June 01, 2022

DAN COX, PRESENTER: It was announced last night Pat Conroy will be part of Anthony Albanese’s ministry team.

JENNY MARCHANT, PRESNTER: He’s the Member for Shortland, and he’s about to be sworn in as the Minister for Defence Industry and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. The only Hunter MP to have a seat on the frontbench. Good morning Mr Conroy.

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Good morning, how are you?

MARCHANT: Well thank you. Does this give the Hunter region a louder voice within this Federal Government?

CONROY: Absolutely. Having ministerial representation in the Hunter is great for the region. It gives us increased influence as does holding all six seats across the Hunter and Central Coast. So there’s a sea of red from Muswellbrook to Mooney Mooney Bridge as I say, and that’s great having six local representatives including a Minister in the Albanese Labor Government can only mean good things for our region.

COX: You had a role as Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Shadow Minister Assisting when it comes to Climate Change, Defence, and Government Accountability. So in Opposition you were able to accuse the Government of not doing enough. How will you make sure that the Coalition that’s now in Opposition won’t be accusing you of not doing enough?

CONROY: Well my first job will be to help fix the damage done particularly in Defence. If you think about that we have 30 major Defence projects that are cumulatively running 80 years late. That’s 80 years of delays to platforms that the ADF desperately needs. We’ve got the huge question marks around the nuclear submarines that we have to answer. So there’s huge challenges in Defence to repair the waste and mismanagement, and on the Pacific front, obviously what we’ve seen with the potential (inaudible) of a Chinese base in the Solomon Islands and Australia allowing that to occur under the last government is the greatest strategic blunder in our region in World War II. So there’s plenty of things to do to repair the damage done.

MARCHANT: We’ll get to the Pacific in a moment, but let’s stay on Defence for now and when it comes to the submarines, you were quite critical in Opposition of the decision to cancel the French submarines, you know, when we entered this AUKUS alliance. How will you manage the situation now to reduce the cost of that cancellation of the French submarines?

CONROY: Well unfortunately it’s going to be an argument between lawyers, so there’s going to be very limited things that the new Labor Government can do. And let’s just be frank about it. This Government’s mismanagement of that French treaty means that we will spend upwards of $5.5 billion and receive zero submarines, and we’ve got a significant potential capability gap as well because the new nuclear submarines won’t be delivered on the current timetable until the late 2030s if not the early 2040s.

So we’ll start getting those briefings from today onwards and we’ll look at what can be done, but I fear the last 10 years of mismanagement and waste has led to an appalling waste of taxpayers money. $5.5 billion on submarines that won’t be delivered, that’s the equivalent of five John Hunter Hospitals –

MARCHANT: Isn’t it your job now though to try and lessen the impact of that? Can you find savings somewhere else? Is there anything you can do?

CONROY: Well we’ll look at obviously the contract that was signed with the Naval Group, the French submarine builder, but those contracts typically cover things like liquidated damages. So there’s little you can do. You can’t tear up a contract without paying penalties. So we’ll get those briefings to understand what’s going on, but it’s clear that we are on the hook, that is Australian taxpayers, for somewhere around $5.5 billion for submarines that will never be delivered as well as obviously having to pay for the purchase of nuclear-powered submarines which we support and we understand the strategic rationale for, but the last government has just wasted a decade in this area and it’s going to be a big job for Richard Marles as Defence Minister and me as the Defence Industry Minister to fix that.

COX: Pat Conroy, the Labor Party has been very critical of the Coalition’s approach and processes to PFAS while it was in government. What action will we see from your Government on this immediately?

CONROY: Well obviously it’s the first day, I haven’t even been sworn in so we’ll look at obviously all of those issues. I know that PFAS has been an open sore for the Williamtown community. It’s an issue of real injustice to that community and I understand their concerns that Meryl Swanson as the Member for Paterson has been a voice for them in that. So we’ll look at that. I’m sure Richard Marles as Defence Minister will be looking at that closely.

MARCHANT: What would you like to see happen there?

