Press Conference - Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: Australia-PNG relationship; Australia-Papua New Guinea Ministerial Forum; Climate Change; PNG census.

Justin Tkatchenko, PNG Foreign Minister: Thank you, MC. Good evening everybody, and I'd like to firstly say thank you to my Co‑Chair, Senator Honourable Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and Defence Minister, and all the Ministers of the high‑level delegation to Port Moresby that was with us today for the 30th PNG‑Australia Ministerial Forum here in APEC Haus Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and especially the Moresby South electorate.

Our meeting today focused on pillars of our comprehensive strategic and economic partnership that aimed at strengthening our relationship and enhancing cooperation on a number of bilateral issues of mutual interest to both our countries.

The comprehensive, strategic and economic partnership, Pillar 1, focused on strong democracies for a stable future. This includes shared commitment to functional and accountable democratic systems, enduring interests in stability, security, prosperity, increasing partnership in gender and social inclusion programs.

Pillar 2 of this comprehensive strategic and economic partnership focused on strengthening ties of our neighbours and global partners. I acknowledge PNG and Australia working together, reinforcing Pacific unity and encourage Pacific consensus through transparency and inclusive decision making in regional forums, and also commend the established practice of Papua New Guinea and Australia helping each other in the region in times of crisis.

We also discussed ways to further strengthen our strategic cooperation for security and stability between our two countries in key strategic areas such as the Bilateral Security Agreement, which is now enforced on the Papua New Guinea side, policing and justice, defence cooperation, border and marine security, including Torres Strait Treaty, cyber security and telecommunications and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

PNG welcomes the initiative by Australia to build strategic trust between Australia and the Pacific Island countries, and further welcomes the three‑tiered approach at the national level, the sub‑regional Melanesian Spearhead, MSG, and the regional levels. Note that to unlock greater economic potential, securing law and order is critical to PNG and is acknowledged as Australia's continued support in this sector.

In the areas of economic partnership for prosperity, we welcome the progress to ensure a mutual benefit PNG and Australia economic partnership through our commitment to explore ways to boost economic growth and resilience, business ties, trade and investment. In this regard, the forum for senior officials of the Government‑to‑Business, G2B Forum, between the two countries to encourage and promote trade facilitation which is a step in the right direction.

Our discussions on social and human development focused on Australian development partnership with PNG. We welcome Australia‑PNG Development Partnership Plan, including their alignment with goals set out in the PNG Vision 2050 and the medium term development plan with more emphasis on social economic development in important sectors such as education, health, gender and women's empowerment and climate change.

The signing of the joint statement today on Technical and Vocational Training, TVET, cooperation between PNG and Australia will also further build and strengthen more quality human resources for PNG to address the developing needs and challenges for our country. Present value of TVET is at $60 million Australian, and we look forward to increasing that into the future.

Importantly, as well in the context of human and economic development, the engagement of young Papua New Guineans as seasonal workers contributes to a better livelihood for our community. Under the employment visa, labour mobility is a source of revenue and human resource development. I thank the Australian Government for the 50 per cent participation in the new Pacific Employment Visa, PEV, which will greatly benefit our Papua New Guinean citizens. Also I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank the Government of Australia for their ongoing strong commitment to PNG's development aspirations since 1975.

Finally, I want to reassure the Foreign Minister, our co‑Chair, Foreign Minister Senator Honourable Penny Wong for the importance PNG places on its bilateral relationship with Australia, that friendship should be built on trust, and PNG values Australia as an important bilateral partner of choice.

Thank you so much.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thank you very much Foreign Minister Tkatchenko, thank you for your friendship, thank you for your work as my counterpart and thank you so much for your gracious hosting along with your colleagues of the Australian Ministerial Direct Delegation to the Ministerial Forum. I thank you for your very effective co‑chairing.

Can I thank all of the Ministers who have participated in this forum. I thank all of the Papua New Guinean delegation, the delegation from Australia, very senior delegation, obviously our Deputy Prime Minister. I want to make special mention of Deputy Prime Minister Rosso, who is not only a friend of Australia but shows a great deal of leadership for his country, and we appreciate his friendship.

