Radio Interview - ABC Radio National Breakfast

13 Jul 2022
Prime Minister
Pacific Islands Forum; US and Australia reengaging in the Pacific; Climate Action; Relationship with China; COVID response

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The US has confirmed a dramatic pivot back towards Australia's neighbourhood, boosting support for Pacific nations in a bid to counter China's growing influence. Vice-President Kamala Harris will address the Pacific Islands Forum today, after Washington announced two new embassies would open and hundreds of millions of dollars of support would start to flow. Our Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will be among the leaders gathering for the summit. He's just moments away from wheels up on route to Suva and he joins you now. Prime Minister, welcome back to breakfast.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Patricia. Thanks for having me on the program.

KARVELAS: You fly into a meeting with a group of leaders being pulled in opposite directions by Washington and Beijing. What will your message be to those Pacific leaders today?

PRIME MINISTER: My message will be that Australia is back reengaged with the Pacific, that we have a suite of measures of support for maritime security and protecting their fishing stocks, through to action on climate change and infrastructure, our $525 million additional development assistance. As well as of course, our position on climate change is something that's really an entree to get through the door of credibility with our Pacific Island neighbours because for them, it's a threat to their very existence.

KARVELAS: Interesting language you use, an entree to get through the door. So it's just the beginning, right? Because they want more ambition?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's real engagement with them. And I've already had discussions with a range of our Pacific neighbours on the phone. Today, I'll be having meetings with Prime Minister Sogovare of the Solomons, with my friend Frank, who I've got to know quite well, the Prime Minister of Fiji, who's hosting the summit and other Pacific leaders and it will be an opportunity to have one-on-one, face-to-face discussions, which is so important to build those relationships. The truth is that the Pacific Islands Forum hasn't met for three years, but when it did last meet, there was real conflict between Australia's position and our Pacific Island neighbours because of the former government's intransigence when it came to climate change. It's a new era, and it's a new era of cooperation. And one of my messages will be that our support for the Pacific doesn't come with strings attached. We welcome the United States stepping up as well with increased support, increased diplomatic presence, increased infrastructure, investment, and of course, the Biden administration's position on climate change, which is very consistent and cooperative with where we've been headed. This is something I discussed with President Biden, at the Quad Leaders’ Summit and again at Madrid and I welcome the United States reengaging in a much stronger way in our Pacific neighbourhood.

KARVELAS: How long has this announcement been in the works, the US announcement, did Australia ask the United States to make this new investment? Was that sort of the substance of those talks at the Quad?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've been talking at the Quad about increased economic engagement, we announced an economic engagement for the Pacific, which Australia, the United States, Japan and India are all a part of. We discussed at that forum the need to reengage with the Pacific, we do have an era of strategic competition within the region. We saw that with the agreement earlier this year between the Solomons and China, and we want to make sure that our Pacific Island friends understand that we want to remain the security partner of choice and also we want to engage with them. We have a common interest. And it was also part of the discussion that I had with Prime Minister Ardern just last week.

KARVELAS: US Vice-President Kamala Harris will address the leaders today virtually, but no Chinese representative will be given the same chance. Is that a blow for Beijing?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's a decision that the Pacific Island Forum have made. The United States has had a long term presence in the Pacific of course. It has the Hawaiian Island, an important part of the Pacific, but it also has that long term engagement particularly in the post-war period. It was the United States that during World War Two really stepped up in the Pacific and it's what our alliance came from, arose from with the Curtin Government really. And it's important that Kamala Harris is making this address today to the Pacific Island Forum. I think it's a very positive step. And it is confirmation that there are practical measures arising from what President Biden has said, which is that he wants to reengage in the Indo-Pacific in a much stronger way. We saw over the previous administration, a bit of a withdrawal from international affairs. It is a good thing that the United States is more engaged and it's a good thing that we are cooperating, like-minded countries Australia, the United States, New Zealand, with our Pacific neighbours. And I believe the address today is just a practical example of that.

KARVELAS: So when we talk about China, Beijing versus Washington in terms of influence in the Pacific, and at the same time, we know that climate change is an acute risk for the region and an acute issue for the leaders. Will you be pointing out in your meetings that in fact, that China is an issue when it comes to climate change and its commitments on reducing emissions, that that there is a sort of inherent contradiction in the growing relationship we're seeing with China?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, for countries, which are low-lying islands, it is a threat to their very existence, and they are very conscious of it. It's a number one issue and what I'll be doing is emphasising Australia's new position, we've already submitted our nationally determined contribution change to 43% by 2030, reduction on 2005 levels, our position of reducing emissions by moving to 82% renewables as part of the national energy market by the end of this decade. But also, our actions globally. We have funding, whether it was the $200 million we announced for Indonesia, or the climate change infrastructure partnerships that we want to have in the Pacific. And the other measure that I believe will be very well received is our bid to host a United Nations Conference of the Parties on climate change, in partnership with the Pacific. I can't think of anywhere that would be more important to host a climate change global conference, than in the Pacific, and we have a bid to do so by 2024. It's part of our election commitment, and it's just a practical example of how we want to work in partnership with our Pacific Island neighbours.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong met with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi last week, she confirmed she raised the issue of Chinese sanctions on Australian goods. Has anything changed since that meeting?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there hasn't been any immediate change. And that's why Penny Wong said very clearly that this was just a step forward. That change would be slow. But Australia will continue to assert our national interests, which are that these sanctions should be removed. There is no reason why Australia that has a free trade agreement with China should be the subject of trade sanctions on a range of goods, barley meat, coal, iron ore, a range of our goods, have been the subject of not allowing open markets to operate, and that's placing pressure on those businesses. And China needs to acknowledge that there's no justification for this and remove it. I want to see more cooperation between Australia and China. I want us to cooperate wherever we can. But we will stand up for Australia's national interest when we must.

