KIER SHOREY, HOST: I am happy to introduce my next guest this morning, the Labor Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Pat Conroy is in the ABC Far North studios this morning ahead of a round table on the subject of our nearest neighbour PNG and how to develop the links between Far North Queensland and the potential for businesses from this location working in to the PNG market. Alongside, I imagine a bunch of other challenging issues to be discussed as well. Pat, very good morning to you, welcome to ABC Far North, thanks for coming in.
PAT CONROY: Thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure.
SHOREY: So who will be at the roundtable today? I know we have talked a lot previously about Far North Queensland businesses and industry and the potential to make their way into that market.
CONROY: We will be having a roundtable with Senator Nita Green and we’ve got representatives of the local Cairns business community particularly Trade Link which is leading the charge into PNG. We will be having other local businesses such as the Port and we are hopeful of getting the PNG Consulate representatives as well. So it’s a really great opportunity to talk about our nearest neighbour. The PNG is only four kilometres from Australia, It’s a market of over ten million people, it’s economy that needs to economically grow and we can support that whilst growing jobs here as well.
SHOREY: You are right about that proximity, it’s was funny just to here you say that the four kilometres, and it’s true isn’t it?
CONROY: Absolutely. But a lot of people, in fact unfortunately even experienced public officials refer to Indonesia as our nearest neighbour and they are a lot further away than four kilometres.
SHOREY: Yes indeed. So Pat Conroy there were issues though, discussed in a couple of stories that came out yesterday, when it came to the situation there regarding our foreign aid, how we support the PNG people and the Government as well and concerns about the level of, I guess corruption for want of a better word, within the political context.
CONROY: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade conducted a review of the half a billion dollar aid program that we have with PNG. It’s our largest bilateral aid program and their own internal review was fairly scathing. Firstly it….
SHOREY: Fell short of expectations. I think the quote was ‘restorative action was necessary’…
CONROY: Which is bureaucratic talk for ‘in dire trouble and we’re wasting a lot of money’. And part that, is obviously the deteriorating security situation in PNG the challenges of corruption particularly at a provincial level. But the report was also very critical of the expertise within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In fact it found that it’s over-reliance on technical contractors, so external contractors to deliver the aid, was causing problems. And that can be driven home to the abolition of AusAid in 2013 and the fact that DFAT doesn’t have the expertise in house.
SHOREY: We don’t have the public servants to deliver it on the ground.
CONROY: That’s correct. That’s what the report found and this is a half a billion dollar program where, if we don’t have the public servants with the expertise and experience to deliver the programs, they are not going to succeed.
SHOREY: I guess also in terms of just the efficacy of the money on the ground do we have an understanding of where it’s disappearing to?
CONROY: One of the challenges is that there seems to be a lot of middle men between the aid and getting to local communities. That’s something that has been reported back to me. Also the mish-mash between our aid and other organisations. So an example, we might spend money building a clinic in a particular PNG town but it’s the PNG Government’s responsibility to provide the doctors, and nurses and the medicine.
SHOREY: So, if that doesn’t happen?
CONROY: You got an empty building and our aid isn’t being used as effectively as it could be. So it’s got to be a true partnership working with PNG recognising the challenges they have but we’ve got to start with having the expertise on the ground and DFAT doesn’t have that at the moment and we have been calling on the Government to get that fixed very quickly.
SHOREY: How important is it to Australia to have a functioning PNG?
CONROY: It’s critical. As I said four kilometres from our mainland it’s our largest near neighbour with ten million people in the Pacific and eight million people are in the PNG. They are at home to very significant outbreaks of antibiotic resistant Tuberculosis and HIV so leaving aside our obligation to help fellow humans, there are some really significant health and security risks on our door step unless we work in partnership with PNG to solve these problems.
SHOREY: What would you be calling on the Government to do in the circumstances?
CONROY: Firstly, they need to restore aid $11.8 billion dollars has been cut from the aid budget over the last six years. Secondly, they need to reinvest into the capacity of DFAT to deliver those programs. And thirdly, they have to stop being so dismissive and contemptible of people in the Pacific. Michael McCormack’s comments about don’t worry about climate change you can come and pick our fruit, Mr Morrison’s behaviour at the Pacific Islands Forum where he managed to alienate every leader because of his unconscionable obscenest position on climate change. These countries want respect and they want a true partnership on issues that are affecting their lives and climate change for example is an existential threat to the region and if we don’t take it seriously we are not going to a have a real relationship with these nations.
SHOREY: Pat Conroy is with us this morning, Labor’s Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific. You are also assisting Defence as well in your portfolio Pat Conroy, so will you take the opportunity to connect with the Defence forces here in Cairns today?
CONROY: Absolutely, I will be going and visiting HMAS Cairns which is home to about a thousand navy personnel and it’s obviously the home port to nine naval vessels so it’s a really significant establishment for our national defence and also very important economically for the region. I visited previously, about five months ago, the Marine precinct which is very excited about the opportunities of doing more serving and maintenance of our naval vessels. So it will be very good to get a picture of the other side of that which is what does the Royal Navy actual need, how can they work with local industry and how can they grow as our presence in the Pacific grows.
SHOREY: Absolutely, Pat Conroy you will take the opportunity to meet with entities such as Advance Cairns with the Cairns Mayor as well. Can you give us an insight into what meetings like that are like? When you are not in power how does that change the actual complexion of the meeting? What do those discussions look like? Let us live vicariously through you for a moment.
CONROY: They are frustrating in that obviously you are not in power so you’re limited in terms of how you can directly assist immediately. But they are great work, because it’s the only way to hear about what’s going on. You obviously don’t have the resources of a Government department at your fingers tips but it also means that you have got an actual opportunity to be situated in reality you are not isolated in the so called ‘Canberra bubble’. So actually visiting a place, talking to local leaders both, business and political and community means you hear what is going on the ground and that’s great for developing policy. My view is we have got an opportunity to develop policy over the next year or two to take to the next election and hit the ground running. So I’m very passionate about how do we advance, for example, a National Rugby League team up here with links to PNG, how do we economically grow Cairns and those things where locals know best and so they are a great resource that can really drive Labor’s policy as we prepare for the next election.
SHOREY: Okay, beautiful stuff. Pat Conroy really appreciate you dropping in today. Have fun as you make your way through the Cairns region today, I appreciate it.
CONROY: I always will.