We are, as the Foreign Minister said, the only ‑ this is the only country with whom we have this type of ministerial engagement, and it reflects who we are to one another. In my opening remarks today I spoke about Prime Minister Marape's historic address to the Australian Parliament where he talked about our relationship, our history together, which grounds our past and our friendship, but also tells us something about our future. He spoke about us being joined at the hip.

Today we also reflected on another milestone of our shared history, and that is Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's support for Papua New Guinea and independence in 1975. And as I reflected earlier today, one of the really telling things that Prime Minister Whitlam said was that if he had done nothing else in his political life but for his contribution to the independence of your country, he would rest content; a very extraordinary thing to say.

So today we see this forum as carrying on those legacies, the legacy of Gough Whitlam, of the Grand Chief of those leaders here in PNG who sought and achieved your independence. We see our role as deepening and continuing that legacy and that relationship, and that is why we have come with such a senior delegation here.

There are many things we have discussed today. I will just mention a few. The first is security; not only the Bilateral Security Agreement and its implementation, the agreement of course that our two Prime Ministers signed and that we are already implementing.

Deputy Prime Minister Rosso has said publicly, as has Foreign Minister Tkatchenko, a stronger and safer Papua New Guinea is good for PNG. It is also good for Australia, and it is good for the region. This is the logic and the imperative of the work we are doing together on your domestic security, because we understand that it is in your interests, it is in our interests, and it is in the region's interests.

So we were pleased to announce our further support for the legal system as part of your full circle law and justice commitment. We are also rolling out programs to improve access to justice for young people, we are helping make PNG's correctional facilities safer and more secure, and we want to ‑ we will be supporting your legal system to investigate and prosecute financial crime as part of our commitment to further security.

We are also announcing a twinning arrangement between our agricultural agencies, and we will fund the construction of a biosecurity lab at your National Agricultural Quarantine Inspection Authority which will enable Papua New Guinea to better detect and control animal diseases. This is about ensuring that Papua New Guinea can boost its exports, grow your economy and create jobs. And as Foreign Minister Tkatchenko said, we also discussed ways in which we can continue to boost Papua New Guinea's participation in the Pacific‑Australia Labour Mobility Program.

I want to just pick up one thing that the Foreign Minister said in his introduction, which is this discussion about the three tiers of security cooperation, domestic, sub‑regional, in the context of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and then regional. We are very committed to ensuring that that is the approach that we take, and we are very committed to partnering with Papua New Guinea in all of those endeavours. We really appreciate the opportunity to be with you all tonight, but we most deeply appreciated the opportunity for the dialogue we had today.

I will now step aside, and I think our Deputy Prime Ministers will each have something to say.

Richard Marles, Deputy Prime Minister: Well, Justin, John, and to the entire PNG delegation, thank you for hosting all of us here today. I know that I speak on behalf of Penny and our entire delegation when I say that it has been a deeply fruitful meeting between a group of close friends.

There has never been, in the 49‑year history of our bilateral relationship, a greater ambition than there is now on the part of the Marape Government and the Albanese Government to transform our relationship to being one which is much, much closer. And today's meeting gave expression to that, and the closeness of our relationship is an expression of the uniqueness of our relationship.

As Penny said, we do not have a meeting of this kind with any other country in the world, where we have ministers across the board meeting with their counterparts and then meeting in a forum such as this. The result of that is that we don't have friendships as close as this with any other country in the world, and that's as it should be.

And as we give expression to that ambition of becoming closer as two nations, we are deeply grateful for the sentiment that has been expressed by Justin, by John, by everyone in the Papua New Guinean delegation about looking to traditional partners when we consider matters of security, because that is exactly how we feel as well. And in a difficult and troubled world, we look to our traditional partners, to Papua New Guinea, to be closer, to walk hand‑in‑hand to navigate our way through that world.

Last year at the 29th PNG‑Australia Ministerial Forum, we established a cut‑through committee, as we have called it, and one of the issues that we dealt with then was the length of time that it was taking for people in PNG to acquire an Australian visa. At that point it took about three months. Over the course of the last year that has been reduced down to seven days.

