DAVID SPEERS: Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, she is here for this Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) as we caught up in London. Minister, thanks so much for joining us here in beautiful London, tell me what are you hoping that the Commonwealth leaders will be able to agree for the Pacific, for our part of the world.
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, the Pacific is an important part, it’s also - the Pacific is also... The Small Island Developing States (SIDS) has been a focus of this CHOGM and I’ve just come from a meeting on small islands, the SIDS, as we call them.
Of course, the SIDS - and in particular in the Pacific - there are issues in relation to the climate and there are issues in relation to the vulnerabilities that these states face.
Small economies, large areas - many of them large ocean states, so they’re small in terms of land mass, but large ocean states - and so they do face particular challenges.
DAVID SPEERS: A lot of them do have a lot of needs, there is no doubt about that. So are we going to see some of the bigger commonwealth countries contribute more to them in aid and development?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, in terms of focus of aid, of course, from Australia’s perspective, our overseas development assistance is $3.9 billion dollars, 90 per cent of that is spent in the Indo-Pacific, a third of that actually in the Pacific…
DAVID SPEERS: But in fairness, that has been cut since the Coalition came to office in 2013.
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, last year we spent $3.9 billion which was an increase of 2.2 per cent on the previous year, and in two years it will be at $4 billion dollars.
DAVID SPEERS: Frozen at that.
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: The point is David, in the end in relation to overseas development aid, from Australia’s perspective, we have targeted our aid into our area.
DAVID SPEERS: What’s your view at the moment, Minister, on China’s role in the Pacific? You’ve previously been critical about some of the projects they’re funding in the Pacific, being either useless or going nowhere, what would you say about the nature of projects China is funding right now?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: David, what’s really important in our area or particularly where you are dealing with vulnerable states is that any donor who wants to invest and wants to provide assistance to a particular country, it is important that you take into account what the priorities of that country are, but also take into account the vulnerabilities of that country and not impose unnecessary debt burden.
DAVID SPEERS: Is that what China is doing?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: My point is that whichever donor, that’s really where my comments were coming from, we don’t want to see countries over-burdened with debt.
From Australia’s perspective, we give our aid in the form of grants. Australia has chosen to do that. Other countries choose to do it by way of loans, other countries choose to do it as a combination of both, the point is…
DAVID SPEERS: China’s example in Vanuatu - they are building a new residence for the Prime Minister. That’s an interesting selection – is that something Australia would normally do?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Australia’s aid is in relation to a set of, as I said, priorities and we have a set of priorities we focus our aid on: on education, on health, on governance, on gender, disability. These are the things that we focus on - but, David, we do so in conjunction with the country.
DAVID SPEERS: China is right on our doorstep in Papua New Guinea - they’ve got an APEC Summit later this year, China is donating quite heavily in terms of some construction projects surrounding the APEC Summit as well. Is that of any concern for Australia?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, Australia wants to ensure that APEC of course is successful in Papua New Guinea and we have supported the Papua New Guinean Government with a series of assistance packages. Ultimately, David, it is a matter for each individual country and sovereign countries to make their…
DAVID SPEERS: So Australia is not worried by what China is doing there?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: David, I come back to the point that I made earlier. In the end, we respect the sovereignty of countries, but we also say to donors - and equally we apply this to ourselves - it’s important that we do assist, but that we do not do so in a way that imposes unnecessary debt burdens on a country.
DAVID SPEERS: So again, is that what China is doing?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: What China is doing is in relation - we welcome the investment that countries like China can bring to the Pacific or any other region. But in the end, David, ultimately, as I say, it’s a question of welcoming investment - and we do. We collaborate with China, we collaborate with other different countries, in terms of... For example, in Papua New Guinea, we are working with China in relation to addressing malaria and we are working with one of the development banks and China and Australia...
DAVID SPEERS: And that’s true, I’m just trying to get to what the concern is here though. Is China loading up these small vulnerable countries with too much debt?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: There is a concern that countries do have - and in some cases, do have high debt burdens.
My point is whether it is irrespective of what country is willing to assist - whether it is in the Pacific, well mostly of course, our interest is in the Indo-Pacific and most especially, in the Pacific.
The importance is, that whoever that donor is, that they do not do so in a way that imposes unnecessary debt burdens.
DAVID SPEERS: Coming back to where we started, the Commonwealth as a grouping, if it can turn its eyes more on the Pacific, will that be important in terms of the geostrategic balance there?
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: David, of course, let’s not forget that 36 of the 53 Commonwealth countries are in the Indo-Pacific, 11 of those actually in the Pacific.
This CHOGM has really had a focus on Small Island Developing States and small states and, of course, we have seen a series of announcements that will go particularly to assist areas like the Pacific.
In the end, we come back to the point, that as family - we are a family - we are a family that is bound by history, we are a family that is bound by democracy, the rule of law, a common language, all of those things. And I think that there is scope for us, particularly in a post-Brexit situation, for the Commonwealth to see a resurgence, to see a ‘renaissance’, if I can put it in those terms.
This has really been in my discussions with my counterparts here, is to say, I think that after Brexit and when obviously, Britain is in a position where they will be looking to see where they spend their overseas development assistance, there is scope, I think, for Britain to engage in a broader range of partnerships and look to the Indo-Pacific with a greater focus.
DAVID SPEERS: Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, thank you for your time.
MINISTER FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thanks very much, David.
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