Australia Today with Steve Price – Sri Lanka, Ukraine, NATO




Subjects: Sri Lankan economic turmoil, NATO meeting in Spain

STEVE PRICE, HOST: A grim situation unfolding in Sri Lanka. We’ve had their Prime Minister saying the debt laden economy there has collapsed. They can’t even afford to purchase imported oil. Peter Khalil is the Labor Member for Wills, former national security advisor to Kevin Rudd. Good to catch up again Peter.

PETER KHALIL, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR WILLS: Good to catch up Steve, how are you?

PRICE: Good thanks. The new Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil is in Sri Lanka or has been this week, and your government has now provided 4,200 GPS trackers to Sri Lankan fishing fleets, that’s a clever idea.

KHALIL: It is, and the minister also announced $50 million in support for Sri Lanka in emergency food assistance, and fuel, and medicines because of the dire situation there. But with respect to the vessel monitoring systems that will go on 4,000 fishing vessels, there’s a two-fold purpose to that Steve. One is obviously to reduce illegal fishing, unregulated fishing, exploitation of their own fishing stocks in that respect, but also to monitor those fishing vessels to make sure they’re not for people smuggling, that they can be stopped from going out and doing that people smuggling and save lives.

PRICE: So, this is obviously in response, in part, to the rebirthing of the people smuggling businesses that we’ve had to deal with over a couple of decades out of both Indonesia and Sri Lanka, it would appear to me, Peter, that the difference here is that we have the cooperation at the moment anyway, of the Sri Lankan navy, whereas in the past, and back when your party was in government, the Indonesian navy weren’t quite as cooperative. It would appear, they seemed fairly happy to see people smuggling boats leave for Christmas Island. The Sri Lankan navy seems to be on board. The only issue being though, what I mentioned about their economy collapsing, you can imagine the demand for the positions on these boats has grown substantially.

KHALIL: Look, your assessment is correct. The Sri Lankan navy is closely cooperating with Australia. There’s a strong bilateral relation built there on our interests around regional stability. We have a shared history of cooperation with the Sri Lankans, and really strong links with the country over many decades. The real fear of course is what you alluded to, what you pointed, the economy is collapsing. And when that happens people flee out of hunger, out of fear, for all the reasons why people try and escape for a better life. And so that is certainly a push back, but given the circumstances, now that we do have close coordination with the Sri Lankan navy, I think there is a strong setting there where we can prevent people dying at sea. Already a couple of boats have been stopped, and with this monitoring system around the fishing vessels, it really ensures that the fishing vessels are being used for what they’re supposed to.

PRICE: I know Richard Marles is in India. I presume he would have at some point had a discussion with Indian counterparts about the situation in Sri Lanka because the Sri Lankan President said he relies on their allies India, Japan and China, and so I would imagine Richard Marles would be saying to the Indians, ‘listen we need to get in here and stop this country from collapsing and the last thing we really want is the Chinese in there’.

KHALIL: Yeah, and this is the element of this. It is in the common interest of all the partners in the region, Australia being one of them, Japan, and India to ensure that Sri Lanka doesn’t collapse. There has been a couple of meetings with the IMF looking at a potential bail out for Sri Lanka. There’s been a suspension of their debt payments, which is around $7 billion a year. They’re looking at their budget coming up and their trying to come up with a package to support Sri Lanka in this dire time, and that includes Japan, India, many other countries including Australia. When I say it’s in the common interests of our region, it’s obviously in the interests of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan people, but the more insatiability you have in the region, the more problems occur, not just people smuggling, but transnational crime, security issues, poverty, the whole lot, and we all want to make sure that doesn’t spread and get worse, and we need to support Sri Lanka in this time of need.

PRICE: You and I Pete, would know people who’ve been to Sri Lanka on holidays. It was a great tourist destination for Australians. It looks like this is going to be another victim of that two years of Covid when the borders were shut, and no one travelled. And it just shows you if you are dependent on international tourism as a smaller nation, you’re going to get harmed badly when those borders close.

KHALIL: Yeah, look I think that’s a big part, not the only element in Sri Lanka’s economic difficulties but certainly tourism was a big part of you know, their economy and that has collapsed during the Covid period. But there are other deeper structural problems in Sri Lanka. I’m no expert on it. There have been issues around the tax system and tax cuts that were quite populist and other things that occurred. So, there’s a real problem there with their tourism sector. We hope we can help rebuild that tourism sector because as you said many Australians have enjoyed travelling to Sri Lanka, it’s a beautiful country with so many wonderful places to see and things to do there and we need to support them in rebuilding that sector.

PRICE: With your knowledge, obviously NATO meet in Spain next week. We’re not a member of NATO but the Prime Minister, your Prime Minister, your boss, has announced that he will go along and be on the sidelines of that meeting. How important is that?

KHALIL: The meeting of NATO is of critical importance. Because in a sense, Steve, the world has shrunk in the sense that our European friends and partners have strong reason for engagement in the Indo Pacific, whether its France, Germany, whether it’s the UK, likewise we have strong reasons for our engagement with respect to Europe and what’s happening in Ukraine. All of us as democracies have to work together to ensure that we stand firm for Ukraine and this NATO meeting is very critically important with respect to the support that’s coming from NATO countries and NATO itself to the Ukrainian situation and the Russian aggression. But also, Australia has had a tradition or a history, in the previous Labor government we had a seat at the table, a very strong seat at the table if you like with respect to our engagement in Afghanistan. Although a non-NATO member we were the largest contributor in many respects and in the sense of Ukraine we’re also the largest non-NATO contributor in so far as support and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. So, I think its critically important that we’re engaged, that we work with the other democracies. And here’s the bit that’s really important and this is the crux of it, we can’t allow Russia’s aggression now to become a war of attrition that basically wears down the Ukrainians because we turn our attention away from support for Ukraine, the media cycle goes away and so on and so forth. That is what Putin is trying to do, he is basically bombing the crap out of cities in eastern Ukraine and killing civilians, and he’s basically trying to drain down Ukrainian supplies, military supplies, and other supplies so that he wins that war of attrition. The democracies of the world, including Australia, cannot allow that to happen, we need to provide strong support in Ukraine and we’re digging in for a long war here.

PRICE: Always a pleasure to catch up with you Peter. Thanks for your time.

KHALIL: Pleasure, Steve.