May 28, 2024

RICHARD KING, PRESENTER: In the news, Australia will be sending technical experts and $2.5 million in initial aid to Papua New Guinea. And this is following the catastrophic landslide that's destroyed a village in the remote Enga Province. This happened on Friday. You've probably seen the footage. I mean, people using their bare hands, sticks, shovels, trying to uncover the, it's terrible, but they're estimating the death toll could be up in a couple of thousand. There's at least a couple of thousand people missing. With more on the aid package and to try and get the latest on the situation, joining me now is, well, wearing a number of titles, he's a local, he's the Member for Shortland, Minister for Defence Industry, and in this particular case, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, who's on the line. Good morning, Pat.


KING: Good, thanks, Pat. It's terrible. I've seen quite a bit of the footage. What's the latest on the situation in this Enga province after this landslide? Pat?

CONROY: Well, it's obviously horrific. As you said, the landslide hit at 03:00 a.m. in the morning and wiped out effectively six villages in the Mulitaka part of Enga province and agencies, government agencies have estimated that up to 2000 people could be buried there. It's incredibly inaccessible and at the moment, access can only be provided by helicopters. So, it's truly horrible scenes.

KING: Yeah, and look, I believe that getting aid to the area is being hampered by the fact that there are a number of clans there that don't like each other and they're sort of warring all the time, and that's making it difficult to actually get aid to the actual spots where it's needed, Pat?

CONROY: Yes, the Enga province has been at the heart of some of the tribal conflict over the last couple of decades, so that's adding a further level of complexity to get any aid there. But we are starting to get it there. We've announced an initial package of two and a half million dollars in aid and an Australian Disaster Assistance Response Team will be in PNG this afternoon. That's made up of 16 people from Queensland Fire and Rescue, the National Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

KING: Yeah, look, just seeing the footage very difficult obviously. There's not a lot in the way of heavy equipment there to move all this rubble, is there at the moment, Pat?

CONROY: No, not at all and the Australian Defence Force has been transporting PNG officials up there to do the initial assessments. Obviously, clearing roads is critical and just we've made it very clear to the Papua New Guinea Government we’ll provide any assistance we can. They just need to ask us and let us know what they need.

KING: Look, another hat that you wear. Member for the Defence Industry. There's been a lot said in the wake of Rishi Sunak making this pre-election commitment, if his party is re-elected, that he'd reinstitute some sort of national service. Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie has jumped on that and said, oh, we should have a national guard here. If you're not earning or learning, you're serving. I've had a basically negative reaction to that. What's your feeling on some sort of national service being reintroduced in Australia, Pat?

CONROY: Well, we've got Army Reserves, obviously, that form the equivalent of the National Guard in the United States. We do have a workforce challenge. We’ve got issues around recruitment. We're doing better at retaining Australian Defence Force personnel, but we've got a gap in terms of the number of people we're recruiting and we're looking at a couple of ways of filling that. One is opening access for more Australians. In the old days, for example, if you had a tattoo or things like that, you weren't allowed to join. And the other area that I'm particularly interested in is allowing service from people in the Pacific to join up. Other militaries do that. For example, the United Kingdom recruit from the famous Gurkhas, from Nepal and from Fiji. And I think it's a great way of helping our Pacific brothers and sisters as well as helping with our recruiting challenges.

KING: You said we're doing better at retaining members of the ADF, but as I understand it, I read we're losing more than we're attracting at the moment. Is that correct?

CONROY: Well, the issue is that we're growing slowly. So, obviously you build the ADF workforce by having more people recruited than leave and the retention rates are above the long term average. For example, we've instituted a $50,000 retention bonus that people get when they sign on for another period of service. So, the retention rates are higher than the average historically. We just need to pick up the game on recruiting people and part of that is a very strong economy, but part of it is, I think, being more open minded about who is allowed to join the ADF.

KING: The subject of nuclear power, nuclear energy. Hot debate now that Peter Dutton's announced it's one of their platforms coming up to the next federal election. I see David Shoebridge, the Green Senator, has made a claim that AUKUS law could dump nuclear waste anywhere in Australia and there's nothing anybody can do about it. Is that correct?

CONROY: No, that's incorrect. The legislation that is being put through parliament makes it very clear that we will be storing waste from our decommissioned submarine reactors that will start to be decommissioned in the 2050s on defence land, and that'll be the only waste we're talking about. These myths are out there and they're really blurring the debate on nuclear energy for civilian electricity production. The latest CSR report found it's around five times more expensive than renewable energy, including the cost of transmission and battery storage to make renewable 100% reliable. And quite frankly, our community doesn't want it. Peter Dutton has to come clean about where he wants to put them. Previous experts have said that places like Lake Macquarie and Lake Munmorah are logical places for them. Peter Dutton himself said, on the sites of retired coal fired power stations, or soon to retire power stations. So, that means places like Lake Munmorah, Eraring, Vales Point are really targets for this. And I ask my local community, do they want one of these near their kids’ school? And they say, no.

KING: Well, differing opinions on that one. Look, the other hot issue this morning is the rise of antisemitism. Richard Marles, when he visited that Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne yesterday, said he's alarmed. And he said the current level of antisemitism in Australia is the worst he's seen. Josh Frydenberg, who's promoting this documentary which airs on Sky News tonight, ‘Never Again: The Fight Against Antisemitism’ has echoed Richard Marles. Are you concerned, I mean, personally forgetting the fact that you're a politician, obviously, the rise of antisemitism in Australia. Do you think we should be concerned?

CONROY: We should. I'm personally concerned about the increasing level of antisemitism, but also the increasing level of islamophobia. Unfortunately, what we're seeing is both extreme ends of this debate, politicising what's happening in Gaza right now, promoting hate speech. And unfortunately, it's people in our community who are suffering, whether it's the Jewish community or the Islamic community, both are subject to outrageous attacks, and we just call for national unity, people to be conscious about their language, to be moderate. The last thing I think people in Australia want is those conflicts to come over to Australia. And antisemitism and islamophobia are some of the worst parts of what we're seeing.

KING: Coming up to 16 to 9, my guest, Pat Conroy, Member for Shortland, Minister for Defence Industry, and also Minister for International Development in the Pacific, and also a big Roosters fan. Pat, you disappointed James Tedesco didn't make the state of Origin team?

CONROY: I think he's been in great form. Like, I think on the weekend he scored two tries, helped set up three, four line breaks when they downed the Raiders. The Penrith play's been in good form, but quite frankly, I think Penrith Panthers players play very well at club level, but they haven't repeated that at State of Origin level. If you look at game one last year, Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton looked like they'd never met each other and they let in two tries in ten minutes. And that's why we lost the State of Origin. So, I'm biased, but I think that Tedesco's performed at a high level, but it means the club can keep him and we can win some matches while the Origin goes on. The Knights have been going really well as well.

KING: Exactly. And we haven't lost anybody for State of Origin as well. I'm pretty happy with that. Thank you.

CONROY: I thought he was unlucky not to be picked.

KING: I disagree with you on that one, but we beg to differ. All right. Thanks for your time this morning, Pat. I hope you have a great day.

CONROY: You too, Richard. Thank you. Bye.