ABC Radio Australia Pacific Beat

  • Transcript, E&OE
29 May 2020

CATHERINE GRAUE: Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke, joins us now. Good morning, Minister.

ALEX HAWKE: Good morning, Catherine.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Now, Minister the fast redirection of this financial help to deal with COVID-19, particularly for Pacific nations, has been welcomed. But why does it have to come at the expense of other aid programs?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, look, the way we've reprioritised money — and you're right to point to it, we've had about 80 requests since January for this urgent reprioritisation — is, when you think about what's happened with COVID, we have programs that can no longer go ahead for example, which rely on travel or movement of people or people in countries. We've got programs that rely on private sector investment or capital being available which may no longer be available. We've got many programs now that it just makes sense to reprioritise or change, or grab that money that would otherwise not be spent and quickly use it on health and other social infrastructure that will make a big difference.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Now, I know Australia's International Development NGOs, while they've welcomed this, they also point to the fact, though, that there was a $1 billion reconstruction package that the Australian Government created back in 2005 for Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami. And they say, that's the model of what should be done here; because it was new additional money, rather than being repurposed. Because, as this strategy also says, this COVID crisis is going to dwarf the resources you have available. So, do you not need to take a new approach and find new additional money given the severity of this crisis?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, what we're doing in the partnerships for recovery framework is looking at the whole of government effort, and we made a commitment to do that with the International Development Strategy for the first time before the COVID crisis came up. And while some people say, well, you know, whole of government should have always been the case — usually it has not been the case. And so, we've also looked at different bits of money, for example, in my own portfolio, where I sit in both the Foreign Affairs portfolio and the Defence portfolio, and in the Defence portfolio, for example, the same case applies; there are programs in Defence in Pacific countries that are not able to go ahead. We're able to repurpose that money and actually spend it through our Foreign Affairs posts in useful and meaningful outcomes with our partner countries in this crisis.

So, we're looking across the whole of government for money, there's no doubt about it. You're right to say it'll stretch government resources; that's the case around the world, where all government resources are going to be stretched by this crisis. You've seen in New Zealand; they're repurposing money in their budget, they're doing the same thing that we are doing. This is the way governments will respond.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Will you, though, need to, when the Australian Government hands down its entire budget in October, see the budget be increased? Will the aid budget be increased then?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, this is a decision for the budget review committee and the Cabinet; all areas of government spending will be looked at, as they always are, and those processes are underway.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Now, this new strategy has been released, as we've said, overnight. And it's revealed some things that we already confirmed last week here at the ABC, that the Government's going to be taking $100 million from the existing aid programs, and what you're going to be doing is giving it directly to governments in 10 different Pacific countries so they can use it in their own budgets. Now, this is something that Australian governments have historically been very reluctant to do before, so why do you feel that the need to take that step now?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, I make it clear, again, we work very closely with partner countries, and we have bilateral programs, we have regional programs within the development budget, and all of those matters are now being looked at in our country plans. So, with the crisis, you have to understand with 80 requests since January, these requests — we've assessed each one of them very carefully, they've been urgent, they've been necessary, they've been about health, health security, economic security.

And we assess that in the coming months, when you think about sectors like tourism, for example, being completely closed; in the case of Fiji, that will be half of the country's GDP. So, we assess countries are going to need budget support more than ever before. So, we're prepared to look at that through reasonable prisms — of course you'll have Australian standards, Australian safeguards, we'll have oversight and we'll work very closely with our partner countries as we develop those country programs. And if you think things have changed here in Australia; all of our partner countries in development, their priorities are going to shift again and we have to be very responsive to them.

CATHERINE GRAUE: This direct budget support though, how long might it last? Is this still a short-term plan and something that you hope will be able to be scaled back in a year or two?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, we'll be able to speak more to that as our bilateral program is developed with partner countries. I mean, you can imagine they're all be different depending on the temperature within different countries as this crisis moves. You've got very different circumstances in some places and, you know, in South East Asia to some areas of the Pacific. And we'll announce those things as they develop.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Now, Minister, to some other topics. Firstly, an audit into the multimillion dollar contracts for security and cleaning services at offshore detention processing centres in Manus Island in PNG was released yesterday; the company at the centre has been quite controversial, known as Paladin. Now, this audit has found that while the management of these contracts was, quote: largely appropriate — it did certainly criticise some of the processes, such as the fact the government hadn't demonstrated value for money in these contracts, and also the five key staff who were involved in the awarding of these contracts had not filled out a conflict of interest form. So, there are some serious issues there that have been highlighted.

ALEX HAWKE: Yeah. Well, all those matters are matters for the Department of Home Affairs and the Minister for Home Affairs, and I'll leave those questions to him and them to answer them. Obviously, it's not my department, and I wasn't in the portfolio — in this portfolio while those contracts were being arranged.

CATHERINE GRAUE: No. But it does speak to the way that the Australian Government have made decisions about deals and contracts in the Pacific and PNG, and clearly, you had to act quickly at that time, and as you are now as well with this new strategy being released today. I mean, are measures in place to ensure that proper processes will be followed?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, again, you're best to direct that to the relevant minister in relation to the Paladin contracts, in Home Affairs; that isn't my department. We obviously, with the international development budget, put in place world leading standards in relation to safeguards. There's a performance matrix and we've put that out for the sector to have a look at. And again, we think the standards are very high about getting value for money out of our development budget.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Alright. To another matter, this week you declared a new $17 million initiative of the Government is going to be paying over three years, providing Pacific broadcasters with Australian TV shows for free. You said it was a terrific demonstration of shared cultural ties and links between Australia and the Pacific. But as has been pointed out by critics this week, it's not really about sharing; it's very one sided inside. Existing TV shows that have been made for Australian audiences are simply being given away to free Pacific broadcasters who already have admitted that they struggle to pay for TV shows themselves.