KARVELAS: The Global Times has reported that your administration showed its intention to ease the China-Australia ties but the landmine use of bilateral relations has not been eliminated. And the normal bilateral exchanges can't be established on top of minefields. Have you established minefields?

PRIME MINISTER: No, what we've done is put forward our position, honestly, clearly, and we'll continue to do so. There's no ambiguity about our position and we'll continue to raise human rights issues, that Australians have been detained unfairly in China. We'll continue to raise those issues, we'll continue to raise the economic sanctions that are being held against Australian business. They are costing jobs in Australia and costing economic growth, but they're also hurting China. Australian produce like meat and wine and seafood is the best in the world. And what they should be doing is welcoming that trade rather than having these ongoing sanctions against it.

KARVELAS: Look just returning to the Pacific Islands Forum. You're about to fly there at seven I understand on your way to Fiji Kiribati has withdrawn from the forum. Have you tried to reach out to their President to convince him to change his mind?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we have reached out as we've reached out to all of our Pacific Island friends. This is a complicated issue. It's around the status of Micronesia nations as part of the Pacific Island Forum. Prime Minister Bainimarama put together a Suva agreement to try to make sure that the 15 nations of the Pacific Island Forum held together in a constructive way. And that was successful largely in removing some of the discontent that had been there and the tensions that were there. Kiribati, that has not been as successful for, but we'll continue to reach out and continue to engage. And I'm very hopeful that we can bring Kiribati back on board because it is in their interests like it's in the interests of all the nations of the Pacific Island Forum, to have cooperation and to have a vehicle whereby we can have the dialogue and get the cooperation that is needed to advance the interests of the whole region.

KARVELAS: And do you think that you can get him there for this meeting or is it now not possible for this particular meeting?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we will see what happens, I'm hopeful. Of course, the fact that he is not there, the Forum has begun its processes. Penny Wong has been in charge representing Australia and I'll be arriving today and we'll be doing a tag team with Penny returning to Australia, and Pat Conroy, who has particular responsibility for the Pacific will remain there with me over today and tomorrow.

KARVELAS: This meeting with the Solomons leader will be pretty key given what's emerged really out of the Solomons and then the security deal with China. What do you hope to get out of this meeting this face-to-face meeting with the Solomons, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Building a relationship. It's as simple as that. Relationship building is so important, and it's absolutely critical for our friends in the Pacific that we have leaders who are able to have dialogue. I've had a couple of conversations with Prime Minister Sogavare. He is fully aware of the position that Australia holds. Penny Wong has visited the Solomons and I look forward to constructive discussion with him today.

KARVELAS: Pacific leaders have indicated that Australia will need to lift its 2030 emissions reduction commitment if it wants to host a PIF meeting. What was your response to that be?

PRIME MINISTER: We have a mandate for our position, it is one that has the potential to end the climate wars. It's one where when we submitted the increased contribution, the nationally determined contribution, to the UNCCC, at that signing ceremony we had not just the Business Council of Australia and the ACTU, but we had the Australian Industry Group, the National Farmers Federation, the Australian Conservation Foundation, as well as the Clean Energy Council. This is a floor, not a ceiling. It's an opportunity to end the climate wars that have hindered action for more than a decade. Now, we need to seize that opportunity. And we intend, my government intends, to do just that. Work with business to provide that investment certainty that they need to make sure that we can stabilise the grid, to make sure that we have the sort of measures that are a part of our Powering Australia Plan, including fixing transmission. This is an exciting opportunity to seize the growth opportunities and seize the jobs that will be created, some 604,000 new jobs, as a direct result of this policy over this decade.

KARVELAS: Prime Minister just briefly, it's a really, really key question here around the growth of these COVID numbers and the next wave which we're facing. Pharmacists and GP groups have both condemned the decision to end access to free home testing kits for seniors and concession card holders. Why do this now when vulnerable people are about to get sicker than ever in terms of numbers because of this spike?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, to be very clear, my government has not made this decision, this is a decision that was inherited from the former government and state governments.

KARVELAS: But you kept the decision.

PRIME MINISTER: And state governments which made that decision. Well, we inherited a range of positions from the former government and we also inherited a trillion dollars of debt. And I'd encourage concession cardholders to go and get the 10 free rapid antigen tests that they're eligible for by the end of this month. There's still a lot of time to go and do that. We of course, on top of that, there are free rapid ends and tests available in aged care facilities, across a range of areas as well in addition to that.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Patricia.