committees for years. But whether it is the Prime Minister's recent Asialink speech or the number of the key statements that both the Prime Minister and I have made in recent weeks – and months, frankly – we are very engaged in an informed conversation on these matters and most importantly, endeavouring to avoid politicising them. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure, but still MPs are speaking out. Just yesterday in fact, Dave Sharma spoke on this program and said he thinks that MPs need to speak out, and they're speaking out on China. They say that they see China as a rising threat. Given they're saying this, don't you need to manage these conversations? 

MARISE PAYNE: I think members of Parliament are entitled of course to contribute to these conversations and one of the fundamental aspects of Australia's free and open democracy – I might remind those who would seek to curtail it – is that we enjoy this as a privilege and a right in our country and we, as a government, would most certainly seek to preserve the opportunity for those sorts of contributions to be made and in the Parliament, in particular, in the Parliament, in a democracy, that stands as Australia's does – strong in the world. It is a very important part of our process. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: They say that dynamics around China have changed. Do you agree with that? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think it is clear that circumstances, whether they are the relationship between China and the United States, or China's growth in our region and internationally, certainly change relationships and change circumstances but I don't expect them to be static. The world has never been static and it certainly is not in 2019. So I expect that we need to deal with those in a mature and sensible way and that is certainly the approach that we are taking. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, I know I'm taking lots of your time but just on this: there are reports that Chinese ultra-nationalist trolls are harassing and trying to silence Australian-based critics of the Chinese Government, particularly over Hong Kong. Would you be concerned if the Chinese Government was involved in this? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I've been very clear about the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of engagement in Australia and I've also made that clear in relation to comments that were made around activities at the University of Queensland, I think, last month. So, that is something which we continue to stand for and which I continue to make very clear. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: If I can turn to your other portfolio, finally, as Minister for Women, what's your response to the misogynistic comments made by broadcaster Alan Jones about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern? Lots of violent language and last night, it was revealed he even referred to a backhander. So, it wasn't just confined to the sock comment. 

MARISE PAYNE: So I've always said, Patricia, that there is an obligation on those of us who have a platform. It doesn't matter whether it's me or you, whether it's a sporting leader or whether it's a community leader or a leader in education, if you have a platform, the obligation that you have when you speak to the community on a range of issues is to choose your words carefully. How you choose words is very important, and the context of what Alan Jones said last week, those comments were disappointing and I think inappropriate. When we use language that can be construed or is violent, whether it's intended or not, sends a message and it's a message that's not okay. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But he's a repeat offender, isn't he? 

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I'm not going to engage in a commentary on that. I'm very clear about the use of that sort of language and it's not appropriate. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us. 

MARISE PAYNE: Thank you. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Marise Payne is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Women. 

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