Radio Interview, ABC

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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media@defence.gov.au

(02) 6277 7840

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minister.conroy@dfat.gov.au

Release content

29 February 2024

E&OE Transcript

ANDY PARK, ABC Radio National Australia 

WEDNESDAY, 28 FEBRUARY 2024

Subjects: Tuvalu, AUKUS analysis, Surface fleet review

ANDY PARK: Tuvalu has a new prime minister, Feleti Teo, and he's already signalled changes to his country's security deal with Australia. You will remember the deal negotiated last year with the island nation's former prime minister will see 282 Tuvaluans a year migrate to Australia in exchange for an effective veto power over Tuvalu's security arrangements with other countries. Pat Conroy is the Federal Minister for the Pacific and joins me now. Welcome back to Drive, Minister.  

MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC, PAT CONROY: Good afternoon.

ANDY PARK: Are you concerned that this new treaty is now in jeopardy? 

MINISTER CONROY: No, not at all. What I took out of the statement today by the new government of Tuvalu is that they support the broad principles and objectives of the Tuvalu-Australia Falepili Union. I think that's great news and it's not a surprise given the fact that Prime Minister Teo was one of the three eminent people who developed the proposal that the Tuvaluan Government at the time then presented to Australia.

ANDY PARK: But Prime Minister Teo reportedly said he wants to make it more workable to safeguard the integrity of Tuvalu's sovereignty. I mean, how can you not interpret those statements as a change to what the countries have previously agreed in principle?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I think that's a particular interpretation of the statement he presented. The statement says we support the broad principles and objectives of the Falepili Treaty. They acknowledge the absence of some consultation between the Government of Tuvalu and its people on it, and they intend to address the process issues, and work with the Government of Australia towards workable arrangements on advancing the objectives of the special union. That's about the implementation of the treaty. I think that's natural. You sign a treaty and then you obviously work on the detailed implementation arrangement between the two governments. That was our intention once the election in Tuvalu was settled.

ANDY PARK: You don't get the feeling that Tuvalu and their new prime minister has realised that perhaps they'd sort of sold out sovereignty? I mean when you read those comments, the integrity of Tuvalu's sovereignty, it sounds like the Tuvaluans perhaps weren't properly consulted either.  

MINISTER CONROY: Well, no, I reject that interpretation for a couple of reasons. One, that the sentence was safeguarding the integrity of sovereignty in Tuvalu. Secondly, as I said, Prime Minister Teo was instrumental in developing the proposal. This is a proposal has that come to the Australian Government from the Tuvaluan Government at the time. It was a gracious request from that government that we worked on with them and the sovereignty of both countries is safeguarded in the agreement already, but we stand ready to work with the new government on the implementation of that and if there's other things that they would like to have examined, that's obviously something we're happy to look at. 

I also should reject the premise of your introduction. There was not a trading of migration for security. There's a security section in this treaty where we commit to coming to the aid of Tuvalu if there's a natural disaster, a global health pandemic, or territorial aggression. That's the start of the security chapter and that's what was discussed between the two governments.  

ANDY PARK: Obviously this agreement hasn't even gone through either countries' parliaments in terms of legislating. Can you guarantee that it will? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I'm confident it will go through the Australian system and be ratified there, but ultimately that's obviously up to the Joint Committee on Treaties to make a decision and then the process is that it is tabled in parliament and that can be disallowed. But I'm confident that we can do it. 

We intentionally approached it this way. The view of the Tuvaluan Government at the time was that they wanted to sign a treaty and we did that and announced that around the edges of the Pacific Island Forum, but ratification would occur after the Tuvaluan election because they were very clear that they wanted the Tuvaluan people to express their view through the election, and that's the process we absolutely respect and, as I said, there is now a government in Tuvalu who says they support the principles and objectives of the treaty and we'll just work through the implementation of that.

