HOST: Pat Conroy, thank you so much for your time. We know that this big forum in the Pacific gets under way today with the Prime Minister arriving. One of the big topics on the agenda has been climate change. We understand some of the discussions that are happening already are around the number of coal-fired power stations. What’s your understanding of how that is impacting discussions so far?
PAT CONROY: Well, the leaders of the Pacific nations have been very clear that climate change is the number one issue for the Pacific Islands Forum. At the Pacific Islands Forum last year we all signed up, every country including Australia signed up to the Boe Declaration which stated that climate change is the number one existential threat to the region. And so these leaders are naturally saying now, well you’ve signed up to this declaration, Australia, you have an obligation to actually follow through on that, and follow through on your obligations under the Paris Treaty and lift your climate change ambition. And they are saying that until you do that the so-called Pacific Step Up that this Government has engaged in will not work. We’ve had six foreign ministers, or prime ministers or presidents of major Pacific Island nations say that unless we get more ambitious on climate change our Pacific Step Up will fail.
HOST: The Australian is reporting that your counterpart Alex Hawke has been representing to these Pacific nations that Australia only has a fraction of the world’s coal-fired power stations – it’s in the tens when there are thousands around the world – do you think that is a reasonable perspective from Australia to say that there isn’t much we can do to make a global impact, but we are putting a lot of money into those Pacific Islands?
CONROY: No, it’s an absolute rubbish argument. And the $500 million announced yesterday was cynical window dressing because it is not new money, it comes from the existing aid budget and quite frankly pales in comparison to the impact we’re having on climate change. Australia is something like the 13th highest emitter of carbon pollution in absolute terms and we are the highest emitter per person in the developed world. We have a responsibility to act. At the moment the Government has a woeful target that is inconsistent with the Paris Treaty, and secondly they are using cheap accounting tricks, like the use of Kyoto carry-over units to even hit that woeful target. And our Pacific neighbours are quite rightly saying, this is our number one issue, you recognise it as our number one issue, as an existential threat to our nations, and yet you’re doing nothing on it. For example, Tuvalu, the host nation, its highest point of land is one-and-a-half metres above sea level. They’re facing the loss of their entire nation in 40 or 50 years’ time. So quite naturally they are saying to Australia, you’re a very wealthy nation, you’ve made commitments internationally, follow through on them.
HOST: You mention the Paris Treaty there. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been pretty unequivocal that we are going to meet our Paris targets – his favourite line is that we are going to meet them in a canter. Is that not good enough?
CONROY: Well, he is lying. I’m sorry to be so brutal about it, but he is lying. Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are going up. They’ve gone up every year since 2014 when the carbon price was abolished. So we will not meet even the Government’s own woeful targets because our emissions are going up, not down, and this Government does not have a coherent plan to change that. Point number two is that even their official target is inadequate. The best independent scientific advice in Australia and around the world is that our target for 2030 should be at least minus 45 per cent. That is what is consistent with the Paris Treaty’s obligation of keeping global warming below 2 degrees. Minus 26 per cent quite frankly does not cut it and, even if it did, this Government will not meet it. Scott Morrison is lying through his teeth on this issue and our Pacific neighbours are calling him out on that.
HOST: The other big issue on the agenda for the Pacific Islands Forum is this growing influence of China in the region and we’ve seen the expansion of soft power in particular with a number of these Pacific Islands with huge amount of debt coming from China’s way. What do you think Australia should be doing to counter that threat in the region?
CONROY: Well, I think the Pacific Step Up is a recognition that since 2013 Australia has disengaged from the region and other nations had sought to fill that vacuum. So, Labor welcomes the Pacific Step Up. Firstly, obviously, we can’t avoid the elephant in the room – climate change – which we’ve discussed. So we need to fix that up, if we want to actually stay as the partner of choice for the Pacific nations. Secondly, we need to aid in the economic development of these nations. To give you an example, part of the Pacific Step Up is the Pacific Labour Scheme, which allows workers from Pacific nations to come to this country. Unfortunately, in the same month that it was announced the Government loosened massively the controls around the backpacker visa. So the Pacific Labour Scheme was supposed to bring in 2,000 workers in its first year. Because of the backpacker scheme, it only brought in 200 workers and that meant that $8 million worth of wages that would have been repatriated to Pacific nations did not occur because of the backpacker visas filling that gap. So, fixing up Pacific labour mobility is very important. Getting the infrastructure financing facility that we’ve announced up and running properly so that it is not a debt trap – that it actually aids in the development of Pacific nations – is also incredibly important. And fourthly, the area where I think we are doing best is in military-to-military co-operation. All those things are really important in rebuilding Australia’s position in the Pacific. But, to be frank, climate change is the number one issue. You can do all these other things that are important but if we’re not seen to be taking reasonable action on climate change, our credibility and standing in the Pacific will continue to decline and nations like China and others around the world will fill that void because of our inaction on climate change.
HOST: And just finally, there are reports coming through this morning that Labor was more aware of section 44 issues affecting a number of MPs sitting in Parliament last year than they may have been ’fessing up to. What do you make of those reports?
CONROY: I think the reports are largely historic in nature. They refer to processes we went through, for example for me, before the 2013 election, where our legal advice was that the act of renouncing your citizenship, signing the form and submitting the payment, was when your citizenship ceased for other nations. Obviously, the High Court found that it was actually when the paperwork was processed by the other country, which could take, for example the UK Government took over 100 days in the Katy Gallagher case, they took two/three months for me, whereas they only took two days for Barnaby Joyce. The High Court has had a different interpretation so we changed our practices to reflect that legal ruling. So I think this is a historic analysis – that is important – but I think the main thing is that the Labor Party has adopted processes to reflect the latest High Court ruling so that we can be very confident that all our MPs are absolutely entitled to sit in Parliament.
HOST: So you do think that Australians can be confident that every Labor MP does have the right to be sitting in Parliament?
CONROY: Absolutely. We’ve updated our processes to reflect the High Court ruling, which was significantly different from previous rulings from the High Court. We’ve modified our processes; the Australian Parliament has updated its processes through the House Committee on Privileges and Members Interests so that you have to submit certain documentation to demonstrate that you’ve acquitted your responsibilities. So obviously the last parliament was very messy because of the change in interpretation by the High Court but certainly the Labor Party, we’ve modified our processes to make sure that every MP has followed the correct procedures.
You can view the interview here