CONROY: It’s not for me to speculate at this stage other than to seek any briefings and it won’t be my ministerial responsibility so it would be inappropriate for me to speculate.

COX: You do know as well as anyone what the Hunter is capable of when it comes to manufacturing. What will you do considering the Labor Party was always very critical of the Coalition not getting enough contracts locally and nationally staying here on our shores – what will you do to make sure that future defence contracts come to our region?

CONROY: Well our starting premise is that where defence contracts can be kept in Australia and supporting local jobs, then that should be our starting position and obviously the Hunter is in a great position. Our expertise is really unrivalled in the country, whether it’s the Williamtown aviation precinct or the maritime expertise that has sadly been lost, but let’s not forget that we built critical modules for the air warfare destroyer at Tomago at Forgacs. We built the minesweepers. We played a real role in the Collins class submarines for example, so there’s a huge opportunity for us to get more jobs and build on the momentum that’s already there, but we need a stable government with long-term plans that isn’t chopping and changing, and that’s a start. And having good local advocacy from myself as well as the five other Labor MPs will obviously help.

MARCHANT: Let’s talk about the Pacific element of your portfolio here. What do you see your role alongside Penny Wong as Foreign Affairs Minister, what is your role in the Pacific at this time specifically?

CONROY: Well as the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, I am really the lead person working under Penny Wong as the Minister for Foreign Affairs in this area, but what you’ll see is, to use an American analogy, a full-court press. What you’ll see is basically every Australian Minister with any sort of policy responsibility for that region working very hard. Prime Minister Albanese has already indicated he is looking at travelling to the region. Penny Wong was already there. I’ll have day-to-day responsibilities of implementation of our policies. That includes the significant commitments that we made prior to the last election including permanent migration, improvements to the temporary labour scheme, increased overseas development assistance to the region, helping put an Australian voice to the Pacific through television and radio broadcasting.

That’s all going to be critical to the future of our relationship with the Pacific so that we can be the partner of choice for our Pacific family. We’ve got great advantages over other nations of being the partner of choice, from cultural links to our love of rugby league and rugby union, and a shared history, but we’ve got to build on that with a government that takes action including on climate change which is the number one issue for the Pacific region. The Pacific region including Australia signed up to the Boe Declaration which lists climate change as the number one existential threat to our entire nation, and we need to take action on it.

COX: The other thing that’s been making news is our relationship with the Solomon Islands after their security pact with China. Are you nervous about that relationship? What will you do to restore it?

CONROY: Well it was the Australian Government’s failure to prevent that, it was the greatest strategic blunder since World War II in our region. So we’ve got a huge challenge there, and we need to do so much more to repair that relationship so that we do become the partner of choice including the security partner of choice for the region. But it’s hugely concerning. The fact that we could see a Chinese military base only 2,000 kilometres from northeast Queensland is a huge concern, and we will be working very hard to rebuild our relationships in the Pacific and with the Solomon Islands in particular.

MARCHANT: What would that look like? How do you rebuild that relationship? What are the signs that that will be happening?

CONROY: Well the signs are increased ministerial engagement. The fact that Foreign Minister –

MARCHANT: But you could go there every day, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that they reciprocate. It needs, it’s a two way street isn’t it?

CONROY: It is a two-way street, but having proper attention and commitment from the Australian Government is the first step. Us recommitting to climate change is also very critical to that. Our announcements around the Pacific security maritime policies to help illegal fishing is another example of where we’d work.

And ultimately it’s the people-to-people connections. The fact that we will for the first time have a permanent Pacific migration scheme where 3,000 Pacific Islanders will be able to migrate each year to Australia, and the fact that for our temporary agricultural visas, we will make Pacific Island workers the first choice is a sign of our commitment. And they are things that China can’t match. China isn’t interested in having Pacific Island workers work in their country or migrate. China isn’t interested in those people-to-people connections, and that’s the great advantage we have if we have a government committed to the region.

COX: Pat Conroy, congratulations on the new roles and thank you for talking to us this morning.

CONROY: My pleasure, have a great morning.