NationalNews

Penny Wong promises ‘new Australia’ to Pacific allies

Newly minted Foreign Minister Penny Wong has delivered her first address in the office, with a keynote speech at the Pacific Islands Forum.

Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna noted it was Wong's first bilateral visit just four days into the job.

"Your visit to Fiji, indeed, your first bilateral visit, represents a very strong shift in Australia's regional outlook," Puna said.

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He said the forum welcomed the Labor government's pledges to act on climate change and to adopt the Uluru Statement From The Heart.

Wong said the "new Australian government" signalled a "new Australia" that would work cooperatively and in partnership with Pacific nations – particularly on climate change.

"I know the imperative we all share to take serious action to reduce emissions and transform our economies," she said.

"Nothing is more central to the security and economies of the Pacific."

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Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2019.

She threw a jab out at previous Coalition governments, saying Australia had "neglected its responsibility".

"But whether it manifests in rising sea levels, or in disastrous bushfires and catastrophic flooding, climate change is happening across the Pacific family," she said.

Wong also took the opportunity to lay out the advantages of Australia as a strategic partner in the Pacific, even as China embarks on a diplomatic blitz in the region.

"We understand the security of any one Pacific family member rests on the security of all, and we have a collective responsibility as we face these challenges to secure our region's interest today and in the future," she said.

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"And as Australia's foreign minister, I commit to working with you and to listening to you.

"We will remain a critical development partner for the Pacific family in the years ahead.

"And Australia will be a partner that doesn't come with strings attached.

"Nor imposing unsustainable financial burdens. We're a partner that won't erode Pacific priorities or Pacific institutions."

Wong said the government would provide increased support and more work opportunities for Pacific Island people.

In the following question-and-answer session, Wong was forced to confront "the China question" directly, with Fiji media asking how Australia would work to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific, and how it might "discourage" Pacific nations from joining Beijing.

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The Foreign Minister worked carefully to strike a restrained tone – but didn't give away much on specifics.

"I don't approach the discussion about China and China's activities by looking at the Pacific as if it is abstract from Australia," she said.

"I look at this and think of what it is we need to do to work together, to ensure that regional security is fostered and supported by the region."

"Ultimately, Pacific Island nations will make their choices about what agreements, what partnerships they engage in.

"What we would urge, as Australia, is consideration of where a nation might be in three or five or 10 years."

On China's criticism of Australia's climate change policy, Wong said it was true Australia exported "a lot" of coal to China.

But she said the world economy was going through a transition to clean energy, and Australia would too.

"I hope you get to ask as many questions of the (Chinese) foreign minister as you get to ask me," she said, prompting a rumble of laughter.

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