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Transcript of interview: ABC Radio National: 4 September 2018: Pacific Island forums

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SUBJECTS: Pacific Islands Forum

HOST: Richard Marles is the Shadow Minister for Defence and was the

Parliamentary Secretary for the Pacific in the Rudd Government and joins us now.

Richard Marles, welcome.


Patricia. How are you?

HOST: I'm good. China's growing influence in the Pacific has very much been the

backdrop to this meeting. Is this a good time to be reassessing security?

MARLES: Well, I think it's core business for the Pacific Islands Forum to be

thinking about regional security, so I think it's completely routine, in a sense, or

natural, in a sense, that the Pacific would be thinking about this.

From an Australian point of view, it's important that we should be using the

opportunity of the Pacific Islands Forum to make clear our commitment and our

intent to support and help the countries of the Pacific, and in that sense earn the

right to be the natural partner of choice for the Pacific. That's why actually this

Pacific Islands Forum is so important, I think, in terms of the moment in time in

which it comes.

But it also means the decision by our Prime Minister not to attend - this is a leaders

meeting, so the leaders of all these countries will be there and traditionally but for

very exceptional circumstances Australian Prime Ministers have gone - I think the

failure of Scott Morrison to go to the Pacific Islands Forum says anything about the

lack of commitment that he's showing to the region.

HOST: Well, we have exceptional circumstances, don't we?

MARLES: Why? I don't think so. I think that it's critically important that for a new

prime minister coming into the chair that he is demonstrating to the region how

significant it is. The Pacific should be central in terms of our world view, both in

terms of our foreign policy but also obviously our sense of national security. I think

given the way you introduced this segment means that it is completely apposite at

this moment in time for the Prime Minister of Australia to be attending a Pacific

Islands Forum.

HOST: Forum leaders want the agreement updated to reflect changing concepts of

threats to security. That’s basically China, isn't it?

MARLES: Well, I doubt that it's seen solely in terms of that. I think there are-

HOST: -Solely, but it's pretty much the main issue here, isn't it?

MARLES: Well I'm not sure that that would be right, in terms of the way in which

regional security is defined by the Pacific Islands Forum. I think what countries of

the Pacific want to know is that their security is assured in general terms, and it's in

that context that Australia needs to be making sure that we are the partner of

choice. It's not something that we get by right. It's in a sense a privilege that we

need to earn and we earn that by demonstrating that we actually care about the

Pacific and we see it as front and centre in terms of our strategic policy, and one of

the principal ways in which we demonstrate that is by our leaders attending a

leaders meeting.

HOST: Do you expect the terms of the agreement to change significantly?

MARLES: Oh look, I don't think it will change significantly, but you know, regional

security has been an ongoing discussion, one which Australia and New Zealand

has been very central to in the Pacific, so I don't expect radical change there, but I

do come back to the point that being the partner of choice is something that is not

a right that we have. It's a privilege that we earn and we do that by demonstrating

our commitment.

HOST: If you're just tuning in, Richard Marles, the Shadow Defence Minister, is my

guest and this is RN Drive. Our number, if you want to get texting, is 0-4-1-8-2-2-6-5-7-6, and of course we are talking about the Pacific Islands Forum.

The United States is one of the signatories to the agreement and a member of the

forum, but the President, Donald Trump, isn't going. Are you concerned about what

message that sends regionally?

MARLES: Well, the United States has participated in post-forum dialogues. It's not

actually a member of the Pacific Islands Forum. It is a critical partner, though, of

course, in terms of regional security, but to be fair a US President I don't think has

ever attended the Pacific Islands Forum. Back in 2012 we had the US Secretary of

State, Hillary Clinton, attend the Pacific Islands Forum and that was a very

significant moment in the history of the forum, but I think American engagement,

and they were always represented at some level in the Pacific Islands Forum post-forum dialogue, I think it's really important that America continues to play a role

and that we seek to engage America as a partner within the Pacific, but again, you

know, that requires our leadership and it's really important that we seek to

demonstrate that, but having our own leader not attend a Leaders Forum does not

demonstrate leadership.

HOST: Your colleague, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Peter- Peter! Goodness

gracious. Penny Wong!

