Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Hi, can I start with an apology? I'm sorry to keep you all waiting. As you know, the Leaders' Forum went significantly over time and I didn't want to be rude to leave as much as I didn't want you to wait. Anyway, I hope you've been enjoying yourselves in this beautiful environment.
And I'm here obviously with Pat Conroy, who is the Minister for the Pacific and I'm very, very pleased to be back here in Suva to meet with Pacific Islands Forum leaders and to continue the constructive conversations between ministers.
The Prime Minister, as you know, will be arriving tomorrow and we – he and I and Pat – are really very aware of the importance of this regional body, the importance of a Pacific Island Forum at this time.
I said today at the Leaders' Forum Dialogue that we are here to listen and learn. It's obviously my first Forum and it was very important to listen to the contributions from the various perspectives of presidents and prime ministers around the table and I gained a lot from it.
As I've said previously, the Australian Government, the new Australian Government is committed to bringing new energy and new resources to the Pacific and we recognise, in particularly, the importance of climate change. I had a very good discussion today with the Foreign Secretary of FSM and we spoke about the lived experience of the Micronesian States to climate change. And, as you know, that was one of the key aspects of Prime Minister Albanese's election campaign.
I'd like to make a comment about the unity of the Forum, which has obviously been a big discussion over these last weeks. The region is stronger together. It's a simple proposition. The region is stronger together. And in the bilaterals I've had, in the discussions I've had, in my previous visits, and in the dialogue today, leaders talked about the challenges the region faces – climate change, COVID and the recovery from COVID, both of which have fallen harder on this region than on many other parts of the world and, of course, strategic competition; and all the nations of this region are seeking to navigate those challenges. All the nations are seeking to navigate those challenges. And we do it best when we can do it together and that's the approach Australia's taken. And that's the approach the Pacific Islands Forum is taking and that is why Pacific Forum unity is so important.
Now, as you know, there have been a lot of discussions about Pacific Islands Forum unity and the position the Australian Government has consistently taken is we were seeking to support whatever the consensus could deliver, because the most important thing was to ensure that at this time, in a contested world, in a world confronting climate, COVID and the economic recovery from COVID, that the Forum remain united. So, I do want to commend Prime Minister Bainimarama and the Government of Fiji and leaders from the Micronesian States for their work to try to bring the Forum back together.
We obviously have a Suva Agreement, which Australia is supportive of, as the pathway to that unity. Can I note that we are continuing to work towards greater unity, and I note the position that the President of Kiribati has articulated, and I say, along with all other members of the Forum, that we seek reconciliation, and the door remains open, and we hope that progress can be made there. In that vein, I wish the President and the people of Kiribati all the best on their national day, which is today. Happy to take questions.
Journalist: So, the Micronesian split might be traced back to the election of the past Secretary-General. It was obviously a very tight vote. You've been very critical of the previous government's efforts in the Pacific. How did Australia vote? Is it worth airing those grievances? Do you have a view on how damaging that episode has been?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: No, I think my focus, along with those of the leaders in that room, is to try and do what we can to strengthen the Forum at a time where the Forum needs to be unified. That's the approach we've taken.
Journalist: Minister, just on Kiribati, are you worried China will swoop in, to be blunt, and what is it Australia is doing to help remedy that situation?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: I think Australia has taken the view that we should facilitate the discussions and the cooperation between the Micronesians and Prime Minister Bainimarama and others. That's the approach we're taking. Obviously, as I said, competition is one of the challenges the region faces and we do think it's best faced together.
Journalist: When will those discussions happen and -
Minister for Foreign Affairs: They have happened.
Journalist: The Fijian Prime Minister said this morning that PIF nations will either forge ahead together or take individual paths. How likely is that latter scenario?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: I think we have to give this some time. I think that a lot has passed, a lot of progress has been made and if you look to where the Forum was over a year ago now, we are in a much better place than we were and that's a great tribute to leaders who have been prepared to come to the table when there were really strong differences, some of which you've referred to. But obviously where things are with Kiribati, we need to keep the door open and keep working towards reconciliation.
Journalist: On climate change, was there any discussion of Australia hosting COP29 with Pacific nations?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: I think Minister Conroy discussed it last week – was that last week – at the Foreign Ministers’ Forum that I only attended one session virtually because I was in Bali and he may wish to go to that.
Pat Conroy, Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thanks, Penny. And on the broader point, at the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting last Friday there was a real sense of enthusiasm and, quite frankly, a palpable sense of relief that Australia is back in the game of taking action on climate change and the Communiqué last week welcomed our action on climate change including: 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 on the way to a legislated net zero emissions by 2050; a commitment to a Pacific infrastructure financing partnership on climate change; an objective of our policy of reaching 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030 was really welcomed by the region; and the Communiqué also welcomed our interest in hosting a UN Conference of the Parties, a UN COP, in partnership with the Pacific. And it's fair to say in both that meeting and in our bilaterals there's a real sense of enthusiasm for Australia undertaking that endeavour but we'll see how it goes.
Journalist: Just on a follow-up on that. Is Australia's emissions target credible as one of the highest in the developed world if it is going to host a COP forum with Pacific leaders?
Minister for International Development and the Pacific: It is absolutely credible. 43 per cent will be a challenge from where we are now but we will get there on the way to net zero emissions by 2050, getting to 82 per cent renewable energy in our national grid, the climate financing facility for the Pacific. These are all really important parts of our climate policy and, as the Prime Minister has said, 43 per cent is the floor, we will achieve it and we'll go from there.
