ABC Radio Australia Pacific Beat

  • Transcript, E&OE
11 December 2019

CATHERINE GRAUE:​ Well the way that Australia spends its foreign aid is up for review and the Pacific is likely to benefit. Aid groups here in Australia have welcomed the major policy review that began officially yesterday. But they're still warning the Australian Government that it's at risk of becoming irrelevant to the Asia-Pacific region, if it doesn't also increase the amount of aid that is spent in total. The Government though has ruled that out. The Minister for International and Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke, says that the aim of this review is simply to evaluate the budget's objectives. He spoke with Suzie Raines.

ALEX HAWKE:​ Because our new policy will capture the full suite of what Australia is doing in our development work.

SUZIE RAINES:​ Is it the rise of China's influence in the region that's prompted this review?

ALEX HAWKE:​ Well the review is prompted by the fact that it has been about five years since we set our international policy objectives. That was 2014. It's a fast and rapidly evolving world technologically, geo-politically and economically and the government feels that now is about the right time for us to reset and review and refresh our development policy settings.

SUZIE RAINES:​ The government has diverted funds away from Asia to finance the Pacific step up program. Does that demonstrate that the objective of the aid budget is strategic rather than needs based and therefore out of sync with what Australians actually want?

ALEX HAWKE:​ Well the Government's definitely focused development assistance in our region with greater strategic importance to us and where we can also have the greatest impact. And the Prime Minister regularly says the Pacific is our backyard, our neighbourhood, but also they're our family and the Indo-Pacific more broadly is our neighbourhood as well- Southeast Asia. And I think it makes sense for the government to prioritise our development work and our efforts into our neighbourhood in our backyard. You see some of the greatest disadvantages in places like PNG right on our doorstep.

SUZIE RAINES:​ People like Mark Purcell who's from the Australian aid body the Australian Council for International Development said that while they do welcome this policy shift in the move towards the Pacific it shouldn't be done so at the expense of other parts of the world.

MARK PURCELL:​ The focus on the Pacific is a welcome focus but we can't afford to forget the situation in many Asian countries like Timor Leste to the north of us, or the million plus refugees in Bangladesh that have fled persecution in Myanmar. Australia has a very important role to play in our neighbour forward into Asia as well. So it's not an either or.

SUZIE RAINES:​ Now Mark Purcell's part of a new coalition that's been set up of involving Australia's top foreign policy experts. And they're warning the Australian Government that it is at risk of becoming irrelevant if it doesn't increase its overall budget which currently stands at $4 billion a year. Now that amounts to zero point two per cent of the country's gross national income, which is less than comparable countries spend on aid.

MARK PURCELL:​ The long term implications for Australia if we continue to under invest in our foreign policy and development assistance, is that we will become irrelevant to the region. Others will take our place as they've already been doing in some parts of Asia and the Pacific and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

SUZIE RAINES:​ But the Minister Alex Hawke has brushed off those suggestions. Let's take a listen.

ALEX HAWKE:​ We don't agree with that assessment that we will become irrelevant. Australia is one of the most respected partners in our region certainly in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific and South-East Asia. Our contributions are highly valued and they'll continue to be highly valued.

SUZIE RAINES:​ And while this review will be accepting submissions over coming weeks the minister, Alex Hawke we just heard from there has already flagged that the new development policy will reflect Australia's increased focus on infrastructure and also expand a program such as the Pacific Workers Scheme. And Dr George Carter from the Department of Pacific affairs at Australia's National University says those are welcome developments in his mind.

GEORGE CARTER:​ The Pacific needs ports to connect its population not only in the highlands of Papua New Guinea or through the remote areas of the world. People in the Pacific need to be connected beyond that then its support economic infrastructure. It connects Pacific countries and also businesses to opportunities here in Australia. So they should also be seen as in a way flipping the Belt and Road as Australia belts and roads Pacific and this avenue of looking towards economic infrastructure, I mean clearly for me and the way that I look at it this kind of language is connecting the Pacific for Australia through infrastructure.

SUZIE RAINES:​ He notes that Australia's aid has in the past often been described as boomerang aid where large amounts of the aid budget actually goes to paying Australian experts and consultants working in the region. Now he believes that this review is now a good opportunity to reconsider the way that Australian aid money is allocated especially in the Pacific.

GEORGE CARTER:​ It is for many countries similar to the way that they work and operates and Australia has been leading not only advising but also the delivery of some of these services. Basic services such as education and health for many countries in the Pacific. And of course it comes [indistinct] and more and more over. And it's something that we hope that countries in the Pacific or those expert matters in the area. Submit these submissions and towns frustrations and criticisms around the modality of the so-called boomerang aid in the Pacific. And so there are many calls from practitioners that the use of- there needs to be more encouragement of Pacific experts or Pacific NGO's within these countries. These will only force the country ownership in these programs.

SUZIE RAINES:​ Dr. George Carter from the Department of Pacific affairs at the Australian National University.

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