Interview with Matt Doran, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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13 October 2022

MATT DORAN, HOST: Richard Marles, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. You flagged intensifying defence cooperation between Australia and a number of Pacific nations in an interview this morning in The Australian newspaper. What proposals are you exactly putting forward here and discussing with countries such as Papa New Guinea?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: We’ve had very good conversations today with Prime Minister James Marape, and with his senior ministers, about trying to build on what we would see as being a strength in our relationship. I mean, firstly, the relationship between Papua New Guinea and Australia is, I think, it's in as good a shape now as it's ever been. But defence is a real strength of the relationship and we think that there is more we can do. This is a strength that we can build upon, and we're looking at ways in which we can address areas where PNG might see they have capability gaps and look at ways in which we can support the development of their capability in a way that is really advantageous for Australian servicemen and women as well.

DORAN: So it sounds like you're suggesting it's still early stages of that discussion between the Australian Government and countries like Papa New Guinea, but in terms of what that might look like, what are we talking here in terms of the sort of tangible proposals or sharing of expertise that could happen?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, early days isn't quite the right characterisation in the sense that there's already a high degree of engagement between our Defence Forces now, and I think it's really trying to build upon that. I mean, for example, there would barely be an officer in the PNG Defence Force who wouldn't have received some training in Australia. And equally, there are hundreds of Australian servicemen and women who come through PNG every year and gain really fantastic experience in terms of their careers by virtue of participating in (inaudible) a series of activities which occurred in in PNG. So we're looking at taking that as a base, a very tangible base, and seeing how we can look to evolve that, and aviation might be an area where we can do more. Already we, through the Guardian Class Patrol Boats, supply the bulk of the maritime capability for the PNG Defence Force. We feel there's real opportunities in relation to maritime for us to do more, and this helps build the capability of PNG’s Defence Force, which of course is very much in Australia's national interest, but it also gives fantastic opportunities for Australian servicemen and women to build their own capacity by having experiences here in Papua New Guinea.

DORAN: Obviously, not every Pacific nation has an armed forces, would this extend, I guess in those smaller countries, to perhaps working with police and the like?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are focused from a defence point of view on those countries which have a defence force; obviously here in PNG, in Fiji, Tonga. We have done work with police forces in other countries, in places like Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, but it's a different question when we're talking about engaging with police forces as compared to working in the way in which I've described with a fully fledged defence force, as there is here in in Papua New Guinea.

DORAN: We know that Australia is wanting to pursue a treaty level agreement on this sort of issue with Papua New Guinea. Would that be a similar approach to other Pacific nations and are any towards the top of the list there?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're focused on PNG right now and you know, there is talk between our two countries of a bilateral security treaty. I mean, that that would have the effect of elevating a whole lot of arrangements, which already exist, to a treaty level status, and I think that would be appropriate in the context of the relationship between Papua New Guinea and Australia. I mean, we will continue to try and evolve our relationships with the other countries of the Pacific as well. I mean, all of this is part of doing the work, making sure that we are present in the Pacific, that we are focused on developing the countries of the Pacific and in doing all of that, establishing ourselves as the partner of choice for countries in the Pacific, which I think if we do the work, we naturally are.

DORAN: What’s the main driver of this? Is it China and its expanding interest in the Pacific region?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I actually wouldn't say that. I mean, we are in obviously a very challenging and complex strategic world and there's no doubt that China forms part of that landscape. But actually, this is much more about the relationship between two countries in the case of Australia and PNG, who don't just see each other as friends, but really see each other as family. And it's much more about building our relationship on our own terms and that's actually how I would describe Australia's relationship with the Pacific more generally. We need to be thinking about building our relationship with the Pacific on our own terms and that's what we're doing, and making sure that in doing that we're not focused on other countries, we're focused on the development of the Pacific itself. And really, that's the context in which I'm here now, in which I've been here on many, many occasions leading up to now. PNG is a country I've been to probably more frequently than I've been to any other country in the world, since I was a kid actually. And it's very much about our relationship with PNG as compared to any other third country.

DORAN: There is though a risk that if Australia isn't fostering these sorts of defence ties that other countries, particularly those with grand ambitions - such as China - would walk in or try to foster those relationships themselves, isn't there?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It's why we need to give expression to what should be, in my view, our natural role, and that is to be deeply engaged with the Pacific, deeply engaged in a place like Papua New Guinea, but throughout the Pacific. And, you know, in my experience the countries of the Pacific are very well disposed towards Australia, they look to Australia to help provide support in their own development, and it's a role that we must and should play. And certainly under the Albanese Government, and when you look at all that Penny Wong, as our Foreign Minister has done, there is a very different focus on the Pacific to what we've seen in the past. And it is to give expression to what we feel is our natural role and place in the Pacific. And that obviously, I hope, serves to the benefit of the Pacific in terms of their development. It is clearly in Australia's national interest.

DORAN: Before you go, I do want to ask about one other issue, which has arisen overnight. You would have seen the reports coming out of Bali that at a memorial service for the 20th anniversary of the Bali bombings, there were some quite graphic videos shown at a vigil in Bali. They featured graphic imagery from the night of the terrorist attack, they included vision of the Bali bomb maker. It has clearly left people who were at this vigil, particularly Australians there, quite shaken and horrified at it. What's your response to that situation playing out?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I mean, obviously we're really disappointed at what has happened. I mean, Australia obviously wasn't involved in the organisation of this service and this memorial. I think what it shows is that even though we're two decades on from these events, for so many people the wounds, the scars are still there and this is an experience which remains very raw. My thoughts are very much with those people who were there. We are wanting to make sure that we can address their concerns as best as we can, but we are very disappointed in what has played out, and as I say our thoughts are very much for those who were there.

DORAN: Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles from Port Moresby, thanks for joining us.


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