Building links between Cairns and PNG - doorstop interview

October 08, 2019


NITA GREEN, SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: Hi, my name is Nita Green and I am the Senator for Queensland and I am based right here in Cairns. Today I'm really really proud to have our Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, here in Cairns with me. I have asked Pat to come here today to talk about a really important issue, something that I am very passionate about and that is the relationship between PNG and Cairns.

We know that Cairns is the hub for the Pacific, it is the gateway to the Pacific. We know that Cairns is the place that a lot of people from PNG call home. The relationship here is very special and we want to make sure that it is elevated in that way. At the moment, we are having a national debate, national discussion, about the Pacific Step Up and what that means for Australia. What we are not doing is having a conversation about the place that Cairns plays in that relationship. Since I was sworn in, I have made sure that I am elevating the position of Cairns in that conversation. So I have travelled to PNG and I have met people there to find out exactly what is going on on the ground. I have met with business and stakeholders here in Cairns as well to make sure that I understand what links are happening and what needs to be done by the Australian Government to improve the relationship between Cairns and PNG. There are so many opportunities that we have here, whether it is engaging in healthcare, education, skills, businesses or HMAS Cairns and the defence capabilities of the people that live here in Cairns. We want to make sure that we are making the most of those opportunities and I am afraid to say that at the moment I don't feel like that is happening. Federal Government isn't listening to the people on the ground and not elevating Cairns in the discussion that we are having in the Pacific Step Up. If a true Pacific Step Up is to happen then a step up in Cairns has to happen as well. That means investment in infrastructure and investment in our health system, invest in skills and investment in making sure that Cairns is key to the Pacific Step Up going forward. 

Now I am going to hand over to Pat and I'm going to let him have a discussion about the things that we heard today from the stakeholders that came along to talk to us.But before I do that I just want to address some comments that were made by Warren Entsch some news that we heard in the Cairns Post today about his role as the special envoy for the reef.

I want to be very clear about this: Mr Enstch shouldn't need a fancy title, extra resources to stand up for the reef. He is the member for Leichhardt, it is part of his job. But you can not be a special envoy for the reef without discussing climate change. That is exactly what Warren Entsch is attempting to do. But I will let Warren Entsch's record speak for himself. What I do think that there are very important questions that still need to be answered. For example, what are these extra resources going to? Will Warren Entsch table a report in Parliament or will this be another special envoy by text message. Are those extra resources focusing on climate change or are they simply focusing on the PR exercise that Warren Enstch has involved himself in? There are some really serious questions to answer and we can't wait three years to find out what this title and extra resources mean for Cairns. I want to make those questions are being asked and Warren Entsch is answering them. 

Thank you and I'll hand over to Pat now. Thank you.
PAT CONROY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC: Thanks Nita and it's fabulous to be back in Cairns for my third visit this year alone. Cairns should be the gateway to the Pacific. The Government has said its Pacific Step-Up is its cornerstone of its diplomatic efforts in our region and in fact in our entire world and nowhere is better placed then Cairns to be the gateway for the Pacific Step Up. Eight of the ten million people who live in the Pacific live in the PNG, by the end of the century PNG is predicted to have a population of almost thirty million people. Bigger than Australia itself right on the doorstep of Australia. In fact, PNG is only four kilometres away from Australia at it’s closet point. So it's great to be at a roundtable convened today by Nita with local business people and community activists to understand what is happening on the ground in Cairns with links to PNG and what can be done to improve the situation. The messages I heard very clearly is that the so-called Pacific Step-Up is missing Cairns, it's bypassing Cairns and that's a lost opportunity for both the city and the region itself but also for Australia because we have got great people to people links here, for example, tens of thousands of Papua New Guineans live in the Cairns area. They’ve got eight hundred companies through Trade Link that have strong linkages to PNG but we are missing out on opportunities because of a lack of focus from a Federal Government. So the messages I received today was we need greater emphasis on Cairns as the gateway, we need stronger people to people links, we need to look at visa issues so that Papua New Guineans can come here more easily and we also need to invest in businesses here so they can work in PNG because we need to seize these opportunities. We need to have a Cairns economy that is diversified, that has a strong Tourism base but also has strong linkages to Papua New Guinea. 

Later today Senator Green and I will be visiting HMAS Cairns where we have got a thousand personnel, we have got nine vessels home based that do great work in the Pacific area and we need to build that, not from a national security point of view, but also from an economic opportunity for Cairns itself. This is a fabulous opportunity to deepen the linkages there and to make sure that the Pacific Step Up is not just a name only but there is a substance on the ground. So I will leave my remarks there.
JOURNALIST: What were some of the key things that people you met with today were sort of saying they would like to see improved?

