Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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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20 June 2024

SUBJECTS: Visit to the site of the landslide in Enga Province, Security in the Pacific, Guardian class patrol boats, Liberal Party nuclear energy policy.

GREG JENNETT: Pat Conroy; we now have a long list of locations that you’ve joined us from – we’ll add Papua New Guinea and Port Moresby to it. You’ve come down from the Highlands where they’re still struggling to cope in the aftermath of the Enga Province landslide. What's Australia's extra financial support that you’ve outlined today going to fund to enable the reconnection of this rather isolated part of PNG? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: Well, it was a privilege to visit Enga Province and Mulitaka village today, Greg. It was devastating, and my heart cries out for the 500 Papua New Guineans that I saw in the camp there and obviously the hundreds of people who’ve lost their lives. 

It was very important that I saw that. It was very important that a senior ministerial delegation saw the devastation and also saw the impact of our assistance. So on top of the two and a half million dollars of assistance we’ve provided, on top of the 26 RAAF aircraft flights have delivered 115 tonnes of aid, we announced today $2.2 million of additional assistance. That includes $200,000 for the local health clinics to get the maternal wards up and running again so that women can have their babies in safety. There was 1100 school learning packs for the displaced kids who obviously haven’t got to go to school. And, importantly, $2 million to start the work to open up the road, the National Highway there to the Porgera Gold Mine, which is obviously an incredibly important source of jobs and revenue for the people of Enga Province. 

So it was very important. It was very moving to see so many people in a really dire situation, but a situation that would be much worse without the assistance from the Papua New Guinean Government and the Australian Government.

GREG JENNETT: I’m sure it’s genuinely appreciated there. Also, in your earlier general ministerial forum talks we’ve seen a really strong emphasis on security. I won’t list all of the elements that go to the prison system, weapons tracking and training and the like. But if you bundled them altogether, will these announcements lead to an increase in the number of Australian personnel, particularly AFP members, in country? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, part of our $200 million BSA – Bilateral Security Agreement implementation package includes support for a bigger AFP presence up here. Importantly, that’s in back office roles providing advice to the Papua New Guinean police. The Papua New Guinean Government is ramping up massively training of new police officers, and we’re supporting that through our funding effort. And, in fact, PNG cadets are right now in Townsville working with Queensland Police. 

Law and order is the number one issue in Papua New Guinea for the Marape Government, and we’re very committed to supporting their efforts to grow their police force. We also made investments in investing in the judiciary, investing in judges, investing in more prosecution capability, but also investing in full circle justice support for young people and around gender-based violence. They’re really important parts of this really complex system. 

Importantly, we’re also supporting Papua New Guinea’s aspirations to be part of regional security solutions. Security at the recent Solomon Island elections and Pacific Games was provided by the Solomon Islands police force supported by a multinational regional Pacific force of Australians, Kiwis, Papua New Guineans and Fijians, and that’s the future of security the Pacific – a multi-regional Pacific approach to support our brothers and sisters in the Pacific. 

GREG JENNETT: I might try and draw you in on some domestic matters back here in Australia in a moment, Pat, but on the way there take you via the Pacific. You’ve made, you know, re-announcements, I suppose, about a police patrol vessel for the PNG, which leads me to ask you about what’s going on in Fiji with the Guardian class patrol boat that ran aground on what was its maiden voyage back towards Suva. Will it be necessary for the Puamau, I think it’s pronounced, to be taken back to Henderson in Western Australia for full repairs? Is that happening? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, we’re providing support to the Fijian Government based on their requests for assistance. At this stage a survey of the damage to the Puamau has not been conducted so we don’t quite know what we’re looking at. But obviously we stand ready to support the security needs of Fiji and their huge maritime borders and territory that needs surveillance against illegal fishing and transnational crime. So we stand ready to support the Fijian Government in their security efforts. But it’s too early to tell what is necessary to support the Puamau’s recovery. 

MINISTER CONROY: All right. We’ll keep an eye on that with you. Also, the two replenishment ships for the Royal Australian Navy – the Supply and the Stalwart – both inoperative at the moment with severe mechanical faults. Is it correct that each could be out of service for a year? And, if so, is Defence exploring stop-gap alternative ships in the meantime? 

MINISTER CONROY: No, my latest advice is one of them is available using management procedures and taking into account some of the stresses on the ship. So my advice is that one is available.

Importantly, this is a demonstration of how Peter Dutton and the Coalition cannot be trusted on national security. One of the first decisions of the Coalition Government when they came into power in 2013 was to have these ships built overseas rather than having Australian workers working on them. That led to 1000 shipbuilding job losses in my home region of the Hunter, and that led to ships that, quite frankly, aren’t up to scratch at the moment. 

Now, we’re working with the manufacturer, who’s admitted complete fault with this, and are dealing with the latent defects on these vessels. And we’ll work through with the company because obviously their reputation is massively impacted by this. But responsibility ultimately lies with Peter Dutton and the Coalition who chose to send this work overseas rather than using skilled Australian shipbuilders to build these two important supply vessels. 

GREG JENNETT: All right. Well, that’s a discussion we might be continuing as, indeed, your own government looks at some offshore procurement of ships. But we’ll come back to that; I think we’ve discussed it before. 

Can I also take you to nuclear power? You’ll come back to a raging debate in this country, Pat Conroy. There are also calls from the Coalition today for Labor to draw some lines in this debate over nuclear so that it doesn’t cross into undermining public confidence in AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines. It cites, the Coalition does, a three-eyed Blinky Bill character on Andrew Leigh’s social media. Do you recognise that there is a line not to be crossed in wherever this nuclear debate goes in Australia such that AUKUS submarines are not drawn into it? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, this is I think the most farcical policy announcement I’ve seen in my 20 years of involvement in Australian politics. Within hours of the announcement by Mr. Dutton, his own front bench were contradicting him on the very scant details that were released. 

But what we do know is that this is a recipe for much higher power prices for Australians. The contrast could not be greater – very shortly Australian households will be receiving the first part of the $300 energy payment that will be under the Albanese Labor Government due to our last Budget. In contrast, Peter Dutton is proposing to build nuclear power stations off in the never-never that, if they’re actually built, if he actually finds communities that will accept them, are a recipe for a massive hike in power prices. It's a ridiculous policy that has no detail, and it was literally released on the back of a napkin. 

What I can say to you is my community of the Hunter does not want these power stations. We do not want high-paid, secure manufacturing jobs be sacrificed for his vanity ideological project. From cost, from community licence, he does not have any support for this in my community. And I, like Dan Repacholi, the member for the Hunter, will fight tooth and nail every step to the next election to stop a nuclear power station being imposed on my community. We will not cop it. And the Australian people will not cop the massive increase in power prices. That is what Peter Dutton is arguing for. 

GREG JENNETT: Yeah, very quickly because I know we have to wrap it up, Pat Conroy, but just on AUKUS submarines being sort of drawn into this, do you recognise that as a risk? 

MINISTER CONROY: No, I don’t. I absolutely don’t. They’re completely separate debates. Nuclear power for domestic civilian use is clearly ridiculous from a price point of view and a community licence point of view. My community hates it. It’s going down like a bucket of cold sick in my community. And we do not want higher power prices and the community impact of having a nuclear power station next to schools in my community. 

GREG JENNETT: All right. We’ll watch that unfold back here in Australia. It looks like you may soon have a plane to catch there in Moresby. Pat Conroy, we always appreciate you finding some time for us on these overseas trips. Thanks so much. 

MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, Greg. Have a great afternoon.


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