Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Libya floods; Kim Jong Un meeting with Vladimir Putin in Russia; Pacific Islands Forum; new government in Vanuatu; regional visa discussions.

Sabra Lane, Host: A visa-free travel scheme throughout the Pacific, similar to the European Union's program, is one idea up for discussion at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Fiji today.

Australian's Foreign Minister Penny Wong is in the capital Suva for the event. Australia is a member of the 18-nation grouping which works together on political, economic and security issues. The Senator joined me a short time ago.

Penny Wong, welcome to AM. Before we talk Pacific issues, is Australia offering any assistance to Libya given the flood devastation we're seeing in Derna?

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Look, we have seen very, very tragic scenes, haven't we, of the devastation in Libya. At this stage we're considering what we could do. Obviously, it's a part of the world where the governance makes it very difficult in terms of providing assistance, but obviously we'll look at what we can do.

We've recently also made a contribution towards the earthquakes in Morocco so obviously we take these things, all these natural disasters around the world, we look at them and see what assistance Australia can provide.

Lane: And much of the world also has been surprised by North Korea's Kim Jong Un and President Vladimir Putin. There's been speculation of an arms deal to help Russia in its war with Ukraine. What do you make of the meeting?

Foreign Minister: We're deeply concerned about the meeting, and I've seen those reports, speculation about arms purchases. I think I'd make two points about that. One, that any Russian purchase would be a violation of multiple resolutions of the UN Security Council which bans all arms transfers to and from North Korea.

The second point is that I think this shows, if it is true, a degree of desperation from Mr Putin. And I think we would join with the entire international community in urging him to observe the sanctions against North Korea that the entire international community has imposed.

Lane: Security and stability are also issues for the Pacific. Climate change is an existential question for many nations in the Pacific and overnight Australia's Chief of Defence Force Angus Campbell has warned of an increasing disruption because of it, saying if the world failed to take stronger collective action "we may be all humbled by a planet made angry by our collective neglect." What's your response to that?

Foreign Minister: My response is that I understand very clearly what the Pacific have said many years ago, which is that climate change is the number one national security issue for this region.

We know that the impacts of climate are felt most heavily, it falls most heavily on those with the least capacity to adapt to it and to manage it. And we know the instability which can come from that, which is one of the reasons why we have to work so hard, both at home and in our region, to take action on climate.

I've made a couple of announcements while I've been here in Fiji on that to try to improve the capacity of Pacific Island nations to access international climate finance.

Lane: This is your fourth visit to Fiji. You met with Fiji's Prime Minister Rabuka yesterday. He's wanting to visit Australia soon. The previous Prime Minister there had an approach of friends to all and enemies of none and he was developing a closer relation with Beijing. Is that dalliance over?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think the reality is we know this region is facing real challenges in terms of climate and also that competition is intensifying in this region. What we see is more activity in different sectors by different nations, including China.

But the way through it I think is to strengthen regionalism, and one of the points I would make about Prime Minister Rabuka of Fiji is he has been and is a regional leader and we are grateful for his friendship and we respect deeply the regional leadership that he is bringing to the region. It was good to spend a fair amount of time with him and we look forward to his visit to Australia.

Lane: The Albanese Government is trying to land security arrangements with both Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea as it tries to cement its position as the region's sort of key defence partner. The new government in Vanuatu wants a deal that Australia signed late last year reworked. Where is that at?

Foreign Minister: Well, we're very open to engaging with the new government in Vanuatu and if they have a different view about the way in which that agreement is structured or aspects of that agreement obviously, you know, we're very happy to discuss that with him. So, we will engage with them and take on board what it is that they want to change, if anything, in the agreement and we'll work through that together.

Lane: Some of our Pacific Island neighbours would like to see this region adopt a European Union style visa-free travel system. That is up for discussion at the Pacific Islands Forum. How open is Australia to that idea?

Foreign Minister: Look, obviously that would be a transformative approach to the region, but there is a lot of work to do on how that would look, including between Pacific Island nations excluding Australia.

But what I would say is we understand the importance of engagement. We have increased our labour mobility scheme process which allows people to come to Australia for work, which has obviously benefited Australia in terms of our economy.

We are also seeking Senate support for a Pacific Engagement Visa which would enable a limited number of people from the Pacific to gain access to permanent residency in Australia, which would obviously be an engagement mechanism which would be of benefit to the region.

We're disappointed so far that we haven't had support from Mr Dutton. It would be a very important policy for him to support to enable better engagement between Australia and a region which matters to us, and the stability of the Pacific matters to Australia and matters to Australian security.

Lane: Penny Wong, thanks for talking to AM this morning.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you.

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