CONROY: I think the most important thing that improves the relationship between the Government and PNG. We heard reports from Australian business and from leaders from the local PNG community that there is a view that Australia doesn't treat PNG with respect. It is not a balanced relationship of built mutual respect. You just have to look at climate change for example, PNG, like all Pacific nations signed up to the Boe declaration which said that climate change is the number one existential threat to the entire region and for this Government to be so dismissive on climate change, this Government to treat any issues around climate change with such disrespect undermines our relationship with the PNG and you just have to see the reactions of the Pacific Islands forum to see that in action.
JOURNALIST: With HMAS Cairns you said there needs to be expansion there. Can you put in terms of what needs to be doubled in size, tripled in size or what sort of action or infrastructure do we need?
CONROY: There is great opportunities there, obviously there is a commitment to four offshore patrol vessels to be based there, you have got the current customs vessels but we really need to look at greater opportunities. Whether it's rotating more navy ships through as part of the deployment or whether it's putting in place more hard infrastructure. There is a great opportunity with the naval base being built at Longbok at Manus Island, to have Cairns as part of that network, so there are great opportunities for local industry. More and more of the maintenance should be done here, I visited the Maritime precinct a couple of times and you have got some great local industry that can do more work if they had a Government focused on that.
JOURNALIST: How important is the relationship between Australia and PNG to Cairns?

CONROY: It's incredibly important to Cairns and its also incredibly important to our entire nation. As I said it is our closet neighbour.  It is a neighbour we have very close linkages to, a neighbour where we are very focused on making sure that we're their partner of chose, compared to other nations around the world. There are some real security concerns that we need to be conscious of, for example, there has been significant outbreaks of antibiotic resistant Tuberculosis, drug resistant HIV in areas very close to Far North Queensland.  So it’s our direct self-interest to make sure we support PNG through these challenges.
JOURNALIST: What can PNG do for Cairns?

CONROY: As I said its a nation of eight million that will grow to thirty million in less than eighty years. There is a huge economic opportunity. You already have regular flights. Cairns should be a stepping off point for Australia to engagement with PNG and the broader Pacific. The Australian Government spends $500 million dollars in aid in PNG each year, there is no reason why some of that money can't come through to Cairns to ease the logistical challenges. So there is a real economic opportunity for Cairns.
JOURNALIST: PNG is not too happy with the status quo of Foreign Countries coming in and basically bleeding it dry of resources of money so how do you make it a two way street so that we are getting back a little bit as well?
CONROY: I think the key thing is to build a relationship on mutual respect. It can't be a transactional relationship where we come in and out and our interest waxes and wanes and I think that has happened over the last six years. The Pacific Step Up is recognition that when the Liberal and National Government won power, that they ignored the Pacific. So having an enduring presence was one of their key messages I heard today, having a constant commitment to a relationship with PNG, whether that's through sporting links through rugby league, soccer or whether it’s a deep commitment to solving climate change which is obviously in the interests of PNG and Australia. Having a deeply respectful relationship is a key basis going forward.
JOURNALIST: Bob Manning was trying to get a Cairns PNG NRL team with a new stadium set up on our shores, has there been any talk about that?

CONROY: We will be meeting with Bob Manning later today and I am very keen to talk about that. I am a big fan of rugby league diplomacy. In fact I spoke at a reception for the PNG Kumuls team and the Orchids team. Earlier this year, they over for the Pacific Cup, and I raised this issue directly with Peter Beattie, Chairman of the Australian Rugby League, that this a great opportunity. One of my great sporting heroes is Adrian Lam, the greatest Kumul ever and I think there are strong arguments to deepen that rugby league relationship between PNG with Cairns as it natural base.

JOURNALIST: I think Peter Beattie wasn't that keen but he's on the way out.,,,
CONROY: We can knock on all the doors to talk about how we raise these relationships and I think that Cairns is the natural base. IT’S the national sport in PNG and I think it would be crazy not to look at the nation with thirty million coming where rugby league can be the heart of our sporting diplomacy and to advance that conversation.
JOURNALIST: Apart from defence and rugby league, what key industries are we talking about today that might be able to benefit?

CONROY: Tourism is obviously a strong one both having Papua New Guinea come and visit Cairns to enjoy your great natural environment but also working with the PNG tourism industry. So one of the ideas raised was having Cairns as a processing point for tourism in to PNG so that people don't have to go to Port Moresby and then out to tourisms hubs. They can get their visas processed in Cairns and then go and fly to those other areas and to use the great expertise that the tourism industry in Cairns already has, so that’s another example. Aged care and hospitality are also great avenues for economic development between Cairns and PNG.