I've obviously been spending too much time thinking about Peter Dutton in the last

two weeks. I think our audience might-

MARLES: -Can I say they're very, very different people.

HOST: They are, but when I see a ‘P’ there's only certain leaders I’ve I've been

talking about for a long time.

-has been critical of Australia's reduction in foreign aid spending in the Pacific. So,

given that critique, how much are you prepared to increase that by if you win


MARLES: Well it's not for me to say now a number that we will increase it by, but

Penny is absolutely correct in making that criticism-

HOST: -Can we expect a significant uptick in spending here, given the kind of

rhetoric you've been using over the last few years in relation to foreign aid?

MARLES: I think what you can absolutely expect is both a greater commitment to

development assistance generally and a greater commitment in the Pacific. Now,

you know, the precise measure of that I’m hardly going to say right now, but we are

absolutely committed to that, and one thing where, you know, we've been very

critical of the way in which the Government has gone about this.

It's important both in terms of what you end up not spending money on if you cut it,

but also the message you send. This is what concerns me, because the consistent

message when you're looking at cutting overseas aid, when you're looking at what

the Government says in respect of climate change and the utter failure of

leadership to tell the story, the Pacific story, in respect of climate change, countries

like Kiribati and Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, which are really on the front line

of climate change, failing to tell that story, and then, you know, the very first act in

respect of the Pacific of the new Prime Minister is to not attend the Leaders

Meeting: this is not a good start.

You know, at this moment in time, when the Government is trying to say that it has

a priority on the Pacific, I think we hear the words. We do not see the actions.

HOST: You've no doubt seen the reports that TVNZ’s Pacific correspondent was

detained after she tried to interview a refugee. Her accreditation to cover the forum

has been revoked. Are you concerned by this?

MARLES: Obviously it would be far better, I think, if there was able to have a free

media covering - indeed, operating - in the countries of the Pacific, and I would

have much preferred that Nauru ultimately allow media into their country and allow

it to operate in the way free medias operate. Ultimately this is a matter for Nauru-

HOST: -But good friends give each other advice when something like this

happens, don’t they?

MARLES: Sure, and this point has been made, and indeed I think the

Government's made it. Certainly, Senator Wong has made this point in her public


I also do understand, though, the sensitivity that a number of countries in the

Pacific, including Nauru, have about the way they are covered in the Australian

media, and I’m now not talking about the asylum seeker situation in Nauru but

more generally. You know, these are remarkable countries and Nauru is a

remarkable country with remarkable people who have great stories to tell but are

rarely told. I think of Sean Dorney, who was an ABC correspondent who is really

the exemplar of reporting from the Pacific and telling the stories of the Pacific in a

very empathetic way to the Australian public. We haven't seen enough of that in

recent times.

Now, to be fair, you know, the ABC has kept the flame alive here. It's been the one

media outlet which has maintained a correspondent in Port Moresby and Eric

Tlozek of late has done a great job in reporting from PNG, but I do get that

countries of the Pacific feel that their story is not being told in Australia and it

should be told more.

HOST: Why are the Chinese there as observers of the Pacific Islands Forum? I

mean, they're not members.

MARLES: Well, China has always attended the Pacific Islands Forum as an

observer, as have countries from around the world. It's actually a big regional

gathering and it highlights this point: we don't get the right to have an exclusive

relationship with the nations of the Pacific. They have every right to talk to

whichever countries they want, and I get that there is understandable pride and

desire to see countries of the world take an interest in them and attend the Pacific

Islands Forum. China has long done that. Throughout the time I was attending the

Pacific Islands Forum China was there.

It’s why it doesn't work to wave our finger at the Pacific and demand that not have

relationships with other countries. They're going to, and of course they can.

Actually what we need to be doing is demonstrating that the Pacific is core

business for us and to earn our right to be the natural partner of choice, if that's

what we want to be, and we absolutely should. Despite the rhetoric of the Coalition

Government they want to be that, it is simply rhetoric which is not being matched

by action.

HOST: Richard Marles, thank you so much for your time.

MARLES: Pleasure, Patricia.

HOST: And that's the Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles.



Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.