PHIL ACKMAN, HOST: The Pacific used to be such a peaceful place; it seemed like that anyway. But looks are sometimes deceptive. It’s increasingly the focus of regional and global powers. With me today is Pat Conroy, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Pat, it seems to be that Australia has ignored the Pacific for other priorities over the last few years; now we’re all over them. Do you think they buy our newfound love and attention?
CONROY: I think there is a fair amount of scepticism about the newfound attention from this Government and I think they’re right to be sceptical. When Mr Abbott was elected in 2013 we withdrew from the region and to his credit Mr Morrison worked out that we needed to reverse that in 2018. But again it could be a case of too little too late.
ACKMAN: To his credit, he decided to reverse that in 2018 but another way of looking at that is that we just became terrified that while we were doing nothing China was going to end up controlling the whole Pacific. Isn’t that it?
CONROY: I certainly think there is that interpretation. For the first time in 60 years there’s a genuine geo-strategic competition in the Pacific and we can no longer assume that we are going to be the partner of choice for these nations. And whether we succeed in re-establishing our relationships with the Pacific is really questionable while we have such bad policies around climate change, for example.
ACKMAN: I was in New Zealand a week or two ago and the strong mood that I picked up there was that they’re very disillusioned with Australia at a general population level and the way Australians treat New Zealanders when they come here, and the rights they get and so on, it seems to me we are undertaking a process where we are alienating them as well. Do you agree with that?
CONROY: I think that’s true. And if you look at some of the immigration legislation that disproportionately targets New Zealanders they have the right to be offended. It’s a broader problem in that, we can have all the visits by Scott Morrison to the Pacific we want but when the Pacific says their number one issue is taking strong action on climate change and we thumb our nose at it; when you’ve got Scott Morrison acting arrogantly at the Pacific Islands Forum; when you’ve got the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack saying to Pacific Islanders don’t worry if you lose your homes to climate change you can always pick our fruit and you should be grateful for the aid we sling you, that offends people. In fact, I heard a story about taxi drivers in Fiji talking about this with Australian tourists; that’s how far it’s permeated.
ACKMAN: So Pacific countries are in a powerful position right now it seems to me, because China’s cuddling up to them every bit as much as Australia; if not more. Just playing the devil’s advocate, does it really matter if China seduces all of our Pacific neighbours?
CONROY: First off we’ve got to acknowledge that every nation has a right to improve their diplomatic relations with other nations. China is a rising super power and they are seeking to exert their influence. I want to acknowledge that first. But, Australia’s entire defence policy since World War II has been based to some extent on being the unchallenged power in the South Pacific; that we have no other nation with any significant military particularly close to us in the Pacific. And that is something that is perhaps changing right now. This is something that Australians do have to be concerned about and we need to respond in a judicious and reasonable manner.
ACKMAN: So, if I were the leader of a Pacific country right now I’d be engaging in a bit of a foreign aid auction, I think. I’d be asking China what their offer was and what the terms and conditions were and I’d be asking Australia and anybody else who wanted to line up, and I’d simply be playing one off against the other. Isn’t that what’s happening?
CONROY: It’s certainly happening in some countries. We have an opportunity and an advantage, which is when overseas development assistance is done properly it is about deep and enduring relationships not just about simple transactions of ‘we’ll build you a sports stadium and in return you’ll vote with us at the UN’. It’s about saying ‘we want to be partners in the economic development of your nation’. And that’s how aid has been traditionally done in our country. That’s getting harder with the big cuts that have occurred to the aid budget. But there is an opportunity because there also is a perception that countries like China are coming in and being pretty transactional. So, it doesn’t cut just one way, it cuts both ways.
ACKMAN: Well, Australian politics is increasingly transactional as well, isn’t it?
CONROY: I think that there’s always an element of transactions in politics and business and every other mode of life, but I think diplomacy like most things should be about enduring relationships and building trust and respect for each other. That’s why it’s very important we get these things right.
