TV Interview with Greg Jennett, Honiara

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Visit to Solomon Islands; Australia - Solomon Islands relationship; Hamas-Israel conflict.

Greg Jennett, Host: Penny Wong, we're very pleased to have you back with us on the program. Now, you've wasted no time in getting to the Solomon Islands so soon after the formation of the Manele Government. I think you used the word "transformative" earlier today in public remarks about the Australia - Solomon Islands relationship that the Prime Minister aspires to develop. Can you elaborate on that? What will be transformed?

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Well, first can I say it is wonderful to be back here in the Solomon Islands, and I'm at Mbokona High School, Community High School, where I've just opened this science lab, so I would say to Australians who are watching, you know, this is the sort of work that your development assistance does. It helps these young kids have this sort of infrastructure, and we're rolling this out across some 40 high schools across many provinces here in Solomon Islands. So that's just one of the announcements that I've had the privilege of making.

Look, this is a new government, the Manele Government, and obviously this is a country that is very important to Australia, this is a country which is important to the stability and future of the region, so of course, I have come here open to listening to the priorities that Prime Minister Manele and others have put to us about what their priorities are, what their economic priorities are.

And we are up for a broader relationship, a deeper relationship, we are already the number one development partner, but we understand that this government has priorities in terms of how it wishes to navigate its challenges. It has, you know, economic, an economic agenda, it has substantial fiscal issues to deal with, it has a desire, as we do, to see its people engage in meaningful, well-paid work that is high‑skilled. So obviously these are the sorts of things Australia can work with Solomon Islands on.

Greg Jennett: Does that mean you'd be open to exploring some form of comprehensive partnership, one that might span security, of course, but the economic and budget support which you appear to have touched on in your conversations with Prime Minister Manele. Is this on the table, as it has been with PNG recently and Tuvalu before?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, yeah, certainly with PNG and Tuvalu, and also Fiji, you've seen an approach Australia is taking, where, as I've said previously, we do want to be better and more involved members of the Pacific family, and that will mean different things with different countries, and so it's for Solomon Islands to consider how it wants to approach the engagement and look at how the relationship can grow as we move forward, and we look forward to that continued dialogue, and we're serious about having a good dialogue on that front. I mean Richard Marles, as you know, was here just a couple of weeks ago, you have me here now. We'll continue that very senior engagement from the Australian Government, and we look forward to a very productive discussion.

One thing I would say is, you know, we know that in the past Australia has not been as good a partner, as involved a partner as we would have liked, and we saw that under previous governments. Well, we're serious about making sure we continue the same momentum you've seen since we were elected to office in our engagement with the Pacific; respectful, listening, acting on their priorities.

Greg Jennett: Now, we know that Jeremiah Manele has a security review underway at present, looking at, among other things, the formation of a Solomon Islands Defence Force. But what of the substantial AFP presence, I think it's 130 or thereabouts, that remains after the election under the Solomon Islands Assistance Force. Did you discuss with the Prime Minister, or do you have any expectations about how long they will remain?

Foreign Minister: Oh, look, obviously we discussed the Solomon Islands Assistance Force, and other matters, and you know, what I made clear to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Police Minister, is, you know, we want to continue to be their first partner when it comes to these security issues, and we'll continue to work with other countries, such as Papua New Guinea and Fiji. That is the Pacific family working together to assure their security.

I think it's very important, Greg, to remember, the approach that we want to take is the approach the Pacific Islands Forum has made clear. It's an approach which puts the Pacific in the driver's seat, it's an approach which says security for all of us, all members of the Pacific Islands Forum, of which we are one, as is Solomon Islands, all members are better off, are more secure if security is provided within the Pacific family, and the Solomon Islands Assistance Force that you've seen, with its involvement from other Melanesian countries, plus Australia, is a demonstration of that.

Greg Jennett: But does that mean it's indefinite in the planning of the Australian Government, that AFP component?

Foreign Minister: Oh, look, I'm not – obviously there are current timetables in relation to the Solomon Islands Assistance Force. What we want to do is work with the new Prime Minister, the new Police Minister, the new Foreign Minister, and listen to their priorities as they look to the next stages.

But what we don't want to do is what we saw under the Coalition where in 2017, when RAMSI, the previous engagement by Australian security for police occurred, when that drew down, the experience here was of a very substantial step down by Australia. Let's remember that, you know. I know that the Coalition talked about a Pacific step-up. The experience of so many Solomon Islanders here was of a step-down, and of course then you saw some inevitable searching for other partners.

Greg Jennett: I see. Okay. Well, look, we'll move on there that. I might take you to some other hotspots around the world right now, Penny Wong. The Middle East. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened what he calls very strong action on the Northern Israeli border after attacks by Hezbollah launched from Lebanon. The IDF Chief, in a similar vein, has said, they are "Ready for an offensive" there. Is this a threat of the long-feared regional escalation, and do you take this seriously as such?

Foreign Minister: Look, we have taken seriously the risk of regional escalation, or horizontal escalation very seriously from the beginning. You might recall very early on, after the horrific events of October 7, that I called for restraint, and I also called, engaged in terms of trying to ensure that there was – we could add our voice to those urging against escalation elsewhere for Israeli's and their security, but also for the security of the broader region.

So, of course, we would urge calm, we would urge restraint, it is not in the interests of the countries of the region, it is not in Israel's interests for there to be escalation. That's been the position Australia has advocated for since the beginning.

