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Press Conference with the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells
Good afternoon, I’m here with Connie Fierravanti-Wells, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. As you know we’ve just spent the morning at the Pacific Islands Forum here talking with the leaders of the island nations that are our neighbours. This is a vitally important part of the world for Australia. It’s a vast part of the world of course. It has special challenges in many respects; security challenges, health challenges, development challenges.
We are stepping up our engagement with the Pacific, doing more than ever before, building on some of the great achievements, the leaders are so appreciative of the leadership Australia showed in the RAMSI mission in the Solomon Islands. Underlining the importance of working together closely for security at every level and you’ve seen the new security Memorandums of Understanding we’ve signed this morning and of course while Prime Minister Sogavare from the Solomon Islands was in Australia recently, we signed a new bilateral security agreement.
But equally important of course, is economic engagement. We’ve entered into a new Pacific labour arrangement with a number of the Pacific Islands Forum countries. It’s a very specific scheme, it’s capped at 2,000 a year, it’s focused on regional and rural Australia. It has to be labour market tested, so it’s designed to enable workers from the Pacific Islands to come and work in regional Australia, where employers can’t find Australian labour to do the work. But you can imagine the benefit it has, and the President of Kiribati spoke about that just a moment ago, because of the training it provides, the experience it provides and of course the income that it provides through the remittances back to their island homes. So building on previous programs, it’s a very important part of our engagement.
Also of course there’s the matter of pharmaceuticals. Now small countries like this import all of their pharmaceuticals. Very often, they can’t be sure about the quality of the pharmaceuticals they’re importing. So what we’re making available, is the services of the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia to test pharmaceuticals which might be, for example, a proposed import of antibiotics. Is it the real deal? Is it what it’s represented to be? The TGA back in Australia can give, you know, the highest possible quality and thoroughly objective assessment. So again that’s another element of the cooperation we have underway.
But it goes much broader even than the matters covered in the MOU’s. Of course, we are in the process of building 19 new Pacific Patrol Boats, which are going to be vitally important of course for island nations to protect their own waters and to protect their waters from illegal fishing.
In addition to that, we’re providing aerial surveillance services so that they’ll be able to identify where the illegal fishers are and then with the patrol boats, be able to go interdict them and arrest them, or send them on their way.
So in every respect, we’re supporting the capacity and the development of our Pacific Island neighbours. It’s manifestly in our national interest as it is in theirs and it’s good to be there around the table today with New Zealand and with all of the other Pacific Island nations.
Connie do you want to add to some of those points?
MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC:
I do, thank you Prime Minister and it’s really good to have you here again this year at the Pacific Islands Forum.
After the defence of Australia the stability, security and prosperity of our region is our highest priority. So therefore as the largest donor, as the largest security partner in the Pacific, the work that we are doing in terms of stepping up, will address right across the spectrum, the issues that are of importance to our Pacific neighbours.
When we talk about security as the Prime Minister indicated, we’ve had some great successes where as a region we have worked together. But it’s those ‘small s’ security issues; it’s the fishing, it’s the transnational crime, it’s the drug trafficking, it’s those things that are now impinging on the daily life of the Pacific where it’s really important and where our patrol boats and where our surveillance and where all our other activities are harnessed.
Can I particularly say labour mobility is something that we have worked very hard, our Pacific neighbours are very keen to expand labour mobility. But this is not so much - yes of course working in Australia - but it’s the importance of the capacity building that it gives. Because once people have come to Australia, they’ve worked there for up to three years, their ability to then bring those skills back to their country and in turn, contribute to the economic and political stability of their country is very important.
That’s really what we’re giving; we’re giving the Pacific the opportunity for increased economic growth, increased stability which is good for the prosperity of the whole Pacific.
Prime Minister does Australia need to be much more ambitious with its emission cuts, given the palpable sense of concern among your Pacific neighbours about the threat of climate change?
We had some very good discussions about climate and about renewable technologies. They were very, very interested to hear about the big plans we have for pumped hydro and for storage that supports renewables and I think we will be doing quite a bit of collaborative work together.
One of the other nations there have got ambitions in that regard as well. So it was a very good discussion about climate in a very practical way.
As you know, unlike Blackout Bill who has no plan to keep the lights on, my approach to energy is focussed on engineering and economics. The leaders around the table appreciated that.
As to the level of the emission cuts that we’ve agreed to, they are high. It is a high ambition that we’ve set in the Paris Agreement. On a per capita basis it’s one of the highest cuts in the OECD.
So we’re very comfortable about the level that we’ve set. Again as I’ve said, it’s a reasonable one, it’s comparable to other countries and in fact on a per capita basis - which is really the only relevant comparison - it is one of the highest in the OECD.
