Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Visit to Papua New Guinea & Timor-Leste, engaging Pacific Nations, humanitarian assistance to Pakistan.

Kieran Gilbert: The Minister is continuing to lead government relations with our Pacific neighbours. Since coming to office, Penny Wong has travelled to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, New Zealand and the Solomons. It's all in an effort to strengthen engagement with other nations in the Asia Pacific in the face of a growing assertiveness from China. Today, Penny Wong travels to Timor‑Leste for a meeting with its president. Before she left the Foreign Minister joined me from PNG where I began by asking her whether she's been reassured from comments from PNG leaders talking up Australia's role as a primary security partner.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Well, I've been really pleased to engage with the new Minister, Minister Tkatchenko, as you said as well as the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Marape, and other Ministers and to talk with them about this next phase in this longstanding relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea. As you know, this is a longstanding relationship. It's a relationship that Gough Whitlam described as being one of equals, a relationship of respect, a partnership. That's the approach we wish to take. And Minister Tkatchenko and I spoke about Australia's longstanding relationship, economic relationship with Papua New Guinea, but also our security relationship, and our defence cooperation here is really second to none. It's Australia longest standing and biggest defence relationship.

Kieran Gilbert: I want to ask you specifically about that in a moment, particularly the naval base on Manus, but specifically something you said yesterday which I thought jumped out at me is when you said that you would ­– Australia would support –

Foreign Minister: That always worries me, Kieran.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, I think it's interesting in the context of the broader region. You said we provide this support without strings attached. Can you explain to viewers what you mean by that?

Foreign Minister: Australia looks to infrastructure that meets a demonstrated need, that is in accordance with the priorities of the host country that doesn't impose unsustainable debt burdens and the point I was making is we seek for that infrastructure to contribute to a country's economic independence, to contribute to national sovereignty. We don't seek to detract from it. And I do make that point because I think that should be, and is, the hallmark of Australia's partnership not only with Papua New Guinea but with the countries of the Pacific.

Kieran Gilbert: So, on that naval base that I touched on is there a greater role for the Lombrum Base at Manus as part of a strengthened defence partnership between our two countries?

Foreign Minister: Well, we're already refurbishing the base at Lombrum. We are already working with others and PNG on Manus to do that, and that will strengthen Papua New Guinea's maritime capacity and that's a good thing. You know, today I went to a cemetery which has, sadly, thousands of Australians and Papua New Guineans buried there. It's a reminder of the history that binds us. Australians and the people of Papua New Guinea have fought together and, sadly, died together, and that's the history that binds us as well as our hope for a brighter future, a future that, as Prime Minister Marape, described of economic independence for Papua New Guinea in a region that's stable and secure.

Kieran Gilbert: How concerned are you by China's apparent interest in places like Daru and others – other areas on the southern coast of PNG?

Foreign Minister: Look, I just make this point: we're not going back to where we were. We know that we live in a time where China and others are much more assertive, much more forward‑leaning, engaging much more in the region and I think we have to focus on what we can do and what Australia will do. What I'd say in terms of some of the media coverage, Australia looks to infrastructure, looks to proposals from other countries in accordance with the interests of the host country, our interests – that is, Australia's national interests. We look to strategic risk and we look to what options Australia has to manage those. And that's an ongoing challenge which we will continue to engage in carefully and appropriately.

Kieran Gilbert: And what about those privately owned atolls? There's been a bit of coverage about that. Surely it's difficult for a national government to engage in private transaction like that, isn't it?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think the Prime Minister made the very good point I think that there are some 600 islands in Milne Bay. We can't buy every island and I am certainly not going to have a discussion through the media, but I would say to Australians: we recognise the importance of looking at investments with an eye to Australia's strategic interests, and that's what the government will do.

Kieran Gilbert: The jobs issue's a big one. Obviously, we have got the summit here in Australia. We need workers. PNG – apparently the government wants more access for Papua New Guinean workers to Australia. Have you been talking about that, opening it up to workers where –

Foreign Minister: Kieran –

Kieran Gilbert: – to plug shortages here?

Foreign Minister: Kieran, it's a really good question. You're right. It's come up in almost every meeting I've had and the Government of Papua New Guinea make it very clear they have a lot of people who want more employment than they can get and who would like to come to Australia. So, we have spoken to them about how we might improve our Pacific Mobility Schemes. We said before the election we would improve and expand those, and we're serious about that. Obviously, they would still be schemes as have existed for some time where they're carefully regulated. We want to make sure people aren't exploited. But I'm certainly keen not only to look at how we might expand them in a measured and careful way but also how we might prioritise the acquisition of skills. Because what we want is for Papua New Guineans to come to Australia and not just be able to send remittances, that is income, back home, but also equip them with more skills that help them both in our labour market but also when they come home back into PNG.

Kieran Gilbert: The Prime Minister is going to host the President of East Timor, also the Prime Minister of the Solomons in the next little while at The Lodge. He's obviously stepping us his own personal diplomatic efforts in this regard. Has the government, through yourself largely, been able to turn back the tide in our favour in the Pacific?

Foreign Minister: Look, I have said a number of times, Kieran, we're not going back to where we were and we recognise that the nations of the region have many nations are seeking to engage here, and what we say and what this government says is: We're a member of the Pacific family. We want to work with you for your – towards your priorities and for your greater economic strength. We'll do that in a way that best enables and supports your economic independence, so we won't attach strings, and we're serious about climate. We know how important that is to the countries of the Pacific. And that engagement – it's not just me; it's led by the Prime Minister, myself, Minister Conroy, the Deputy Prime Minister and Ministers across the board, because we understand we want to safeguard Australia's national security. We don't yell through the headlines as our predecessors did. We work with the region to ensure a safer and more secure region. That is the way we find and ensure Australia's security.

Kieran Gilbert: On an even bigger picture than that, I guess, is the US–China economic interdependence – we share part of that story as well, but I wonder what's your and your government's strategy in managing that massive interdependence in an economic sense as we see this decoupling, as it's called, or diversification apparently coming up against economic gravity where you look at last year alone US businesses expanded their direct investment in China by $38 billion? That's in investment alone. How do you manage that reality with these other geopolitical tensions that we see so abundant right now?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, ultimately the decision about the interdependency and the economic relationship between the US and China is a matter for the US and China. What I would say is this: we want to work towards a world that is peaceful, stable and secure and obviously great power competition is one of the realities of our time, and we want to engage with others in the region to make sure there are guardrails around that. I think there is some truth in those who make the point that economic engagement is one of the guardrails you can have when it comes to competition.

I think it's really been shown, both through this and through COVID, that there are supply chains where countries quite rightly say, look, we want a sovereign capability in that area. We want to be able to supply that product or that aspect or that component of that supply chain here in Australia or here in the United States. There are supply chains where there is real strategic importance. So, we are working with the US on some of those and we'll continue to do that in the future.

Kieran Gilbert: Almost out of time, but I have to ask you about that tragedy in Pakistan right now. I know you've committed some support in the wake of those devastating floods. Can you talk us through it?

Foreign Minister: Oh, look, obviously I think people have seen online and in the media the footage. It's really very tragic. I express my condolences to the people of Pakistan for the loss of life. We have contributed, I think I announced today, money towards humanitarian assistance and $2 million. And whatever political differences we have, I think we all share in the suffering that humanity, unfortunately, has to live through around the world, and we can extend a helping hand in times like this.

Kieran Gilbert: Foreign Minister Penny Wong joining me from Port Moresby. Thank you. Appreciate it.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you.

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