ACKMAN: So, one concern I suppose is that some of these countries are impressively corrupt. I’m thinking for example of fleets of Maseratis and Bentleys to Papua New Guinea for the recent APEC conference where I now read that those vehicles are being disbursed to members of parliament. What do you say about that?
CONROY: I think on that particular issue that decision has been reversed. But, I don’t agree with your characterisation of corruption, but undoubtedly some of these countries have challenges around governance and there are government failings. We have to acknowledge that a lot of these nations have quite fragile institutional architecture. These are nations that are often very small, these are nations that are quite recent, and they are quite poor. For example, 30 per cent of Pacific Islanders live on less than US$1.90 a day, which is the definition of absolute poverty. So these are nations that do have challenges and one part of our job is to help them develop the governance of these institutions so they can be sustainable and successful nations.
ACKMAN: So, what’s the rationale in your view for our aid and development budget?
CONROY: The rationale at an overall level is that we have an obligation to our fellow human beings to ensure that people don’t live in abject misery. You don’t lose your humanity the minute you cross the border to another nation. So, there’s an essential altruistic part of international development. And there’s also an element of self-interest as well, which is that it is in our economic interests for other nations to develop so that we can sell them goods and services. It’s also in our national interest that other nations are sustainable and healthy. So, for example, the closest point of PNG is only four kilometres from Australia, a bit further north from where you are. So, if they have massive outbreaks of drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV, as they do, those things can quite easily cross into Australia. Or if there are instability and civil war in nations close to us, they have the potential to cross into Australia. Even if you don’t think we have an obligation to look after other humans in this world, from a base self-interest point of view we should be assisting nations to develop otherwise their problems would soon become our problems.
ACKMAN: Stripped of motherhood, how do you think Pacific Island countries really see Australia?
CONROY: It’s hard to make a characterisation of 10 million people – I say that first. But I think there is a view that we have neglected the region; there is a view that we are only interested in the region again because of the interest of countries like China, and so there is as profound cynicism of how long and how committed our re-engagement will be. Having said that, there are also deep cultural ties to Australia. For example, there is a significant diaspora of Pacific Islanders living in both New Zealand and Australia. There’s the cultural ties through sport, whether it’s rugby league or rugby union and other sports that keep us there. And there’s geographical proximity. There are huge opportunities there, but obviously there’s no doubt that over the last six years our relationship with the Pacific nations has suffered and there’s no greater example of that than climate change. And I’m sorry to keep harping back it but it is so, so significant. Some of these nations face an existential crisis. These nations may no longer exist if climate change continues to occur and Australia’s role as perceived as a bad actor on climate policy is overwhelmingly driving some Pacific Island nations’ views of Australia.
ACKMAN: Just another topic, you’re also shadowing as the assistant minister for defence. Would you be buying drones for a couple of million dollars a piece or F-35s for a couple of hundred million a piece?
CONROY: I think the short answer is we need to do both. And there are some things that F-35s can do that drones can never do. And the other thing is, with modern aviation warfare, you don’t just have individual planes flying, as we fought with Camels and Spitfires, they’re part of networked warfare. These people who compare how fast and safe an F-35 is to a Sukhoi fighter from Russia are missing the point that these aircraft are stealthy and they are increasingly networked so they work with each other, with other aircraft and naval assets. So ultimately they will be a good purchase but they’re not without problems. To be frank, a lot of these procurements are challenging. You look at the F-111s, they were delivered 10 or 11 years late and they were the peak of Australia’s strike capability for 30 or 40 years. So, the F-35 is a challenge, but ultimately I think it’s a good purchase. There are some other defence procurements that I think are a lot dodgier that need more oversight.
ACKMAN: The submarines?
CONROY: Well, the submarines are a challenge, and I think this Government has already allowed them to slip by 10 years. They originally were promised to be delivered by 2025 and it looks like we’ll get them at 2035 at best. So there are huge concerns with the submarines.