Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

Greg Jennett
Pacific Islands Forum; Indo-Pacific; US engagement in the Pacific; Australia-China relations; Security of Australian parliamentarians; Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe

Greg Jennett, Host: Why don’t we check in, though, now, with our political panel, and joining us today Labor front bencher, Tim Ayres, is with us from Sydney, and Nationals MP Darren Chester is back, he’s coming to us today from Lakes Entrance. Beautiful Lakes Entrance. Welcome to both. 

Why don’t we start overseas. We’ve been talking about international affairs in our region. And, Tim Ayres, of course Anthony Albanese’s had a lot of diplomatic talks since he became Prime Minister. This is probably his most important, would you agree? So much hangs in the balance around the Pacific Islands Forum, you know, with Solomon Islands but also this looming presence of China. Are you impressed by this kind of combined effort that’s come together evidently from the United States and now Australia on the eve of the PIF? 

Senator Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Well, g’day, Greg. G’day, Darren. It’s certainly – well, I do think all of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister’s engagements overseas in what’s been a very fast-paced first six weeks of this government have all been important. It was important in this global environment for the Prime Minister to attend those talks in NATO, to send a clear message about Australia’s solidarity with Ukraine, to send a clear message that we’re for the rules-based global order. And it’s no less important, you’re right, that the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister are there at the Pacific Islands Forum. 

It’s really clear that the regions really welcome this renewed focus on engagement, that there’s been a really strong, positive response. And you can see from the response to the engagement of the United States in the region as well that that is also welcome. 

I mean, the truth here is we’ve had a decade of complacency and sloganeering. There is a lot of hard work to do, to follow through. So this meeting is really important. But it’s all the work that follows it that’s going to deliver for Australia and for the region. You know, all the capability-building work, all of the co-investments, all of the work together that we’re going to need to do in the region to make it safe and secure and to build prosperity across the region. 

Greg Jennett: Now, sure, there has to be a lot of follow-through. Darren Chester, you’ve watched these things for a long time. What do you think we’re seeing in the messaging both from Washington but also from the Albanese government? A dawning realisation that there had been some dropping of the ball here? I’m particularly interested, I suppose, in that admission almost virtually by Kamala Harris herself. 

Darren Chester MP: Well – g’day, Greg, g’day, Tim. Look, I simply reject the suggestion that there’s been any dropping of the ball by the Australian government in relation to our Pacific Island friends. I mean, you look at the last budget of 2020-21, $1.4 billion to Pacific Island nations from the Australian government. And I really am quite uncomfortable with this commentary that seems to be taking hold in Australia of talking Australia down, talking us down amongst our neighbours when foreign affairs should really be above domestic politics. It should be all about what we can do with our near neighbours to support them in their development goals. 

I know from my experience here during the Black Summer bushfires when we had members of the Fijian army, the Bula Force, come here to Gippsland and help us out. They were very keen to support their friend here in Australia just as we’ve been the first on the ground during times of humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions right across the Pacific Island nations. And I simply reject any suggestion that Australia or Australians or their government has dropped the ball when it comes to the Pacific Islands. 

Greg Jennett: But, you know, it’s widely held, not only by the Albanese government but I think by some of the partners in the region, that they’re being received more warmly because of their climate ambitions. Yes, there have been bonds of friendship in the past, but there appeared to be some resentment around that, Darren. And also, around the perceived absence – 

Darren Chester: To be fair, Greg – come on, Greg, Greg. To suggest – to suggest this is about simply bonds of friendship is to really underplay what has been one of the deepest, most ongoing relationships between Australia and any foreign countries. When you think about Australia providing in the order of 60 per cent of the overseas development assistance to Pacific Island nations, we have been doing our share of the heavy lifting to support our Pacific Island friends. And I simply reject the suggestion that we haven’t been. 

Now, you know, Tim can say what he likes and the new Prime Minister can say what he likes. But Australians can be proud of the fact that their taxpayer dollars have gone to support things like reducing family violence in the Pacific Islands, economic security measures, humanitarian aid and disaster relief and working with our Pacific Island friends on a whole range of other programs to lift them out of poverty where it’s required and provide incredibly important support, whether it’s people to people or more social and economic links. 