ANDY PARK: The former PM was favourable to Taiwan. You can't say that this agreement has nothing to do with China, especially under new leadership. Can you just talk to the relevance of China in this agreement? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, a recognition of Taiwan or the People's Republic of China is a question for the Tuvaluan Government. There is nothing in this treaty that goes to diplomatic recognition.

ANDY PARK: What about Australian Government? I mean, is this treaty, or was this treaty designed to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific? 

MINISTER CONROY: It was designed to bring the peoples of Tuvalu and Australia closer together.

ANDY PARK: Away from China? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, you can read it whichever way you want. We've been very clear that the Pacific is dominated by three great challenges - the three Cs of climate change, post-COVID pandemic recovery, and geostrategic competition and we've been very up-front with the Australian people, and the people of the Pacific, that we want to be partner of choice for Pacific nations. That's why we've implemented such strong policies, that's why the Falepili treaty is the most significant Pacific policy a government has implemented since supporting PNG independence from 1975. It's in our interests to be the partner of choice in the Pacific and we believe that it's in the interests of the Pacific peoples as well.  

ANDY PARK: Have you or your government spoken to the new prime minister in Tuvalu? 

MINISTER CONROY: We're seeking to arrange contact through the normal diplomatic channels. Obviously we know many of the ministers and principals in the government and we'll just proceed through the normal course of action to make that contact. I should make the point that the government was only formed, I think the cabinet was only formed today.

ANDY PARK: Sure.  

MINISTER CONROY: So it's very early days.

ANDY PARK: But the point is will you be reaffirming Australia's position, or would you be looking to soften the deal, perhaps taking out this sticking point about sovereignty? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I don't think there is a sticking point on sovereignty. We're talking about how we implement the treaty rather than anything else, but we've been very clear in both our public utterances and our private utterances. Of course, we respect the priorities of the Government of Tuvalu and will work with them, if they need - if they want to work on particular variations on what's been agreed to. We do that with every Pacific country.

The difference between us and previous Australian Governments is we turn up and we listen, and we act on the priorities of the governments of the Pacific that we deal with. This will be no exception.

ANDY PARK: It's 5:13. The Minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, is here. We're talking about the future of Australia's agreement with Tuvalu. You're also the Minister for Defence Industry. We spoke recently with defence and strategy expert, Hugh White, on Drive. He believes the AUKUS security pact with the UK and the US is likely to fail and is risky for Australia, his words. What do you say to his analysis?

MINISTER CONROY: I reject that analysis. I have enormous respect for Hugh White. He's made a contribution to defence policy and strategic policy in Australia over decades but on this he's wrong.

ANDY PARK: He also criticised the recent review of the Navy surface fleet with Australia set to build a new fleet of tier 2 warships to complement tier 1 combatants. He questioned the effectiveness of what he calls less capable warships in filling the gap in our surface ship capacities and also the role of surface ships, you know, at all, really, in modern warfare. What's your response? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I certainly reject the second characterisation. Surface vessels are incredibly important in any force structure in any modern conflict, and I also reject the characterisation that the so-called tier 2 vessels will not be capable.

We will be acquiring 11 general purpose frigates as part of our more than doubling of the surface fleet to 26 large surface combatants. Those general purpose frigates will be at least the size of the Anzac frigates, if not up to 50% bigger. They will carry at least twice as many missiles, potentially four times as many missiles. They will be equipped with the latest sonar equipment to detect submarines and to hunt down submarines. These will be an invaluable part of the Navy and I can say to you that the Royal Australian Navy is incredibly excited by this prospect. You only have to see it in the response from the Chief of Navy to the announcement. So I think with due respect to Mr White, he is in a minority of his views. What we announced is the most significant investment and upgrade to the Royal Australian Navy surface fleet since World War II and it's essential to our national security.

ANDY PARK: We'll have to leave it there. Minister for the Pacific, Defence Industry and International Development, Pat Conroy. Good to talk to you. Good afternoon to you.  

MINISTER CONROY: Have a great afternoon, bye-bye.

ENDS.

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