DAVID SPEERS:

Let’s turn to Australia’s aid contributions in the Pacific and what China’s been doing in the Pacific as well. There’s actually a new interesting set of figures and in fact a Pacific Aid Map it’s being called. The Lowy Institute has launched this and it gives us a much clearer, more transparent understanding of who’s spending what, where in the Pacific.  Whether it’s buying influence or simply, generously helping out some of our small Pacific neighbours. With me now is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Thanks for joining us this afternoon.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Hello David how are you?

DAVID SPEERS:

Really well, before we get to the Pacific though, can I just ask you about the Fraser Anning speech last night; you were there and you shook his hand after the speech. Just explain to me why you did that after that particular speech?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Look, I think that I’ve been in this place now for 14 years and I’ve heard lots of people give lots of speeches and lots of maiden speeches. One doesn’t necessarily agree with everything but there is a common courtesy and I think Senator Storer put it quite eloquently this morning; there’s a certain courtesy that one shakes fellow Senators hands during maiden speeches and it was through a common courtesy and I think you’ll find that most of my colleagues did it on that basis.

DAVID SPEERS:

Darren Hinch as well, he said though, he went home and washed his hands. He regrets it.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Look, I’ve been in this space a long time, I think everyone knows where I come from. The reality is that issues such as those that were canvassed yesterday evening have been around for a long time. The Muslim communities and the issues that they are facing are, to a certain extent very similar to issues that other communities before them have faced. You’ve had the Chinese during the 1800s, you’ve had the Germans, the Greeks, the Italians all who went through issues and then after about 30, 40 years we saw this period of integration. They all faced what I’ve referred to in the past as their crossroads moment.

DAVID SPEERS:

So no different with Muslim Australians…

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

It really is, and I think, that in the end, we are one of the most culturally diverse, yet socially cohesive nations on Earth and in many ways, that very integration has been and that very diversity has been what has knitted us together as such a successfully culturally diverse country.

DAVID SPEERS:

And I know you feel passionately about that and have done a lot of work in migrant communities as well. Let me turn to this issue about the Pacific. There’s been a lot of focus on whether China is outdoing us and everyone else in terms of aid in the Pacific. This Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map though shows that between 2011 and 2018 Australia’s commitments were just higher than China’s but what was actually spent is interesting, isn’t it? Because not all of what China committed was spent.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well I think this has been a very, very valuable tool. This is and I commend Lowy for the work that they’ve done; they’ve looked at about 13,000 projects with about 62 development partners or donors and in 14 different countries so it is so granular that you can hover over a street and find, look at a particular project, find how much has been committed, how much has been spent, who’s given the money? Is it in the form of a grant? Is it the form of a loan? Is it a combination of both? So there’s a lot more transparency and that’s really what this has been about. Far greater transparency. But also, this is a valuable tool for donors because not only will it demonstrate what is actually being done, who’s doing it, who’s borrowing, who’s not borrowing, but more to the point, it will help us identify where the gaps are, but more to the point also where the overlap is. So I think it’s a valuable tool not just for transparency but also for donors, for us to understand this broader picture and maximise …

DAVID SPEERS:

What do you take from it? What do you learn from looking at all of that and looking at China’s commitments in particular, are they going to worthwhile, needy areas?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well I think, what is very important for all donors, and this is why I think this exercise is very valuable, is that irrespective of the donor, it is important that whatever is given leads to some sustainable growth …

DAVID SPEERS:

And is that happening or is that, is China building roads to nowhere?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, certainly I made comments earlier this year but in the end it gets down to: is that project going to give you some economic benefit? Does it fall into line with your core priorities? And this is the criteria for us donors.

DAVID SPEERS:

But what’s the answer to that? For China’s part?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well the answer… Well for China’s part … Look there is work being done in the Pacific by a whole range of different donors and some of the work that’s being done is good and some of the work I think that this mapping tool will show that it’s perhaps not so good.

DAVID SPEERS:

But the direct question is whether China is doing work that’s good or not?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

China is, China undertakes its development assistance in a different way that Australia does. Australia gives its assistance by way of grants, that’s how we operate. Japan gives its assistance by way of grants and loans. China, this mapping is showing and bearing in mind that China doesn’t, didn’t contribute the data because of course it doesn’t; this was sourced by Lowy from different sources. They predominantly, it’s 5-6% in terms of ODA was about 70% in the form of concessional loans. Now some of that infrastructure may well be very good as is infrastructure that Japan or other countries have done.

DAVID SPEERS:

Not all of it.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

But all I’m just saying is that I think that different donors have perhaps contributed in ways that have not always given the most sustainable, or for that matter economically sustainable piece of infrastructure or assistance. Because in the end David, these are some of the most vulnerable countries in the world and I think as donors, all donors and this is a criteria by which Australia does abide, donors should take into account that vulnerability, but also take into account (DS interjects) sorry, to not impose unnecessary debt burdens as well.

DAVID SPEERS:

Yeah well, that’s what I was going to ask. I mean another direct question is China saddling many of these vulnerable countries with too much debt?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well ultimately it is a decision of a particular country as to what debt that they do incur. What I have seen, particularly in recent months and certainly the debate about debt and debt sustainability has raised a number of issues and indeed we have seen Prime Minister Pōhiva of Tonga in the last day or so well and truly open this issue up to much more discussion. Ultimately it is the sovereign right of a country to take on whatever debt they feel is appropriate, but at the same time I think there’s equally a responsibility on the part of donors to ensure that the assistance that we do give does not create, or does not impose unnecessary debt burdens on countries.

DAVID SPEERS:

Well it is an interesting issue and an interesting initiative as you say from the Lowy Institute there, that Pacific Aid Map.  We’ll be taking a closer look at that over time. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, good to talk to you. Thanks for your time, appreciate it.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Thanks David, thanks a lot.

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