We do speak fine words, or at least we try to, in the meetings that we have, but we also take action. This is actually a working group, where we make a difference in the way in which we relate to each other and the way in which that relationship can improve the lives of the people of Papua New Guinea and the people of Australia, and to that end we are seeing ourselves do more in the space of policing, more in justice and defence and across the entire spectrum of national security.

We are doing more in development assistance, including in health and in education. We are doing more in cooperation in agriculture, in trade, across the whole field of economic cooperation. So this is tangible, it is granular, it is making a difference.

Next year PNG turns 50. That is a huge moment in the history of this nation. But it's also a huge moment in the history of Australia and the history of our bilateral relationship. As we approach that moment, I can say with an absolute sense of confidence that there has never been a greater sense of optimism about where we are taking this relationship, a relationship which is being transformed, a relationship which come this milestone, is a relationship of two equal partners, of countries which seek to be as close as is possible, as two countries which see each other as the greatest of friends.

John Rosso, PNG Deputy Prime Minister: Thank you, Deputy Prime Minister Richard. I'd like to also, as we come to the conclusion of the 30th Ministerial Forum, we have achieved a lot from both countries' perspective. We've worked on issues that we have derived from the last year's Ministerial Forum; as was, the outcomes this year have been achievements from those directives and those discussions that we had last year in Canberra.

So on behalf of my Prime Minister, our Government, my colleagues, I'd like to appreciate and say a warm thank you to you and the two co‑chairs on both sides, Minister Wong and Minister Tkatchenko, on successfully co‑hosting a very successful Ministerial Forum.

A lot of the outcomes that have been derived will be continuing, and those are outcomes that we have decided on to go towards enhanced prosperity for both nations.

Australia remains a strong traditional partner and partner of choice for Papua New Guinea, and we'll continue to work on that to increase the relationship moving forward.

I'd also like to say thank you to your high‑level delegation that has come to our shores, and also to my colleagues who participated and also achieved a lot of outcomes, I should say on their behalf too, for our nation.

In terms of security, in terms of biosecurity, in terms of trade, all these things have all seen a massive increase, all seen a massive enhancement of agreements. As you quite rightly pointed out, and we agreed on, is at the core ‑ our biggest issue in Papua New Guinea is internal security, which is our main focus, and that main focus has been with partnership with Australia. We are now having it greatly more enhanced, more advanced, and you can see the fruition of those discussions that we have had.

The Papua New Guinean Government on our side continue to work closely with Australia and you can see the results of the new Police College of Excellence that has two weeks ago just graduated nearly 300 new recruits into our Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. 70 of those are officer cadets, and they're now currently in Australia undergoing training to come back to Papua New Guinea to fill in our middle management gaps in RPNGC. That is towards looking at enhanced policing, or looking towards a target of 10,000 police men and women for our nation moving towards 2027.

We're also looking at cyber security improvements, we're looking at immigration improvements, and as you have rightfully pointed out, the immigration turnaround time previously that was about three months turnaround, has moved from three months to 24 days. After our agreements in Canberra, it is now down to seven days to apply for an Australian visa.

We have also, as requested by the PNG Government, you have also moved your processing facility now to Port Moresby, which was previously held in Fiji, and now that you have moved it back to Port Moresby we are grateful for that. It makes processing of visas very, very easier, much, much easier for our people, by ordinary people, and I'm certain that our people in Papua New Guinea appreciate them.

And increased, for our Labour Mobility Program, you have seen an increase from figures of below 100 in previous years to the last five years. Now we have more than a couple of thousand of Papua New Guineans working in Australia on the Labour Mobility Program, with signs of more increases in the near future.

We also say thank you to the TVET program that has just been signed, so that that will increase for our TVET students to have enhanced better TVET programs for students in Papua New Guinea.

I could go on and on, but there's a lot of outcomes that we would say thank you to Australia for the increased relationships that we both share as traditional partners for both Papua New Guinea and Australia, and I am quite pleased on behalf of my Prime Minister and my country, I'd like to say thank you on the very, very good outcomes that we have achieved today. Thank you.

