ABC Radio Australia - Pacific Beat

  • Transcript
03 April 2020

Catherine Graue: Alex Hawke, the Minister for the Pacific and International Development. Welcome to Pacific Beat. Good morning.

Alex Hawke: Good morning, Catherine.

Catherine Graue: Now, Australia's Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, last week told his colleagues at the G20 that the Pacific needs to be a focus of international support in this coronavirus pandemic. But beyond the rhetoric, what exactly is Australia committing?

Alex Hawke: Well Australia has been working with our Pacific partners from the beginning of this outbreak. We've already provided support to countries in terms of their laboratories, their public information campaigns, medical supplies including PPE, health expertise and we've also provided money for the World Health Organization's Pacific office to make sure we can unlock more PPE.

And as this has sort of evolved — the whole COVID crisis — we've worked very closely with governments to work out what are their needs and what are their needs going to be. And Australia is doing a lot of work to fill as many gaps as we can in that very practical sense of equipment and help on the ground and we're going to keep doing that.

I mean our point that the prime minister was making at the G20 was that there is a lot of money being put on the table from international financial institutions, from multilateral banks, and we want to see that money flowing as quickly as possible to priority areas like the Pacific countries that do have vulnerable health systems — and that's been well heard around the world, and I've spoken to international counterparts in large countries recently.

So we've got Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, and we're making the case everywhere that we've got to get that money flowing and unlocked so that countries can plan and get ready for the crisis when it hits them.

Catherine Graue: We've talked about gaps in medical equipment, things like ventilators. There are massive shortages. Some countries I know I can count on just two fingers on my hand the number of ventilators they have.

Catherine Graue: Is that something Australia will be providing?

Alex Hawke: Well Australia's already providing a lot of assistance. We are looking at the moment at more assistance to countries, that includes priority needs and we're listening to our partners very carefully on that — such as testing kits, for example. You know, we need to make sure everywhere there's testing and I think countries will see that as a priority — you'll see more announcements about that in coming days and we'll keep looking at the situation as it develops.

Catherine Graue: Well on testing kits, absolutely, countries like Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati all at the moment cannot carry out their own testing. We have seen some announcements from Australia in the Solomon Islands to provide more kits. You've alluded to the fact where there might be more announcements in coming days but how would you do that? Particularly to getting them into these countries when their borders are closed?

Alex Hawke: Yeah, and that's exactly one of the reasons Australia's been working so closely with the Pacific because Australia facilitates a huge amount of movement of goods and people all through the Pacific — we're a transit country. It's why we've joined the regional effort and we thank the Pacific Islands Forum for bringing forward the idea of a humanitarian corridor, so Australia will play a key role in that.

So we've got the capacity to move goods and people in many ways that other countries don't. And one of the key decisions we took early on was to keep essential personnel in country in consultation with them, of course. Like every other country and every other organisation, vulnerable people needed to return home and some Australians returned home to take the load off Pacific health systems, but also to ensure they're secure and safe. And other countries have made other decisions, but we've decided to keep people on the ground in-country. All of our posts remain open, they remain locally engaged and therefore they're able to meet the needs in-country.

Catherine Graue: Now, you say you're working with other key partners — you mentioned the Pacific Islands Forum. We're also seeing China, for example, ramping up its aid to the Pacific. It has sent a plane containing medical supplies — some four million masks to French Polynesia. They are promising to send ventilators and also test kits to places like Vanuatu. Are you coordinating this aid effort with players like China or competing?

Alex Hawke: Oh look, there's no competition on trying to save lives. I think we welcome any international effort from any country, from any multilateral agency, from any bank or anyone that wants to do something to help the Pacific. So, you know, where we're calling for it — Australia plays a leading role in calling for it, that includes from China.

We'd make the point, of course, that every country's got a responsibility to make sure that the equipment they're sending is in good order, that it works, that it doesn't add to the burdens in-country. And it's why in a country like Australia, we take a very careful approach. It does take a little bit longer, but we do make sure, when we respond, it's a high-quality response. The equipment we send will be in top order, that it will work and that it will be very effective. And we've got a very high reputation in that regard and sometimes it is better to plan and take a bit of time to make sure that response is right. We would absolutely welcome any response from any country, in any regional body or any international body to help the Pacific, in fact, we ask. Now is the greatest time of need and the Pacific people need the assistance from the international community.