Journalist: Still on climate change, will Australia be supporting the AO request to the ICJ that Vanuatu is starting?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: I think the position of Australia was made clear at the Foreign Ministers' Meeting including in the joint resolution which was adopted, and I can throw to Minister Conroy on more on that if you want but I think the position has been made clear. Would you like to ask a question, the regional media?
Journalist: How do you plan to achieve the emissions target considering the 27 coal mining approval projects before you?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: As you know, the 43 per cent target is quite a substantial target. The coal mines will be dealt with in accordance with Australian law. I would make the point that the target that we are proposing would see Australia at 82 per cent renewable energy for our domestic market by 2030. But Minister Conroy may wish to add.
Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Our 43 per cent target will cover the whole of Australia's emissions. So economy wide targets. So those coal mines that you mentioned will go through the normal environmental approvals but Foreign Minister Wong is absolutely right, the 43 per cent emissions reduction target will be across the whole economy and we're confident we've got the policies in place to achieve that.
Journalist: Minister Wong, I didn't quite hear that question before so I apologise. But in 2019 Australia was effectively asked to stop any new coal mines or gas reserves being exploited and utilised. The government at that time obviously stepped away from that. Have you been asked at this summit, at this Forum, whether Australia would follow that line in not allowing any more coal reserves or gas mines to be utilised and what would Australia's response be, I suppose, noting that coal is now Australia's number one export?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: No, I have been asked and you would know from our previous answers what the position is and it's consistent with the answer we just gave. You know what the position is.
Journalist: Has there been any push from Pacific Island leaders for Australia to do more on climate change, seeing as we've had years of little to no action?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: To be honest, and they may obviously argue for more ambition, to date, in my bilaterals and my private discussions and in the public discussions I've had, there's actually a sense of relief that finally Australia is prepared to actually do something. And I've been climate minister, and it's completely legitimate for island states, which are already experiencing and have for many years, the effects of climate change to urge us to do more. But given Australia has been so intransigent for the last decade I think the view particularly has been relief.
Journalist: Foreign Minister, obviously the US has now announced that Kamala Harris will make an appearance virtually at this summit. We don't yet know what will be announced but it's anticipated we may see a new US strategy. What –
Minister for Foreign Affairs: This is going to be one of those “can you confirm” –
Journalist: I wouldn't dream of it. To what extent is Australia working with the US to shape US strategic priorities in the Pacific?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: The view we have consistently put to our strategic ally is of the importance of development in this region, the importance of climate in this region, action on climate and the importance of showing up and we're really pleased that there's been a recent announcement by the administration about an additional post in the region. I hope that continues.
Journalist: Should China's Premier Li Keqiang be allowed to appear at the Forum if Kamala Harris is?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: That's a matter for the Forum and for the Chair.
Journalist: Of which you're a member.
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Fiji sets the agenda. Fiji and the Secretary-General look at how the Forum is to be run. I wasn't aware there was a request for that. But certainly this is a regional forum, it's a matter for the region and the Pacific family to resolve how the Forum is run.
Journalist: Will Kiribati’s withdrawal from the PIF meeting affect their assistance from Australia to mitigate climate change?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: No – our development assistance doesn't come with those sorts of political strings attached.
Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Could I add to that? To demonstrate the conviction that Minister Wong has articulated, only yesterday we announced an additional $2 million of assistance to Kiribati to assist with their crippling drought and that's on top of the $600,000 we announced a couple of weeks ago. So very important that aid is unconditional like that.
Journalist: Can the 2050 Blue Continent Strategy be successful without Kiribati? Does it need Kiribati?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: First, can I just talk about the Strategy and for the Australian media who may not be aware, it is the Strategy that leaders will consider and hopefully adopt. It is a very, very good – a lot of work has gone into it – a very good document that really talks about the oceans and the natural environment as a resource that needs to be collectively managed; an asset that needs to be managed in a world where there is climate and strategic competition. Of course, out to 2050 you want the whole region engaged which is why I again emphasise from Australia's perspective and, I think, from the Forum's perspective to Kiribati, the door is open. Anything further?
Journalist: Minister, Kiribati, the US dialling in: has climate change been overshadowed as the biggest threat facing the region and would that still be the centre of discussions at the Forum this week?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: I can only say this: that climate is central in the Boe Declaration, in many leaders' statements past; that it is the number one national security, economic challenge that the region faces. Obviously, people have spoken about climate, have spoken about strategic competition and have spoken about COVID and the path to recovery where there are real challenges for the Pacific. We know that there's a risk and we had a discussion today of a lower development path – what they call economic scarring as a consequence of COVID. This is not a region that can afford that. We need to work with them to try and avert that. Thank you very much.
Journalist: What is Australia's stance on the influence of China in Fiji and with the reports that they're excluded from in-person meetings?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Sorry, who was excluded?
Minister for Foreign Affairs: The membership of the PIF is clear and Australia and others are members of the PIF, others are not. So it's unsurprising that members of the Pacific Islands Forum would meet together. I've made comments before about China. We think, in relation to Pacific security, that members of Pacific family are capable of providing that security and we think that Pacific unity is important as we navigate a world where we confront climate, COVID and strategic competition.
Journalist: This last question, we've got reports of Pacific workers not being paid their full salary –
Minister for Foreign Affairs: I'm happy to talk to you about that because we're a Labor Government. We're a Government that has a very strong ethical and philosophical commitment to ensuring workers are not exploited. We've made some changes. We will make more changes. We looked at this a lot in Opposition. You can't guarantee everything but I can say to you we work very hard to make sure that we crack down on exploitation. Thank you very much.