9 February 2024
Subjects: PAPUA NEW GUINEA RELATIONSHIP, PNG NRL TEAM, GHOST BAT AIRCRAFT, SECURING DEFENCE INDUSTRY JOBS, WEAPONS NOT BEING EXPORTED TO ISRAEL
PATRICIA KARVELAS: As China's influence grows, the Pacific has become a diplomatic battleground with Beijing negotiating security and economic deals with several Pacific Island nations.
Right now, China is in talks on a security deal with Australia's closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, whose Prime Minister yesterday addressed Federal Parliament, the first Pacific Nation leader to do so.
Pat Conroy is Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific and also the Minister for Defence Industry and joins us on the program.
Pat Conroy, welcome.
MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC, PAT CONROY: Morning, PK.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: PNG's Foreign Minister said he's delivered assurances to Australia around negotiations with Beijing. What are those assurances?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, as a rule I don't disclose confidential discussions with foreign governments, but I'll point to his public statements where he has said that they are, the PNG Government is, committed to its traditional security partners, which are Australia and United States, and he said he was dispelling the misinformation that PNG is entering into a security operation with China.
So those are the direct words from the Papua New Guinean Government, and we're privileged to be the primary security partner for Papua New Guinea, and I'm very confident we'll continue to do so.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: He also told the ABC that China's trying to pursue agreements like the one with PNG all over the Pacific. Are you aware of who's in negotiations?
MINISTER CONROY: Oh, we've been very upfront with the Australian people that there is a huge geostrategic competition going on in the Pacific, and that's why the Albanese Labor Government has done so much in the Pacific, that's why we've had a record number of visits, that's why Prime Minister Marape addressed Parliament, because we want to be the partner of choice for the Pacific, and we've been very clear that other countries are interested, and we are very, very active in this area.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Prime Minister says he hopes that the day will come when the people of PNG can cheer for their own NRL team. When will that happen?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, that's ultimately a decision for the National Rugby League. We are supporting the work of the PNG consortium that is bidding for a franchise, and I've made a number of announcements around funding support for that, $5.5 million to grow the Player of Excellence pathway in PNG, and I announced funding yesterday for the PNG Hunters to continue in the Queensland Cup and to establish a winners competition in Papua New Guinea, which is critical to them entering the NRL Women's comp.
This will do more than anything else to bring the peoples of our two countries together, and it's something that both Prime Ministers have said they want to see happen, and I'm incredibly enthusiastic about it.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah. You said it's in the NRL's hands. What have they told you?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, we're obviously working with the NRL, and they're working with the consortium bid to see whether it can line up. They appreciate the interest of the Australian Government and the support we've shown Rugby League, not just in Papua New Guinea but around the Pacific, and they understand that this is a great way of bringing the people of the Pacific and the Australian people closer together.
I represented the Government at the Prime Minister's 13 match in Port Moresby last year, and in the stadium was only 15,000, the atmosphere was bigger than any State of Origin or Grand Final, and it will be a great initiative that will bring our two peoples together and help ensure that Australia remains the partner of choice for Papua New Guinea, our closest neighbour and dearest friend, and so on, who Prime Minister Marape said was family last yesterday.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Last month Pacific Nation, Tuvalu, held an election, and their Parliament is yet to pick a new Prime Minister. But there's plenty of concern that the new government could actually switch the nation's allegiance from Taiwan to China. Are you confident they won't do that?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, of the Pacific Island Forum nations who have diplomatic powers, so excluding the French Territories, 13 of the six nations recognise the People's Republic of China, including Australia; three recognise Taiwan, and we've got relationships with all those countries.
Ultimately, it's a decision for the Tuvaluan Government, but we're very focused on implementing the Falepili Treaty which is the most significant announcement in the Pacific by an Australian Government since supporting PNG independents.
This will bring the people of Tuvalu and Australia closer together. It is truly historic, and we're very focused on working to implement that agreement, and ultimately questions around diplomatic recognition are a question for the Tuvaluan Government.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: This morning you're announcing a funding boost for the next-generation collaborative combat aircraft known as the Ghost Bat. Just explain to our listeners what that aircraft is.
MINISTER CONROY: Well, the Ghost Bat is the most advanced drone in the world, and I almost feel like calling it a drone is a disservice. It's a collaborative combat aircraft, so it's an uncrewed aircraft that is the size of a fighter jet and it's been designed and made in Australia, and has the ability to team up with our Air Force assets to protect them as decoys, to go in advance of them and provide targeting data so that a Super Hornet or an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can strike a target without going into missile range of the defensive system.
So this is ground‑breaking technology, and I will be announcing shortly a further investment by the Albanese Labor Government, firstly implementing a commitment from the Defence Strategic Review and demonstrating that this Government is incredibly committed to the Defence of the nation.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Eight planes have been produced and have been undergoing testing. What's the next step then and when will these be ready for combat?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, without getting ahead of the announcement, I will be announcing a further three Block 2, which will be more advanced, and the goal is that these will be ready for a capability demonstration exercise next year for the Royal Australian Air Force, which will really help establish how capable these are, and the manner in which we would like to deploy them.
So it's a great day for Australian defence industry, it's a great day for the defence of the nation, and it demonstrates our strong commitment in Defence.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: It is the first military combat aircraft to be designed, developed and manufactured in Australia for more than 50 years. What kind of advantage do they give us, and what do you plan for them to be used for?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, it gives us the advantage of being able to respond during a design process rather than having to send something back to a foreign country when we establish something in the field, there's a feedback very quickly to the advanced scientists and engineers designing them at Fisherman's Bend in Melbourne where we used to make aircraft during World War II.