Greg Jennett: All right. Tim, just to close out on this, do you accept any of that – that sometimes it’s a feature of Western democracies, we kind of tear ourselves apart in our domestic politics, but is there some validity to Darren’s suggestion that the fundamentals have actually always been right, even if maybe the messaging didn’t go across so well? 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: I think one of the things that I do agree with Darren about is that we’ve got to work hard to maintain, you know, agreement across the political system, that there shouldn’t be point-scoring about Australia’s approach to – approach to the world, our foreign policy and defence. 

It is true, however, that the new government’s position on climate and energy has been very warmly welcomed in the Pacific. I can tell you from my own experience as a backbencher – as an opposition backbencher over the course of the last three years that when I received delegations of church leaders and officials from all over the Pacific they had one message for us – and that was about climate change. And there was a sense of disappointment across the region on that issue. 

And I just make the point that that new focus, that fresh focus, that sense of confidence that we’re bringing to the region on climate and energy plus a renewed sense of vigour and commitment from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, from Pat Conroy the Minister for the Pacific is really warmly welcomed. 

And I can tell you that in my own experience as the Assistant Trade Minister when I’ve been engaging with our trading partners overseas at the WTO and more broadly that there is a very strong sense that Australia is back at the table and back in business and no longer, you know, at the back of the pack but at the table. And that means a lot in the region and it means a lot to our place in the world, and it means a lot in practical terms around issues like trade and security and development. 

Greg Jennett: All right. Let’s see how far that goes. Of course, China is not insignificant in a lot of these discussions that we’re having. 

Darren, over to you, this report by the ABC’s defence correspondent Andrew Greene has got some discussion going about a confrontation or at least an encounter, I think we can call it, between HMAS Parramatta apparently being stalked by the Peoples Liberation Army Navy around the East China Sea. Do you think we deserve, Darren, to know more about these encounters as and when they occur? 

Darren Chester: Well, I’ve no doubt – I’ve no reason to doubt the validity of the story that Andrew Greene has put to air. I’m not questioning that at all. But I don’t think the Defence Minister is in any position to do a running commentary on it. And he’s quite rightly indicated that for reasons of operational security and the safety of Australian men and women he can’t really comment on those claims. 

But what I would say, Greg, more broadly, the Australian Defence Force – in this case, the Navy – has every right to safely go about its business and safe passage through, you know, the oceans of the world. What concerns me is there’s more likely to be some incident at a future point resulting from a level of misadventure or miscalculation or a mistake being made than an actual act of aggression. So, we need to be very careful, and we need to make sure we’re working closely with our allies, our counterparts, if you like, in ensuring that we understand exactly what’s occurring in these, if you like, disputed areas and making sure there’s no miscalculation which escalates. 

It’s more likely to be an accident or a mistake than any act of aggression. So I think it’s really important that we try and de-escalate these situations wherever possible. At the same time, we’ve every right to be there. The Australian Navy is incredibly professional, incredibly well trained, incredibly capable, and they’re just doing their job. But I do respect the Defence Minister’s right to not to comment on the grounds of operational safety for Australian men and women. 

Greg Jennett: Yeah, that is an important concern. But, Tim, to the point about public transparency, there were some close shaves recently involving aircraft, or two aircraft in one case – Chinese-Australia – and in another an aircraft with a laser, you know, an Australian that was. We found out about those in fairly short order. Which way do you lean on these things, Tim? Should we get full disclosure when they happen or operational security first? 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Well, you’ll find Darren and I in furious agreement here, Greg. It is, of course, the Defence Minister’s comments this morning were exactly right. It is true that these kinds of journeys by Australian naval vessels are not just routine now but have been routine for decades. We’re certainly not the only country that undertakes those kind of journeys. Many countries are undertaking those kinds of journeys throughout the region every day of the week. And it is absolutely correct that for operational reasons, for security reasons that the Defence Minister wouldn’t offer a comment. 

On the broader question, well, of course, again, Darren’s right. It’s beholden upon everybody in the region to act carefully and cautiously and within the bounds of the law. And, you know, it’s very important that everybody does that. There are rules there for a reason. But these kinds of journeys are going to continue to happen from the Australian Navy. We have a professional, well-equipped navy with a high level of capability. They will continue to undertake their work. 