Deputy Prime Minister Marles: Before we go to questions, if I could just say one more thing. Today's meeting has obviously happened in the shadow of the tragedy which occurred a few weeks ago in Enga Province with the landslide.

All of us in the Australian delegation send our deepest condolences to those who have been impacted by this national disaster, and very much we send our condolences to our colleagues in the PNG Government.

We remember vividly during the 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires in Australia which was a difficult moment for our country, PNG was there in terms of providing us with assistance and support in our hour of need, and we're very mindful of that right now.

From the moment that we became aware of this, we've been offering the assistance that we can to support in respect of this national disaster. Tomorrow we will go to Enga Province and look first‑hand at what has happened there and look at ways in which we can do more to provide assistance.

But we are ‑ this meeting is happening with a heavy heart in terms of what has occurred in Enga, and we really do stand ready to provide whatever assistance we can, John.

PNG Deputy Prime Minister: Thank you, Deputy Prime Minister. I'd like to also say thank you on behalf of my people, especially the people of Mulitaka and Enga, say thank you to the Australian Government for their kind assistance. 

Every time we have an issue, Australia always gratefully comes to our assistance, but I'd also like to take this time to various other countries that have also assisted us in this time of need, especially to the people of Enga. Thank you very much.

Foreign Minister: We'll go to questions, if there are ‑ yes.

Journalist: Thank you. Minister Tkachenko, thank you. Firstly one to you. What was it that ended up stopping the PNG Government from going ahead with the policing deal with China, and is that something that you still might consider down the track? And to Minister Wong, climate change been a key part of the discussions today, what has been the discussion, if any, of the announcement in Australia of the nuclear power plant proposals from the Opposition, and do you have any comments to make about how that would impact here in PNG?

Foreign Minister Tkatchenko: When it comes to China, they're a strong economic and trade partner to Papua New Guinea, just like Australia, and we, when it comes to security we have signed a Bilateral Security Agreement with Australia, they are our traditional security partner, a partner of choice, and we as a government saw it crystal‑clear that we will continue to support and work and partner with Australia now and in future for our security.

No one stopped us. We have our own ‑ we're independent, we make our own decisions, and we work with Australia as they have worked with us now and into the future.

Foreign Minister Wong: Thank you, Justin, and we've had a lot of discussion about the importance of strategic trust and what that enables us to do in terms of our partnership, and we're very ‑ we are very pleased and appreciative of the comments which have been made today and more broadly.

On climate, we haven't really talked in our ministerial forum about what the opposition has done, but I would make this point. I think they've announced seven sites of which six have already said they don't want a nuclear reactor.

I would make this point also, I think what Mr Dutton is proposing at this point is for taxpayers to fund something which ‑ for taxpayers to fund something which would occur in 20 years' time, but not do anything about energy security and energy costs in the here and now.

But your question goes to the broader issue about climate, climate matters to the countries in the Pacific. If you look at the statements of leaders current and past, Pacific leaders tell the world climate change is our number one national security issue, our number one economic issue.

So we understand, as the Australian Government, that doing what needs to be done on climate matters for us domestically and matters for our economy, and it more so matters in the Pacific, in Papua New Guinea and in other members of the Pacific Islands Forum, because it goes to our authenticity. It goes to our genuineness. It goes to us understanding that this is a shared challenge that we have to genuinely be a part of making.

Journalist: My question is on aid to Papua New Guinea, over the last 30-40 years. Has aid to Papua New Guinea been effective?

Foreign Minister: Has it been effective?

Minister Tkatchenko: Yes.

Minister Wong: What I can say to you is that, is two things - the first is that we engage with you economically in terms of our development, your development, in terms of your infrastructure and in terms of your internal security and in terms of your defence force in ways we engage with no other country. So what we do with you, we do not do at this scale or this depth or this breadth with any other country, and that reflects the relationship that we are speaking about and that is exemplified here today.

The second point is we seek to be a partner that listens, and a partner that shapes our contribution to reflect your priorities. We want to be a respectful partner, and I know that is what you also, Papua New Guinea seeks of us. So how we are shaping our infrastructure financing, our development assistance, our labour movement opportunities and our Defence relationship reflects your priorities, and that is how we are working and ensuring we are effective.

