BEVERLEY O'CONNOR: The Minister for International Development in the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells says it's critical the Australian people understand the strategic importance of foreign aid to our Pacific neighbours. Ms Fierravanti-Wells pledged to continue the Government's relationship with the Australian Council for International Development at its conference in Melbourne today and its work with various NGOs to provide that aid. But the conference's member organisations had already passed a resolution asserting that Australia's offshore detention policy undermines its credibility and its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. We spoke about the disconnect between the Australian public and the aid program.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Beverley, let me state it in this way. Recently the Defence White Paper was released, and the Defence White Paper made it very, very clear that the stability and security of our neighbourhood is second only to the defence and security of Australia. So that what we do, and most especially in the Indo-Pacific region, which is the focus of 90 per cent of our overseas development assistance is focused in our area, and so Australia has a series of priorities, and those priorities dovetail into basically helping countries to help themselves. Our intention is to assist countries to economically grow, and so in turn that leads to economic stability in those countries, and which ultimately leads to political stability, not just in that country, in that area, but in our region.

BEVERLEY O'CONNOR: A lot of the fatigue for many Australians comes from the fact that they observe many of these Pacific nations, they are highly corrupt, they have very unstable democracies, and there's a sense that we're pouring good money after bad.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well can I just say Australia has zero tolerance on corruption and we have a very stringent process by which our overseas development assistance is delivered. We have strong parameters in relation to the partnerships that we have with non-government organisations and also partnerships that we have with governments, so we're very, very strict in relation to that, and if there's any incident that is reported, it is well investigated so the Australian public can be assured that we do have those processes in place. Australia's broader priorities are in health and education, in governance, in matters like climate, in health, education, in all these different areas that Australia has high priorities in, and of course we match those up with the priorities in the different countries.

BEVERLEY O'CONNOR: I wonder too, raised at the conference has been the changing geopolitics of the region, something that was raised by the Secretary-General Dame Peggy Taylor. It is true that China is pouring a lot of money into soft diplomacy into the region. How relevant is Australia going to be?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well Beverley, Australia has been seen consistently as a strong and stable donor in the area. We are the largest country. It's like a neighbourhood. We've got the largest house in the street, and so therefore Australia has consistently and reliably been there to help countries in good and in bad times, and we've seen it most recently after Cyclone Winston and after Cyclone Pam. In the end, as I said Beverley, it does come down to a question of Australia's long term strategic priorities, and as I've said, after the defence of Australia, the stability and security of our region is our highest priority.

BEVERLEY O'CONNOR: You also spoke today at the conference about the importance of the various NGOs that you work so closely with in delivering this aid. How difficult it is - is it for the Australian Government when those same NGOs are shaming Australia internationally and domestically, saying that what is happening on Nauru and in PNG amounts to torture?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well Beverley, two points. One, we reject those claims. Having said that, we respect the independence of the non-government sector. I have been involved in social policy matters for many, many years before becoming a senator, so I respect the work that NGOs do, and I also respect, and the Australian Government respects their independence. But we reject those claims. Australia works very closely with independent bodies like United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Australian Red Cross and the Commonwealth Ombudsman in relation to these matters, and - who have oversight, and as I've indicated, we do reject those claims.

BEVERLEY O'CONNOR: I'm sure you've seen these horrible images of the Jungle camp in Calais being destroyed. It has been well documented that in many of these camps around the world, there is long term psychological impact on the migrants and refugees there. As a Cabinet, surely you must consider this is an issue that will at some point have to be resolved.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well I have been involved as a former minister responsible for settlement services, can I say Australia has some of the best settlement services in the world. We have a very good humanitarian settlement program, so we do have a good framework. The reality is though that there are major issues in relation to humanitarian crises. The reality is, it is a complex global issue, and these are issues that need consideration, not just by Australia, but as we saw recently, it was the subject of discussions at the UN, and how we globally are going to be able to deal with responses to humanitarian crises, both in situ and also internationally in relation to movement of persons.

BEVERLEY O'CONNOR: Minister, we do appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thanks very much Beverley.

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