So that gives us a really organic design process, and in terms of their future deployment, that's why that capability demonstration exercise next year will be critical, just to understand how advanced they are and what they can do.
But a couple of examples of where they can used is they compare with a Joint Strike Fighter, and emit signals so they appear like they're another Joint Strike Fighter to an enemy radar, which means that they can act as a decoy, and as I said, they can be in advance of a strike group from the Air Force, collect the targeting data of where possible enemy ships are so that our planes never have to go into range of the enemy's defensive weapons.
So these are all things much better to risk an autonomous aircraft that costs 10 per cent of a crewed aircraft, let alone risking the life of a pilot and the huge investment we've made in that person. So this is a great day for the Royal Australian Air Force.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So how many of these Ghost Bats are flying, how many have been delivered, and do they really cost a tenth of the price of the F-35 jet?
MINISTER CONROY: That's the production goal. Obviously, we're in the early days of the demonstration phase. Eight have been produced. Today's announcement will be for another three, and this is the critical path. During a developmental phase, obviously you don't produce lots, you want to develop iterations of them as you do the upgrades to them as you learn from trialling them, and then the goal is when they get into a production phase, if the Government makes that decision, that we can produce some more, the company producing them can produce them at 10 per cent of the cost of a crewed aircraft.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, there are rumours of a mid‑air collision involving Ghost Bat last year which kept the aircraft out of flying operations for nearly a year. What do you know about that?
MINISTER CONROY: Oh, I'm not aware of those allegations, so I've got nothing to add to that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: When you say, "not aware of those allegations", are you saying it's not accurate?
MINISTER CONROY: What I'm saying to you is that I haven't heard those reports, and so it would be speculation to be commenting on them.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. The original announcement said these drones would have operational capacity in 2025. When are they now expected to be operational?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, again, we inherited this project from the last government, and like most things in Defence from the last government, they promised a lot and failed to deliver.
The next phase for us is a capability demonstration phase next year which will demonstrate how capable they are, and then we will look at whether we want to produce them in quantities to equip the Royal Australian Air Force.
That's the prudent way of doing this where you de-risk a developmental project that has risk because you're doing things at the leading edge around the world. This is the way we protect taxpayers' money while ensuring the Royal Australian Air Force gets the best capabilities in the world.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, just a couple of other questions. Has Australia stopped exporting military equipment to Israel?
MINISTER CONROY: We are not exporting military equipment to Israel. Whoever is claiming this is wrong. We do not export military equipment at the moment to Israel.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Approvals to export Australian-made military equipment to Israel have been stalled, it's been reported, by the Government around concerns the ABC has revealed that several applications made to the Defence Department's Weapons Export Regulator have remained unanswered since the Israel‑Gaza war began in early October. So there is a program.
MINISTER CONROY: Well, again, that program ‑ approvals for those lie between the Department of Defence and the Deputy Prime Minister, not that ‑ but what I can assure your listeners is that we are not exporting weapons to Israel.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay so ‑‑
MINISTER CONROY: End of story.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: ‑‑ not weapons.
MINISTER CONROY: That is a factual statement.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So what are you exporting then? What is it?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, we're not exporting weapons or military systems, we are not exporting anything of that nature to Israel.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so what is the nature then?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, you're asking me to talk about a negative. We are not exporting military weapons, things like bombs, things like that, to Israel.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So I'm saying, what is sent when you describe the ‑‑
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I'm not aware ‑‑
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Nothing?
MINISTER CONROY: ‑‑ I'm not anything that's been sent to Israel at the moment.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: At the moment?
MINISTER CONROY: We could be exporting commercial equipment for all I know, from commercial vendors, that's not in the purview of the Department of Defence, but what I'm saying to you is we are not exporting weapons.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: It doesn't ‑ sorry, just, it doesn't make sense to me, because there are applications by Israel that are being stalled. How can it be the case that there is nothing ‑‑
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I've seen the speculation, but again that is not in my purview, so I have nothing to add to that. All I can say to you is we're not exporting weapons to Israel. There's a system that deals with applications for every country that seeks to buy military weapons from Australia that requires permission from the Department of Defence. But what I can say to you is that we are not exporting weapons to Israel. That's a factual statement.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Just finally, there are reports of a rift between you and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Defence Department, the budget is reportedly a key tension. Is the Department ignoring the findings of the Defence Strategic Review?
MINISTER CONROY: Oh, look, we've made it clear that we expect excellence from the Department of Defence, and that the Department is on a journey, and it's on a journey, because we need to repair the culture and the damage that was done under nine and a half years of Coalition Governments where they had six ministers in nine years, and under Peter Dutton there were 28 major projects running 97 years late and $6.5 billion over budget.
So we've made no secret that we were of the intent on reforming Defence and expect excellence from the Department, and I've got to say we've got the full support of the Defence leadership as we go through that process.
But the taxpayers of Australia would expect us to demand the best possible performance from all government departments, but especially the Department of Defence, given the amount of money spent and the critical importance of defending our nation.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, thank you for joining us.
MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, PK, have a good morning.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You too. The Minister for International Development in the Pacific and the Minister for Defence Industry joining us there, and you're listening to Breakfast.