SCOTT BEVAN: Australia provides hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Pacific, and the viability and value for money is the subject of a review which is now underway. The Parliamentary Secretary, Richard Marles, is embarking on a visit to several countries in the Pacific, which will be including Nauru, Kiribati, and Tuvalu. He'll be discussing a range of issues, especially economic development and environmental vulnerability.
The ABC’s political editor, Chris Uhlmann, caught up with Mr Marles and began by asking him whether the Australian aid dollar is being well spent.
RICHARD MARLES: The aid money that is being spent in the Pacific is doing fantastic work. We're seeing enrolment rates, for example, increase dramatically in places like Papua New Guinea and where the provision of health services in PNG and other parts of the Pacific are occurring through the aid project, Protecting Against Climate Change.
But it is right to be having a look at the budget. It’s a significant budget, it’s more than a billion dollars, it’s a quarter of our overall aid spend. We can always do this better, and I think having a proper examination of this so that we have an aid budget which works effectively from the point of view of our national interest but which is also seen as being effective from the point of view of the recipient countries is an important thing to do.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Half of that billion dollars a year that you're talking about goes to Papua New Guinea. Are we actually seeing progress in Papua New Guinea? We've spent a lot of money on that country since it was liberated from Australia – as Gough Whitlam would have said – back in the 1970s.
RICHARD MARLES: I think in terms of the aid spend, a lot of really good work has been done in PNG, as I mentioned, in education, in health particularly. So you can look at a range of indicators – primary school enrolments being one – where there is a significant increase as a direct result of our aid spend.
Papua New Guinea is obviously a very complex country and one that we need to work with very closely, and whilst aid is a significant part of our relationship with PNG, it goes well beyond that. And indeed, the proportion of the PNG revenues, which are provided by Australian aid, has been significantly, or consistently dropping since independence. I think it’s down to about 12 per cent now. There’s a lot of work which needs to be done in PNG obviously to address governance issues. But we're working closely with them and I actually think the state of our relationship with PNG is as good as it’s been.
CHRIS UHLMANN: When you look at other countries, the Solomon Islands also gets a lot. But Nauru, which is one of the countries that you're visiting on a trip that you're going on which starts on Monday, gets $26 million. And as a proportion of its GDP, that’s an enormous amount of money. Is this a viable nation?
RICHARD MARLES: We're very keen to be working with Nauru to see whether it can be a viable country and to see what the future of our aid relationship is with Nauru going forward.
Nauru obviously had a very significant industry through its phosphate which went through a decline, is now actually going through an increase, but it won't be there forever. We need to be looking at other industries in Nauru and we're keen to talk to the Nauruan Government about how they see their own future in that regard. I think the name of this particular product is called coral marble which they seek to develop as an industry, which are really the remnants of the phosphate mining there. So that’s an interesting development but something we want to keep an eye on.
CHRIS UHLMANN: You're visiting a number of islands, including Kiribati. Is the focus of your trip mostly around the deployment of our aid budget?
RICHARD MARLES: I think the focus of the trip really is to give an expression to all the countries in the Pacific of how important they are to Australia’s national interest. We will see on a global stage issues come and go trade deals happen and states emerge, others decline.
But our neighbourhood will always be our neighbourhood, and it is very important for Australia’s national interest that we have good relations with the Pacific. I think it is something where there is a bit of a difference between ourselves and the Coalition in terms of foreign policy that we do, from the Labor Party, place an emphasis on the Pacific and always have. We want to make clear how important these countries are to us, as we see it.
Aid is a critical part of that. There are a lot of issues around in the Pacific and we want to get a sense of them as well.
CHRIS UHLMANN: There’s been talk of a Pacific Islands free trade agreement. How important is that?
RICHARD MARLES: Free trade is really important within the Pacific, and it’s not – and I think it’s free trade with a difference in the sense that it needs to come with a significant development side to it. I think what we need to be doing in terms of our free trade arrangements in the Pacific is not just to promote it from the point of view of encouraging these countries down the road of development but also helping these countries plug into the global trading system. And so that [audio cuts] about the PACER Plus program. The plus part of that is actually to provide development assistance to those parts of their government which involve engaging with trade such as customs, quarantine and statistics.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Given some of these countries are so dependent on Australia for aid, isn't the best thing that Australia could do for them to provide them with guest worker visas so they could come to work in Australia and then transport some of that money back to their countries?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, labour mobility is a big question. We have the Seasonal Workers program in place at the moment, which is a pilot program which we would like to examine properly to see whether, how that can be rolled out going into the future. But certainly labour mobility is an issue which is raised by these countries and there’s no question that the remittances that come from those in these countries who do work overseas is often a very significant part of their GDP.
If you look at countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu, the most significant private sector part of their economy is remittances that are received from their, the seafarers are renowned from both those countries. So it’s an issue that I'm sure they'll raise with us and I think it’s an issue that in our relations with them we're going to have to keep looking at.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Now China’s increasing its aid footprint in this part of the world. Are you concerned by that, because clearly the United States appears to be?
RICHARD MARLES: Oh look, I think we are keen to see China emerge as a constructive player on the global scene in terms of the provision of aid and in terms of working through the international rules. We of course have a strong bilateral relationship with China ourselves, and I think that’s important for us to bear in mind when we are looking at the way in which China is engaging in the Pacific.
It’s also still fair to say that relative to our aid commitment in the Pacific, China is still a small amount. I mean, we do contribute far more to the Pacific.
So look, we welcome China entering onto the world stage. We hope that they play a constructive role with us in doing that.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Richard Marles, finally, is Australia and the United States on the same page when it comes to Fiji, because the United States is opening its door on an aid agency there at the moment at the same time as Australia and New Zealand are, it would appear, to be trying to freeze Fiji out?
RICHARD MARLES: I wouldn't characterise the last part of your question in the way that you did. The simple answer to the first part of your question is yes, we are most certainly on the same page with the United States, and that is clear. You shouldn't read the fact that they're opening up an aid post in Fiji as being something which is inconsistent with the policy that we have in relation to Fiji because we ourselves are maintaining a significant aid program in Fiji. A fair proportion of that is actually done – remains still being done through the Fiji Government. Indeed, if anything, the aid has increased to Fiji since 2006.
So the provision of aid is not of itself an issue because from day one we've seen in relation to Fiji that our issue is not with the Fijian people; it’s with the interim government and the way in which Bainimarama has come to power. And I think the deployment of aid is a very important part of our expression to the way in which we say that and to make clear that our beef is not with the people themselves and we want to continue working with them.
SCOTT BEVAN: That’s Richard Marles. He’s the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, and he was interviewed by our political editor, Chris Uhlmann.
- Parliamentary Secretary's Office: (02) 6277 4330
- Departmental Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555