Interview with Madeleine Morris, ABC News Breakfast

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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(02) 6277 7840

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25 April 2023

SUBJECTS: Anzac Day; Australia-Papua New Guinea relations; Defence Strategic Review.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Let's take you to Papua New Guinea now, where large crowds have gathered for a dawn service at the Bomana War Cemetery on the outskirts of Port Moresby this morning. The site has more Australian war graves than any other cemetery in the world, with more than 3,000 service personnel buried there. Among those at today's service, Senator Pat Conroy, Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for the Pacific. He joins us now. Senator Conroy, great to have you on News Breakfast.


MADELEINE MORRIS: Given the history of Papua New Guinea in our theatres of war, I imagine a very moving service there today.

PAT CONROY: It was incredibly moving, as you said 3,300 Australians buried here, more than any other war cemetery in the world. And in fact, across the three war cemeteries in Papua New Guinea, there are around 8,000 Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice and are buried there. So, nearly 8 per cent of all of Australia's war dead are buried in Papua New Guinea, showing the ferocity of the fighting and how critical this theatre was to the battle for Australia during World War II.

MADELEINE MORRIS: And I imagine that the recent discovery of the wreck of the Montevideo Maru has added extra poignancy to the services there today. What have people been telling you about that?

PAT CONROY: They’ve found extra resonance with the discovery of the wreck. The biggest single casualty event for Australians, just adds further resonance and just reminds people of the sacrifice that Australians made in war, but particularly in the battle for Australia in the Pacific theatre. And it's not just Australia, obviously, we commemorate the sacrifice of New Zealand through Anzacs, but also Papuans and New Guineans, who fought side by side. In fact, 40 Papuans and New Guineans are buried in Bomana, and I had the privilege of witnessing a 92-year-old veteran, a Papuan man who joined up when he was 13, to fight alongside Australians during World War II. So, it's incredibly moving.

MADELEINE MORRIS: You're there at a very important time, Anzac Day, of course, but it also does come a day after the Defence Strategic Review and as part of that very much moving towards a regional strategic positioning there, you'll be having bilateral meetings. What are you going to be saying to your counterparts there in Papua New Guinea about what this review means for them?

PAT CONROY: Well, I've already engaged with my counterparts before the announcement of the Defence Strategic Review and one of the six priority areas in the DSR was increasing our regional engagement, particularly in the Pacific. Papua New Guinea is our closest neighbour and one of our dearest friends. And when I was here in January with Prime Minister Albanese, Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Marape committed to signing a bilateral security treaty, and that will be the subject of my conversations today with my ministerial counterparts. So, the security of the Pacific has to be driven by Pacific nations, and where there's a gap in one nation's security, the obligation is on the rest of the Pacific to step up. And that's Australia's position and that's reflected in the Defence Strategic Review. And you can't but think about and be reminded about our close proximity at events like this, where in World War II we stood shoulder to shoulder to save not just Australia, but Papua New Guinea. And the DSR signals further regional engagement as we step up for a safe, secure and prosperous Pacific.

MADELEINE MORRIS: And just given that, will there be an expanded role for the Lombrum Naval Base on PNG, on Manus Island, particularly given our expansion and moving towards greater naval assets?

PAT CONROY: Well, I don't want to go into what future plans there might be at this stage, but we already have extensive military cooperation with Papua New Guinea. In fact, we're delivering, or have delivered one, and will deliver an additional transport aircraft to help the Papua New Guinean Defence Force. We have lots of advisors and I was just talking to the Papua New Guinean Defence Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force about how we can work more closely together. Only four kilometres separates Papua New Guinea from Australia. Our security is entwined with each other and we will be working more closely in the future. And the signing of the BST later this year will be further symbolic of that cooperation.

MADELEINE MORRIS: We've just had some news in from our defence correspondent that former US Navy Vice Admiral, I beg your pardon, William H. Hilarides, will be leading the short, sharp review of Australia's combat surface fleet, as you did flag yesterday. Can we take from the fact that it's an American who's actually leading that, that we are looking towards closer, even further, closer engagement and ties between the navies of our two countries?

PAT CONROY: Well, the navies of our two countries already work very closely together. William Hilarides has had a long association with Australia. He's chair of our Naval Shipbuilding Expert Advisory Panel that's already providing advice on our naval acquisitions. And even when he was a serving officer in the US Navy, he provided a critical role, he played a critical role in supporting our efforts. For example, he was instrumental in improving the Collins class submarine to make it the best diesel-powered submarine in the world. In fact, I had the privilege of meeting him in the Pentagon in 2009, so he'll do a good job. We do have Australians involved with that review. It will be a short, sharp review, just to check that we've got the right structure of our surface fleet to complement the acquisition of nuclear propelled submarines. Importantly, that's within the context of this government's commitment to continuous naval shipbuilding, we will build ships on a continuous basis in Adelaide and Perth to maintain a very skilled workforce and give the Royal Australian Navy the best possible equipment to protect Australia.

MADELEINE MORRIS: We're going to be building missiles now as part of that Defence Strategic Review that will have a range of up to 500 kilometres, as the Defence Minister confirmed yesterday. Who are we aiming to hit with those?

PAT CONROY: Well, I want to be careful about how much I'll talk about the DSR on Anzac Day. Today's a day about commemorating the sacrifice.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Well, you chose the timing of launching the DSR to be fair, Minister.

PAT CONROY: Yes, and we talked about the DSR yesterday and we'll talk about it tomorrow. But in terms of your question, I'll make it very clear to you that we face the greatest strategic uncertainty since World War II. We're facing the biggest regional arms build up again since 1945. And we have an obligation to make sure that the Australian Defence Force is equipped to deter any potential adversary. And that involves investing in long range strike, particularly missiles that can project force. And we make no apology for giving the ADF the best possible equipment. The DSR has recommended and will implement a very significant reshaping of the Australian Army that means that they'll go from their longest-range weapon being 40 kilometres, to being able to fire missiles in excess of 500 kilometres toprotect Australia, deter any potential adversary and promote peace and stability in the region, and that's ultimately what we have to do as a government. The security of the nation is our number one task, and the DSR and implementation of the DSR is the embodiment of that obligation.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Okay, we'll leave it there. Thanks so much for joining us, Minister Pat Conroy, best of luck for the rest of your visit up there in PNG.

PAT CONROY: Thank you Madeline. Have a nice day.


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