Catherine Graue: Well how much exactly is Australia committing at the moment? Is there an amount that you can say Australia has committed and where is the money coming from? Is this additional aid or is it just moving money around from one part of the aid budget to another? Because it is something that both the Opposition Labor Party here in Australia and the Greens have been quite critical of, calling for new money. Here is just a little bit of what the Greens spokesman for International Development Dr Mehreen Faruqi told me yesterday.


Catherine Graue: So what is happening to the aid budget at the moment, minister?

Alex Hawke: Well, look, I won't respond to the Greens. I think there's a low tolerance at the moment in Australia and around the world for politics. I think, you know, I'd say to the Greens, I'd say to the Labor Party, we don't need any of that at the moment. We just need to work together on these matters and that's the offer we make to all political parties at the moment. Really there's no time for that. We are already repurposing any aid funding that is available for the Pacific into immediate relief in terms of health matters and COVID matters. And I think you can see that trend continuing because Australia is very responsive to the needs of partner countries. As I said, we're the country with every post open, working very closely on the ground, listening, every day, working on what their needs are. And you'll continue to see that aid money being repurposed. As you said at the top of the program, we've adapted the Australian aid program. What that means is money that isn't yet spent or allocated, that was not going to go to this matter will now go to COVID-19 and assist with the emerging crisis and pandemic. So there's money flowing there, quite substantial amounts in different countries. We don't put a total figure on it yet because we're in the middle of it, in the thick of it. And that money is being reallocated, you know, as we speak.

Catherine Graue: And the federal budget has indeed been postponed, meant to be handed down as per normal in May, but now postponed till October. What then- I mean is it too early to say what that will mean for the aid budget, particularly for the Pacific when, of course, they will need aid more than ever?

Alex Hawke: Look, no. We're going to spend the amount that we've said we'll spend — $1.4 billion at a minimum. And that $1.4 billion for the Pacific is a record amount of funding from any Australian government. So that is the maximum that's ever been spent by an Australian government. That will absolutely remain. You can imagine nobody's going to reduce aid funding at this time to our critical relationships and partners in the Pacific.

Catherine Graue: So that's a commitment that you will not be cutting aid in the next budget?

Alex Hawke: Absolutely not. Absolutely not, at this time. In fact, we're repurposing money to make sure it's being spent on priority health needs. And that's an absolute commitment. But with the budget being moved, obviously the absolute urgency and the changing environment that we see in the economy here in Australia and globally, does affect people's budgets. What that means is it gives us the opportunity with our development budget and obviously as the Minister responsible, we'll have the opportunity to take a bit longer there to refashion the development budget, listening very carefully to the needs of the Pacific and the region, the regions where we spend money. And I think obviously you'll see from partner countries, an increase in the concerns regarding health and COVID and responding to this crisis. And we'll be listening to that very carefully as we move to the budget later this year.

Catherine Graue: There has been though, in recent years, and even more recently in the last kind of 18 months or so, somewhat of a move towards more money being spent on infrastructure rather than health. Critics have talked about funding to health, particularly the Pacific, being cut in recent weeks. You're talking about refashioning that and refocusing again on health. Is that — are you admitting that perhaps that needs to be, and has been overlooked in recent years?

Alex Hawke: No, I wouldn't say that. I would say though the focus on infrastructure sometimes is misunderstood — I've said this prior to COVID coming around. When we, when we set up, for example, our $2 billion infrastructure financing facility — it's a facility that's supposed to be there for the medium and the long term for the Pacific, it's our attempt to say we can do better at financing infrastructure projects, high quality infrastructure projects and attracting more finance to get projects done.

