HAMISH MACDONALD: Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. She joins me now from Yangon in Myanmar, where it is very early, so we appreciate you getting up!


HAMISH MACDONALD: We will get to your visit to Myanmar in a minute – there are some questions about that. But first to this deal to fund the undersea communication cable between Australia and the Solomons and PNG. How do you justify using aid money to fund that?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, Australia has about $4 billion in overseas development assistance and about $1.3 billion of that is in the Pacific and this is the highest amount of overseas aid for the Pacific. The stability, security and prosperity of the Pacific is Australia’s highest priority and when we do look at prosperity in the Pacific, one important component of that is telecommunications. And so we have known for some time, the telecommunication needs of the people in the Pacific and we knew that different countries, like PNG and Solomons, had been looking at possibilities. So therefore, given that there were these separate projects, Australia then saw this possibility and this option, which we believe is going to deliver faster, reliable and more cost effective telecommunications to these two countries and so we saw a possibility of combining these projects into a much more cost-effective, one project and that’s what we’re doing here.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Has Australia ever used aid money to build large-scale telecommunications infrastructure like this before?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, we’ve used Australian development assistance for a whole range of different things, but we do know that now, of course, for the countries in the Pacific, telecommunications is now a vital piece of infrastructure and…

HAMISH MACDONALD: But, obviously, on this scale to build telecoms infrastructure – is this a first?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, it certainly is, since I’ve been Minister, in the Pacific. Now, we have been looking, as I said, to a range of options and funding options in relation to undersea telecommunications cables. Now, PNG of course already had a cable but, of course, it was being quite unreliable, it did need replacement. Solomon Islands didn’t have a cable, so this has been a very good opportunity to provide internet access for two of our neighbours at a cost effective, reliable way. And can I just say – and I heard your comments at the beginning – let’s not forget that we never did actually receive any application from the Solomon Islands Submarine Company. No application was ever made for a cable to be laid to Australia by that company, so therefore, I think it’s really important to keep that in mind.

HAMISH MACDONALD: You’re talking about Huawei here.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I am talking about Huawei or any other company so I think that does need to be put into context.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Sorry, I just want to clarify, are you denying that there was interest from Huawei in building this?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: No, I’m not saying that. All I’m saying is that to land a cable, we never actually did receive an application by the Solomon Islands Submarine Cable Company never applied for a submarine cable landing permit and of course any application would have been considered on its merits and in accordance with our own statutory processes and as part of that process, the Attorney General’s Department would have considered matters of international law, native title and national security.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Okay, but the Solomon Islands initially gave the contract to Huawei, who the Solomons PM said the decision to abandon that option and accept Australia’s help was made after Australia raised concerns. What are those concerns? Are they about national security?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, my point to you is that there was never an application for a submarine cable landing permit. At that appropriate time, we would have considered that application on its merits and in accordance with our own statutory processes. Australia made a proposal that was a very cost-effective proposal. It was a proposal that in the end met the needs of both PNG and the Solomon Islands and that has now been the proposal that has been proceeded with.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Okay, but are you saying that Australia has not raised concerns with the Solomons’ Prime Minister about Huawei?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, Hamish, I’m saying that there were… we were aware of the needs – certainly I was aware of the needs of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. As I have said, the Solomon Islands Submarine Cable Company never applied for a submarine cable landing permit. At that appropriate time, we would have considered it. But in the end, this was a proposal that was made and it’s very important that telecommunications…

HAMISH MACDONALD: Okay, I think we’ve been through this a couple of times. I’m just trying to get a straight answer about whether you raised – whether Australia raised concerns with the Solomons about Huawei doing this project? Did we or didn’t we?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Hamish, whichever option or whichever company had applied to land the cable in Australia or whatever proposal had been put to us by the Solomon Islands would have been considered like any other proposal. That’s the point that I’m making.

