'I think the key thing is to build a relationship based on mutual respect. It can't be a transactional relationship where our interest waxes and wanes. A deeply respectful relationship is key'
NOOSA – Richard Marles is now Australia’s deputy prime minister and defence minister.
When I met him about 10 years ago, he was the Labor government’s parliamentary secretary for Pacific Islands affairs and I was unimpressed.
There seemed to be no real conviction about how the relationship with Papua New Guinea was being managed.
I guess I’m hard to please but it seemed to me that, while there was plenty of money flowing, the strong high level personal relationships that were the legacy of Whitlam, Peacock and Hawke had been allowed to lapse.
Anyway since the Marles’ days, Australia’s gone through quite a few ministers responsible for PNG and the Pacific Islands and I can’t think of one who has made a mark or left a positive legacy.
Certainly the previous minister, the Coalition’s hapless Zed Seselja, rose and sank without a trace.
A futile flight he made to Honiara as Australia’s general election loomed showed him able to do anything about the Solomons’ deal with China.
A few days later the voters of Canberra removed him as a senator.
Now Australia has a new government and a new minister for the Pacific.
This is Pat Conroy MP, also multitasked as minister for defence industry and minister for international development.
Patrick Martin Conroy, 43, (Twitter @PatConroy1) joined the Labor Party at age 15 and belongs to the Left faction.
He’s been the member for Shortland in NSW since 2013 and was shadow minister for international development and the Pacific when Labor was in Opposition.
Conroy studied economics at Sydney University and was a union organiser before embarking on a career in politics.
He lives at Lake Macquarie with wife Keara and their two children, and says he enjoys cooking and watching rugby league – which gives him an immediate connection with hundreds of thousands of people in Papua New Guinea.
Another reason Papua New Guineans may take to Conroy is that he is sympathetic to solving one of the sharpest thorns in the PNG-Australia relationship.
“It’s very difficult for [Papua New Guineans] to travel to Australia or even settle in this country,” he said recently.
“If we’re not doing everything we can to be a good partner in a relationship that helps both countries, [Papua New Guineans] are going to turn to other countries,” he said in an earlier interview.
“It is manifestly against our national interest to have someone else becoming the partner of choice for PNG, and these things will happen unless we get much more active.”
“I think the most important thing that improves the relationship between the [Australian] government and PNG… is a view that Australia doesn't treat PNG with respect,” Conroy said in another interview in Cairns.
“I think the key thing is to build a relationship on mutual respect. It can't be a transactional relationship where we come in and out and our interest waxes and wanes.
Conroy also impresses with his grasp of other issues of importance to PNG:
On a respectful relationship with PNG. “Having an enduring presence, having a constant commitment to a relationship with PNG - whether that's through sporting links through rugby league, soccer or whether it’s a deep commitment to solving climate change which is obviously in the interests of PNG and Australia… A deeply respectful relationship is a key basis going forward.
On a Chinese fishery in Daru. “We’ve got real questions about [China in Daru] even if this is purely about fishing. What happens to a fishery resource that’s shared with Australia… when a trawler comes in – it might have Papua New Guinean crew but it might be Chinese owned – and the fish might be going back to China. That’s another problem.”
On doing business with China. If a resource is depleted, what obligations do the Papua New Guinean government have to the Chinese company and the government of China to make good on any commitment? We saw, for example, where the Sri Lankan Government couldn’t repay a loan to the Chinese government and, to pay off that debt, they ended up leasing a naval base for 99 years to China. So there are huge questions here.”
On defence relationships with Australia. “There are great opportunities here. Obviously there is a commitment to four offshore patrol vessels to be based there [in PNG]. You have got the current customs vessels but we really need to look at greater opportunities: whether rotating more naval ships through as part of the deployment or whether putting in place more hard infrastructure.”
On the challenge of health issues. “[PNG is] a neighbour where we are very focused on making sure that we're their partner of choice. There are some real security concerns that we need to be conscious of, for example there have been significant outbreaks of antibiotic [multi-drug] resistant tuberculosis and drug resistant HIV in areas very close to Far North Queensland. So it’s our direct self-interest to make sure we support PNG through these challenges.”
On sports diplomacy and Cairns. I am a big fan of rugby league diplomacy. I spoke at a reception for the PNG Kumuls team and the Orchids team when they were over for the Pacific Cup. Rugby league... is a great opportunity. One of my great sporting heroes is Adrian Lam, the greatest Kumul ever. I think there are strong arguments to deepen that rugby league relationship between PNG with Cairns as it natural base.