Now I've always made the point before, and you go check some of my speeches, that infrastructure doesn't just mean roads and ports and bridges — it also means health projects; it also means education projects, it's also — you know, building schools and building hospitals and infrastructure projects — so it's available for all sorts of purposes. The priority we've set for the infrastructure financing through our facility is to be in partnership with those countries and their needs. So if our countries say to us: well, our priority absolutely is hospital building, well then we'll be looking at that very closely through our infrastructure financing facility.

But those long term and medium-term projects at the moment, we don't think should change — not in terms of the projects we're building, but in terms of financing because we do have to take a medium- and long-term view as well as a short-term view. In the short-term we're reallocating and re-prioritising money in a very fast and effective fashion. But the infrastructure financing can also mean health and critical health infrastructure.

Catherine Graue: Minister, for the Pacific seasonal workers who are here in Australia — now with this COVID-19 crisis, many of them in limbo — has the government actually agreed to extend their visas? And also, importantly, guaranteed them work? Because then, if that's the case, why don't — people that we've talked to actually know there's many that are concerned about the uncertainty.

Alex Hawke: Yeah, and I want to say to them directly today on your program and through you, Catherine, that the government's very aware about this matter and we have been working on it for a number of weeks. Obviously with the crisis hitting Australia we've had domestic priorities that have taken precedence with our economy but we're very grateful to the people of the Pacific who come here and work, we make sure that they get Australian wages. Those remittances we think are going to be very important returning back to those countries when a lot of the Pacific is now in a form of lockdown or border control, where people can't come in and out.

So we're very aware of the situation of people here. Most of those visas are set to expire on 30 June naturally anyway but I think there's a balance of tensions here, Catherine. And to those people today I would say an announcement is going to be coming imminently which will provide them with certainty, absolute certainty about what their options will be when their visas expire on 30 June, or earlier.

And I think we've got to remember, while we value these people as workers for us and they help in our economy — they are our family, and they are people and they've got their own family back home. And if a COVID outbreak becomes worse we understand how difficult the choices will be for many people that are here working for us.

But we're going to provide them with that certainty, the government will be making decisions about that — it won't be left unanswered, this question. We're just taking the time to understand the full implications and work with the other parts of the immigration and welfare systems to make sure that there is an integrated outcome for Pacific workers who are here in Australia.

Catherine Graue: And finally, Minister, it has taken some time for us to be able to have a chance to speak with you. This crisis has been unfolding and getting worse over the last two months. Well, you haven't said much — there's been one press release released in early March about Australia's response, and another just this week. Critics have said that you've been missing in action. Why haven't you been more forthcoming? And isn't it important for the Pacific people to hear from you about Australia's assistance.

Alex Hawke: Look, it's a common refrain at the moment — this minister or that minister is missing. Look, I've been in Parliament 12 years, I've been in organised politics 20 years — I've never seen anything like this in government for the last two months. Bureaucrats, ministers — everybody is sort of working shoulder to shoulder around the clock, people are working harder than ever. We're dealing with pretty unprecedented circumstances and since January, I might add, where we've had a series of crises with the bushfires and now straight into the COVID situation in Australia.

So I do think some of those criticisms are not really taking account of what is really going on behind the scenes. And as you can imagine, as situations develop when Australia is, for example, testing for the Pacific day to day — and we do, we've been testing since January when people have brought it forward to us — we can't really announce these things by press release. What we're doing are private matters countries — don't want us to. A lot of the work we do for the Pacific can't be announced publicly day to day — we do try and provide updates as regularly as possible but often there are reasons why we can't talk about it every single day. But we'll get there.

You can rest assured that DFAT is absolutely working harder than ever and I just want to thank every single person that works in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade here in Australia, but all around the world. I've never seen a time where those officials and those people are working harder than they are, and working longer and better to provide safety for Australians; to provide help to people in need in other countries. I mean they're doing a lot, Catherine. So, we're doing a lot too in government. A lot of the work that people are wanting to see is coming on, but when we're trying to deal with massive domestic crises and international crises all at once it will come forward when it needs to come forward.

Catherine Graue: Well, Minister, hopefully it won't be as long between the next time that we speak with you. We thank you for your time this morning.

Alex Hawke: Thanks, Catherine.

Catherine Graue: That's the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke.

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