HAMISH MACDONALD: We just heard earlier this morning from John Lord and obviously Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said that regional neighbours need to have other options other than China to fund infrastructure in the Pacific. Why is that important?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, it’s important for our neighbours for the security, prosperity and stability of our region that our neighbours do have options. Look, we welcome infrastructure involvement in the Pacific, we welcome infrastructure investment in the Pacific and certainly, we know that there are quite a number of donors in the Pacific that are involved in infrastructure. And I think in the end, given that we are dealing with vulnerable economies, it is important that one: that infrastructure be productive; but secondly, that infrastructure be affordable. Now, Australia has opted to assist our Pacific Island countries in particular through our Overseas Development Assistance. We are a country that assists countries by way of aid and we do that through our grants. We don’t do that by way of debt.  Why? Because debt and debt sustainability is very important, particularly when you are dealing with countries, such as those in the Pacific. They are often small developing countries that have a degree of vulnerability and it is important that when we do configure assistance to these countries, we do look at it in terms of that debt sustainability and their ability to deal with that debt. And that is why we believe that assisting our Pacific Island countries and, in this case, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, in this way – by assisting them through our Overseas Development Assistance program in the most cost effective and positive way – that we can assist their communications development and, in turn, their economic growth.

HAMISH MACDONALD: You have talked about the Chinese construction of ‘useless buildings’ in the Pacific, you’ve also raised these concerns previously about Pacific Island nations being in debt to China. You’ve just been on a tour of the region; did you see many more of these ‘useless buildings’?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, it’s important, as I have said in the past, that infrastructure be productive - to have an end objective, so that it does have some economic benefit or assistance to our Pacific Island countries - has a health outcome, an education outcome, a piece of infrastructure that is productive. And that’s the way Australia and that’s the standard Australia has adopted. We are…

HAMISH MACDONALD: But did you see many more of these buildings on the trip or not?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, I’ve seen all sorts of buildings, Hamish, and all sorts of buildings and all sorts of infrastructure and all sorts of assistance that has been given by different countries in different parts of the Pacific, some of which is more productive than others. As I said, the important thing is here, debt sustainability and ensuring that the assistance that donors do give, particularly to vulnerable countries, is productive, but also has the outcome of not imposing an unnecessary debt burden on those countries.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Okay, as we mentioned at the beginning, you’re on an official visit to Myanmar this morning, we spoke earlier to a representative of World Vision at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh – the monsoon rains are pushing through at the moment. They acknowledged to us that the wrong type of latrines had been built - they didn’t stand up to the weather. I mean, the monsoon obviously was relatively predictable. Australian aid money helped pay for this infrastructure. Are you confident that Australian aid money is being used effectively there in Bangladesh?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, Australia’s relationship with Myanmar is a long-standing one and we have provided about $84 million in Overseas Development Assistance to Myanmar in 2017/2018 and we also have provided considerable humanitarian assistance. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the very bad weather, I wasn’t able to travel to the Rakhine as planned. However, I did have the opportunity to meet a number of development and humanitarian partners who are working in that area and to receive a good sense of the significant complexities that are on the ground, not just in the Rakhine, but also in other parts of this country. I mean we have to put…

HAMISH MACDONALD: Minister, I think we will have to leave it there. I was trying to get an answer from you about the aid money and it doesn’t appear that we’re…

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: We are, of course, we are very conscious to ensure that all our aid assistance, particularly in our humanitarian assistance, does meet the humanitarian needs of those affected, both in Bangladesh and in Myanmar. We have provided about $51 million in humanitarian assistance since September 2017 for emergency supplies in Rakhine: food, shelter, clean water and essential health services in Cox’s Bazar. Of course, we have done this through partners and we obviously are very concerned about the circumstances that are there.We have received positive developments and positive comments in relation to the work that we are doing and we have been thanked for the assistance that we have been providing.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Alright. Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, thank you for getting up early to talk to us.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thanks very much, Hamish.

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