Greg Jennett: Yeah, miscalculation always a risk. Can I take you, Darren, to something that I know you’ve been thinking about in the wake of the shooting of Shinzo Abe in Japan, and that is actually MP security, elected officials’ security around the world. I don’t want to sound alarmist about this, Darren, but are the likes of yourselves here on this panel today at risk of similar attacks, do you think, vulnerable in Australia? 

Darren Chester: Well, I think, Greg, it’s important that we, first of all, express my personal sympathies to the people of Japan and to former Prime Minister Abe’s family. Obviously, a tragic event. But I think we need to coolly and calmly assess the risk here in Australia. And I do have some concerns that Members of Parliament can be quite vulnerable at times. We have done a lot of really important work in terms of upgrading security at Parliament House itself and electorate offices. But we do run the risk of members of parliament being exposed to threats from time to time. 

We’ve seen in the UK with Members of Parliament who have been tragically killed. We’ve had our own cases here in Australia where Members of Parliament have been assaulted. Quite minor assaults in comparison to those fatal attacks. But it does concern me. I’ve written to the Prime Minister personally to suggest that a review of security arrangements would be in order. And that’s not to panic anyone. That’s not to go, you know, to anything over the top here, just suggesting that, you know, it's probably time to have a good look at the current security arrangements for Members of Parliament and their staff and to make sure that we can seek to overcome any vulnerabilities. 

But notwithstanding the fact, Greg, that, overwhelmingly, as I go about my job, you know, whether I’ve been a minister or now as a backbencher, I’ve felt incredibly safe and respected by the Australian public, and one of the things we really cherish in Australia is that accessibility to our Members of Parliament – we do see them at the local school fete or the footy matches or, you know, down the pub having a beer with their families or mates. We want to keep that. But if there are vulnerabilities in the system, we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect people to keep them safe in their workplace. 

Greg Jennett: Yeah, no response, I take it, Darren, yet? That was a recent letter, was it? 

Darren Chester: No, it’s only a recent letter. And it’s just, I’ve offered to the Prime Minister, I’d be willing to help from my own experiences as a regional MP and as a former minister. And seeing some sort of cross-party inquiry just to look at, well, are there things we can do better, are there events occurring that aren’t being reported, are Members of Parliament being harassed in some way and not really necessarily following up and can we minimise the risk to them and their families and their staff. 

Greg Jennett: Yeah, fair enough. Tim, do you feel – well, two questions: one, do you feel vulnerable, but do you also think that it is timely that we have the relevant agencies take a look at these issues Darren’s raised? 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Well, firstly, like Greg, I want to express my condolences on the untimely and violent death of Shinzo Abe. It’s clearly been an enormous shock in Japan and around the world. And so, I do want to express my condolences, and everybody across the Australian Parliament has done that, and that’s a good thing and it reflects the deep friendship between Australia and Japan and the role that Shinzo Abe played in shaping that relationship. 

Greg Jennett: Yeah. 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: On the broader question, I’ve got a high level of confidence in the AFP and the role that they play, you know, giving security advice and providing security support. It’s such an important feature, isn’t it, of Australian democracy that our politicians can be at the football or in the supermarket, at the childcare centre, you know, accessible to people – you know, accessible to people everywhere. 

Greg Jennett: Yeah. 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: And we’ve got to fight hard to do that. You know, we’ll have a look at Darren’s suggestion, and there’s always more work that can be done. I mean, Darren has got – you know, has made some contributions in this area before that I think were important. I do recall in the last Parliament when some of the language that was coming from fringes of the government backbench, you know, became pretty violent itself – 

Greg Jennett: Raucous, yeah. 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: – Darren was one of the people who called out that behaviour. And we’ve got to watch, you know, we can’t allow ourselves to drift into an environment where we’re using violent language or associating with violent imagery or with extremist politics, particularly extremist right-wing politics; that was a feature of the conduct of some former Members of Parliament in the last Parliament in particular. That is a slippery slope that we’ve got to make sure in Australia that we don’t go down. That we conduct politics, conduct the parliamentary debate and the political debate in a way that’s focused on the interests of Australian people and is done in a democratic and civil and decent kind of way. 

Greg Jennett: Bit of eternal vigilance, I suppose, never goes astray there. Darren Chester, Tim Ayres, thank you so much for your thoughtful contributions this afternoon. We’ll talk to both of you again before too long.