Journalist: The question is to both Foreign Ministers Wong and Tkatchenko. Australia has loaned about 2.6 billion since 2020 to cover PNG Government's budget shortfalls. How many years do you think this type of support will continue, and is there any move to increase it? Will this loan eventually be written off by Australia? Given this level of support why does PNG want to have significant shortfalls such as insufficient public services? I also have a question to do with security. Australian and PNG are both forging closer defence and security ties with Indonesia, what potential is there for this to evolve into a tripartite arrangements? And what are the implications for Papua New Guinea's internal security given the global and grassroots support for West Papua independence? Thank you.

Minister Tkatchenko: Let me go with your last question first. Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have a very close relationship. We have just signed the Defence Cooperation Agreement and we have negotiated finally the basic border treaty with Indonesia. Our two ‑ our Prime Minister and the President of Indonesia have a very good cordial relationship, as I do with Minister Retno, the Foreign Minister of Indonesia.

Indonesia's sovereignty is always number one, and any issues with West Papua, we will always consult Indonesia. And with that as well, our doors are open to Indonesia if they require us to assist them in any of their issues when it's concerning West Papua. So we are there to support them as a country, as a sovereign country, Indonesia, in these issues going forward, as well as we're there to assist our Melanesian brothers and sisters as well in that regard.

So we've got a new relationship there, which is very open. Just recently in San Francisco the Melanesian Spearhead Group appointed the Prime Minister Marape and Prime Minister Rabuka as a Special Envoy about West Papua and how we move forward with that, and they met for the very historical first time in San Francisco at the sidelines of APEC, and that meeting was very productive, very good on the way forward for our brothers and sisters in West Papua, and we continue to work with the current President and also the new President‑elect.

In the next coming weeks our Prime Minister will be on a State visit to Indonesia, invited by the President, which they will have a formal meeting with the new President and administration as well to secure and to continue the very strong relationship and programs and projects that we are currently working on now with the current Government of Indonesia.

So at this point in time our Government has really stepped up its relationship with Indonesia, and we'll work together for the West Papua issue.  

Minister Wong: I think Minister Tkachenko’s dealt with the aspect of the question in relation to Indonesia. Can I just respond on the budget support question? We had a very good presentation from Minister Ling‑Stuckey who went through some of your fiscal reforms, that is reforms to how you manage your budget and your debt, and we understand some of the legacy issues that the Government of Papua New Guinea is dealing with, and we respect the way in which you are working through those issues, not just with us, but also with the international, relevant international funds.

Journalist: As we speak Papua New Guinea is currently holding, conducting national census, it will be the first in more than 20 years if it's successful. How important is that to Australia and what bearing might it have both in terms of the security issues you've discussed today and also on the aid and support that Australia supplies to PNG? And then Minister Tkatchenko, maybe if you can just comment on how crucial the census is in terms of PNG's foreign relations.

Minister Tkatchenko: The census is very, very important. Our Government prides itself rolling out this program at the highest level through the Ministry, and our Prime Minister is taking the lead on that with our Government.

This census is very important. We need to know how big is our population in all our districts and all our provinces so at the end of the day we know how many schools we need to build to educate our children, what's the health implications for our children and our future populations, what housing is going to be needed for our future generations, and so on.

So census provides us with the information we need so we can go forward and ensure we've got the proper infrastructure, we've got the proper facilities, programs and activities available for our population, and we know where we're going into the future.

At the moment there's a big question mark, so I encourage every single Papua New Guinean, get registered. Very, very important. I actually personally was registered yesterday at my residence, to ensure that we get the message out there that everyone must be counted, everybody must be registered, so we know exactly the population for us to move forward with.

Minister Wong: A census enables a government to better respond to its people. So we congratulate the work that the Papua New Guinean Government, the Marape Government is doing on that. And it will also enable your partner, economic development infrastructure security partner, Australia, to better respond to your needs and priorities, so it is a good thing to do. Thank you.

Minister Tkatchenko: Thank you everybody.

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