Is that enough to bridge the gap then, because one of your fellow leaders just put you on notice to treat climate change as a real and pressing security issue.
Well if you’re living at sea-level, rising sea levels are a security issue. Yes, we understand that very keenly, I can assure you.
Did any of the nations in the room express any disquiet about Australia’s action or inaction?
No. On the contrary, they appreciated the work that we’re doing and very much appreciated the discussion we had about technology and the way in which we can provide assistance. In fact, I'm going to arrange for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which has now a lot of expertise in renewable technologies and in storage that can provide the backup because whether it is in Australia or in the Pacific, the wind doesn't blow all the time and the sun doesn't shine all the time, so how do you back it up? We have a plan for that. Old Blackout Bill has no plan for that or anything else on energy. They're very interested in the very practical, thoughtful approaches we have to technology. I look forward to more cooperation and assistance.
MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC:
Can I just add to that? I mean at the last Pacific Islands Forum meeting, Prime Minister, you announced that we would be increasing our investment in particular on climate change to $300 million over four years.
We are seeing in our practical day-to-day work that we do in the Pacific, the implementation of that at those very practical things, the water tanks, the sea-surges and dealing with the sea walls. All those practical things that are vitally important in the Pacific.
We've also, as co-chair of the Green Climate Fund we have worked very hard to ensure that our Pacific neighbours have access, that important green climate funding which is about 11 per cent has gone to our Pacific neighbours.
So in very practical ways we are adding and doing those day-to-day things that are vitally important for the lives of Pacific Islanders.
On the labour agreement Prime Minister what issues were raised with you? We just heard from the Leader of Tuvalu who said that it needs to work both ways. My assumption is that there is a concern that those people who go to Australia will perhaps remain and those skills will be taken out of these smaller island nations and not be brought back.
Well Connie can add to this, but the basis of the plan is they do go back. So they're on a temporary visa and of course, they acquire skills in Australia and they come back and then can apply them in their own country.
MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC:
Yes look, this scheme has been worked out very carefully with our Pacific neighbours. We've workshopped it. The object is to both ‘top and tail’ so there will be work that we will be doing in country, work that will be done in terms of pastoral care and other things that we will do in Australia.
The object of this is - yes, of course, coming to Australia - but the important thing about the labour mobility scheme are the skills that are required by people to then come back to their country and use those skills to contribute to the economic wellbeing of their country.
That's part of the reason why we're extending it for up to three years, so there's a solid experience that's gained and capacity building. That's really the focus of what this scheme is about; the capacity building to then bring those skills back to the Pacific.
I think it's important to remember too that these island nations are nations of seafarers. Part of their culture is people going out and then coming back. Going out far afield and coming back again.
You know, you'll see here in Samoa so many of the leading business people are Samoans who have gone overseas, worked overseas and then come back here with their skills. So it's a very important part of their economy, as you raised a moment ago, that the people go out to a country like Australia, acquire new skills and experience and perhaps acquire some capital and then come back here and put it to work.
Mr Turnbull, there's reports...
Hang on, just one at a time, please.
Who will be financially supporting refugees who come off Manus Island when it closes in October? As Prime Minister O’Neil has told us that PNG will be doing that?
Well we're continuing to have discussions with the PNG government. As you know, we also have arrangements with the United States, so we're looking forward to a number of those asylum seekers being resettled in the US.
Also you know, we encourage, particularly those that have been found not to have refugee status, we continue to encourage them to return to their country of origin.
Prime Minister, there are reports that people have sold their same-sex marriage surveys on eBay and reports of a scuffle in Brisbane last night between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigners. Is that part of the civil debate and discussion you were envisaging?
Well I encourage all Australians to engage in this debate, as we do in all debates, respectfully. You cannot expect your side of the argument to be respected unless you respect the other side of the argument and the people that put it. There always will be isolated case of people saying unpleasant things in any debate. No criticism intended, but the media does tend to amplify those isolated cases. The vast majority of Australians, the vast majority are respectful and will conduct this debate and form their own views in a very considered and respectful manner.
I encourage all Australians to have their say. As you know, Lucy and I will be voting ‘yes’, but we respect those many Australians who will vote no. So we respect each other’s views, it is that mutual respect which is the foundation of our very successful – I would say the most successful – multicultural society in the world. In the midst of our diversity, is our great strength.
So you’re saying you wouldn’t intervene at any level, whether it - no matter how wild this debate gets, brawls on the streets, Chinese pamphlets being sent out to people with awful things on them?