What I would say though is this - we do need a ceasefire. We voted many months ago with over 150 other countries for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. We have President Biden of the United States putting on the table a ceasefire plan, we have seen what is happening in Rafah to civilians, to children. We have seen all of this, and we in Australia join with others in the world to say to all parties, it is time for people to adhere to President Biden's ceasefire plan.

Greg Jennett: Yes, and you made that point a couple of days ago, I think, around the time you were at Senate Estimates here in Canberra, Minister. Now I know these things aren't always publicly telegraphed, but as far as I can discern, there's no public indication that Prime Minister Netanyahu is seriously negotiating the President Biden proposal that's been put to Israel, Hamas and other intermediaries. Does this mean Prime Minister Netanyahu is thumbing his nose at Israel's most steadfast ally?

Foreign Minister: Well, Greg, I'm going to leave commentary to others, but what I would say is, when, you know, the President of the United States, as you said, a long-standing friend and ally of Israel, puts a ceasefire plan on the table, then it is in Israel's interests for them to take that forward.

Greg Jennett: All right. Okay.

Foreign Minister: We have seen what is happening, we have seen what is happening in Rafah. We do not want this. We said to the Israelis very publicly previously, "Do not go down this path." We again urge alongside all other G7 countries and countries all over the world, we urge all parties to adhere to President Biden's ceasefire plan.

Greg Jennett: All right. Understood. I will bring you back to the domestic front, and just explain to our audience, there's an ever-so-slight delay between here and Honiara, Penny Wong, just to explain the nature of our conversation. Look, on the domestic front here, you might be aware that in your absence there was quite a fiery parliamentary debate about the Greens Party and its role in allegedly encouraging or not discouraging protests, especially outside of federal parliamentary electorate offices. What do you say that federally elected Greens parliamentarians have done to encourage or to discourage these protests, what is the accusation?

Foreign Minister: Well, Greg, can I say this, you're not a party of peace if you're out there inciting aggression, violence, violent protests. You're not a party of peace if you refuse to condemn protests which become intimidating and violent. That's not being a party of peace.

No matter how much people care, and we all care deeply about what is happening in Gaza, that does not justify the sort of behaviour we are seeing from Greens political figures, the misinformation that they are promoting, the distress that they are utilising, and the involvement they have both online and in person in some of the protests.

And when we know that a Greens MP addressed the crowd before they invaded the Labor Party conference at which homophobic slurs and aggression was well on display, we know that a former Greens candidate addressed a protest before an electorate office was invaded in which two women were injured.

Now I have not heard yet Adam Bandt call that out. What Adam Bandt should be saying is "No violence here's acceptable," and what he should be saying is that no matter how much we disagree, we have to remember we are all Australians, we all need to respect each other, we all need to not diminish each other, we all need to ensure we live as a community respecting each other's views and right to express them peacefully.

Greg Jennett: Can I just pick up on the reference to ‑‑

Foreign Minister: What I see is Mr Bandt making excuses and seeking to point the finger and blame others. That's not leadership. We all have a responsibility for social harmony in our country, and particularly in the most successful multicultural country on earth.

That multiculturalism does not, you know, requires all of us, it doesn't just happen. You know, the success of a multicultural community doesn't just happen, it requires all of us to ensure we always speak to, you know, that which connects us, that which unites us, that we are united by respect for one another. This has not been a respectful debate, and it behoves, it's incumbent upon Adam Bandt as a leader to ensure that his people behave for more respectfully than we have seen.

Greg Jennett: Look, you have specifically referenced Adam Bandt there, Penny Wong. You might be aware he's exploring his legal options to sue the Attorney Mark Dreyfus, for defamation. That's what he's examining over comments actually made on this program, which attributed certain criminal actions to Adam Bandt. I won't elaborate on it.

He's of course free to exercise his legal options. Whether you would use the same words as Mr Dreyfus or not, do you claim that Adam Bandt is personally culpable for what's been happening at some of these protests?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think – well, two points I'd make. The first is perhaps before Adam Bandt turns to litigation, he should reflect upon some of the comments and accusations and language that his MPs have used. He should reflect upon that.

The second thing I would say is, we all have responsibilities, don't we? You have a responsibility as a journalist, I have responsibilities as the Foreign Minister of this country, and as a parliamentarian. The Prime Minister has responsibilities, and the Leader of the Greens political party has responsibilities. And part of our responsibility is to ensure that whilst we can respect each other's differences, that we demonstrate in how we act and how we speak. It is not something this country does whereby we diminish another person and condemn another person or abuse another person because they disagree with us.

There is freedom of speech, and people are free to do that. But we have got to a point in this country where, if people have different views, including, frankly, at times on the basis of misinformation, but let's leave that for the moment, where people have different views, where it has become acceptable to be personally abusive, where it's become acceptable to engage in protest as aggressive and as intimidating as we have seen.

So, I'd say to Mr Bandt, actually leadership is also making sure, even if you share the views of some of the people who are protesting, or are engaging in actions, that you also talk about what are the boundaries around how we express that, which are so important in the Australian democracy.

Greg Jennett: All right. Well, I'm sure your remarks will be noted, perhaps even taken heed of back here in Australia, Penny Wong. We thank you greatly. You've put Senate Estimates well behind you now. Safe travels, and we didn't get to cover everything, but we hope to speak to you again soon.

Foreign Minister: Thanks very much, Greg, and really appreciate you making the effort to take me from Solomon Islands, I think it's fantastic. I really appreciate it.

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