I’m not saying that all. I’m not saying that all, you’re putting words in my mouth. So, what is your question?
No, I’m just asking you. So, at no level you would intervene? You don’t see any case for -
Look, if people break the law – you’ve talked about a scuffle in Brisbane – I would imagine that sort of behaviour likely involved a number of breaches of the Queensland Crimes Act. If people are assaulting others, pushing and shoving, those are very basic offences under the criminal law. But I’m only going on what the reports are. We have a set of laws, the rule of law in Australia, which is designed to ensure and protect that mutual respect and that civility and of course the safety of the person in our daily lives.
What bar would you like to see set for safeguard legislation? Would you like to see it comparable at least to that which runs in an election campaign, or perhaps higher, ahead of this postal survey?
Well I think it’s important to step back and look at the history of this. We proposed a compulsory attendance plebiscite and Connie of course is a Senator; she remembers very well how vehemently Labor and the Greens fought against it. They could have had that legislation passed and it would have had all of the protections and procedures from the Electoral Act, so that would apply in a referendum or a Parliamentary election.
About a month ago I think, Senator Cormann the Acting Special Minister of State and of course the Finance Minister, offered Labor to incorporate those provisions for the postal survey. The Labor Party didn’t want to cooperate. They didn’t want to do anything until they had exhausted their last avenue to stop Australians having their say.
It’s only now that the High Court has ruled 7-0 in favour of the Government’s postal survey, that the Labor Party now wants to talk. Now, we are, Senator Cormann is handling those discussions but as a matter of principle, of course we would be happy to incorporate the normal Electoral Act provisions insofar as they’re applicable, to apply to this postal survey.
Prime Minister on energy if I may, have you spoken yet with Delta Electricity about the Liddell power station?
I have spoken to them in the past, I haven’t spoken to them recently. But I know that they’ve certainly indicated they would have a look at it, they’d be interested if Liddell was available. I imagine others would too.
Let me be very clear about this, the sheer confusion and muddle-headed approach of Blackout Bill and his environment spokesman, the Member for Port Adelaide, between them, so confused. They are against Liddell staying open, then they’re for it.
They say they’re standing up for workers’ jobs, then they want to close down coal-fired power stations right around the country.
They say they’re in favour of affordable and reliable electricity but they’re not prepared to do anything to secure it.
Blackout Bill is completely and utterly, he is like a rabbit caught in the spotlights. He does not know what to do.
Now I’ll tell you, it’s actually pretty straightforward. We are in a situation where we’ve had a huge amount of renewable energy has come into the system but it doesn’t run 24 hours a day. It only works when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. We understand that. We’ve seen dispatchable power, like baseload power, go out. We’ve been told by AEMO that there is a shortage. They’re addressing that in the near term and in 2022, if the Liddell power station closes as its owners say it will, then we will have a large shortage of dispatchable power.
Now I’m not a person that’s inclined to just wait until the last minute and operate on hope, or say like Blackout Bill does, “Oh that’s something we can deal with in 2022”. We’ve got to focus on that now.
That’s why I asked AEMO to do the work, because my approach to energy and energy security is based on engineering and economics. So now we know we’ve got a gap is dispatchable power coming down the track, a large one. So how are we going to address it? One obvious solution is to keep Liddell going for a number of additional years, say up to five years. We’re having discussions with the owners about that. They say they don’t want to own it after 2022, well, that’s fine. They’ve also indicated they would be prepared to sell it to a responsible party. That’s one option, there will no doubt be others.
But Australians should be assured that I am focused on keeping the lights on, making sure energy is reliable and available and that it’s affordable.
Look at what we’ve done with gas. The price of gas has come down since we announced our tough measures, foreshadowed our tough measures on exports. Look at the people who are paying less on their electricity bills because thanks to the leadership of my Government, Josh Frydenberg and I brought in the heads of the energy companies and we said you’ve got to get in touch with people who are not on the right scheme and encourage them to do so. Already, we’ve seen so many cases of people getting $300, $400, $500, $600-a-year savings. That and so many other measures.
Of course in the longer term, you’ve got Snowy Hydro 2.0 which will provide the biggest battery in the Southern Hemisphere and actually as it scales up to 4,000 megawatts, it’d be the biggest pumped hydro scheme in the world.
So whether it is in the right now, your bill now, next quarter’s bill, we’re acting on that. We’re dealing with gas. We’re dealing with the dispatchable generation gap in 2022. Longer term, we’ve got Snowy Hydro 2.0. Engineering and economics, that’s my approach.
Blackout Bill has no plan. Blackout Bill has no plan to keep the lights on and no plan to help Australian families for the power that they need.
Thanks a lot.