ALEX HAWKE: Well look, I'd encourage people not to be critical of these sorts of initiatives in a macro sense. The Government is investing in capacity in terms of broadcasting in the Pacific and look, we don't have any embarrassment about broadcasting Australian content in the Pacific, I think it's good quality content and there's demand there. Audiences in the Pacific like to see what's going on in Australia; we'd like to see what's going on in the Pacific. And I'd say to you, it's not the end of the story and the Government will be working very closely. We're certainly partnering with more media organisations. We're certainly speaking with commercial providers — ABC management, everyone — to see how the media can and our entire journalism profession can step up as well, and how the Government can facilitate that.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Well, you say it's not the end of the story and certainly the two heads of the PNG TV stations involved told me that their preference would be to have co-productions with Australian and Pacific or PNG broadcasters so that they could build up skills, but also see Pacific television shows on Australian TV. So it really is a two-way thing. Is that something and those preferences going to be listened to?

ALEX HAWKE: No doubt about that, and we're certainly going to listen to them about that and over time we'll make those investments and those announcements. I think there is a really important mission for everyone involved in the media, including our public broadcaster, to ensure that Pacific stories are told within Australia. I'm a big advocate of it. I mean I went to Fiji and participated in Q&A, Catherine, and that was fantastic to see a Q&A on Pacific issues in the Pacific and I commend the ABC for doing that. There's plenty of other good examples where many organisations are stepping up. The Government's here to support that. Making sure Australian content is getting into the Pacific is good for both countries and yes, absolutely, we want to make sure that content is produced within the Pacific and returned to Australia as well.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Now perhaps what might be a little bit more interesting for listeners, you've already talked about tourism and the difficulties faced in countries like Pacific. Now we've had a lot of talk in recent weeks that countries in the Pacific could be included in this travel bubble with Australia and New Zealand. Are we any closer to having a more definitive time frame about when that may happen and which countries as well in the Pacific are going to be part of it?

ALEX HAWKE: Yeah. This is a very important concept and, in the statement, that Prime Ministers Ardern and Morrison released, they obviously reference the importance of a Pacific travel bubble in the future and that we'd be making steps towards it. Now, we have made progress towards the Trans-Tasman bubble and that is proceeding. These are very difficult and complex issues and in ways, I think people sometimes are still coming to understand. It's not so much with a Pacific travel bubble that we are concerned about the impact of Pacific countries on Australia. But often our Pacific neighbours, at the moment, are working very hard and have very tight border restrictions that we're supporting, in very difficult situations where we are the risk to them.

So there's a two-way conversation here to have about the travel bubbles — how they will work; how they'll operate. That needs to be done very carefully, has to be managed very carefully, but of course, you know, you've seen Prime Minister Morrison speak very strongly about the fact that we'd like to see, ideally, Pacific countries added into a travel bubble. But that will be at the country's discretion. It will be after we've had the Trans-Tasman bubble established and working and there's a lot of work to do on the detail with partner countries.

CATHERINE GRAUE: There's talk though that the New Zealand bubble, for example, could be up and running or starting as soon as July. I mean, is it likely that it could be countries like Fiji included as soon as August?

ALEX HAWKE: Well we'd like to see everything up and running as quickly as possible. What we're finding is, you know, with the health advice, with the restrictions, with the practical implementation it can be more difficult. So, we're not putting a timetable on it. But countries are working as fast as they can to deliver it. I understand the issues in Fiji are critical and that's why we're reprioritising our budget here with a development budget to support as much as we can in the meantime. And I know both countries, New Zealand and Australia, are working to get our Trans-Tasman bubble working. So then if we can get to add-ons as quickly as possible, we will.

CATHERINE GRAUE: And just finally, obviously, the other key part I guess for Pacific Islands' relationships with Australia is the workers that it sends here — the remittances obviously highly valuable and even more so now with these tourism industries decimated. Is Australia looking to and can you confirm if you will expand the number of workers who are able to come here, but also, have you been able to guarantee to Pacific governments, who might be worried that their workers might be at risk, that that will be addressed?

ALEX HAWKE: Yeah, thanks Catherine, this is a very important question. We have already provided the certainty for workers here in Australia and we've given them an extra year extension as you and your listeners know, up to a year with their visa arrangements. We've made sure they're supported here. And I've been on the phones to employers making sure there's immense support provided to Pacific workers who are here in Australia. Before COVID, we had immense plans to expand the numbers from many, many Pacific countries and we still want to see that occur. It is much more challenging in the current environment, as I said, not because of our desire, but because of the new restrictions with various countries and implementation issues. And the Government, of course, this is an area where we can, regardless of travel bubble questions, work very hard with partner countries to see the flow of Pacific labour still coming to Australia. We're going to be working closely with our counterparts in the region and we would like to see the ability for Pacific workers to come here and remit their money back home and that great story of providing great benefit back home and to the workers, and here, a supply of labour to our own farmers continue. So we're certainly working very hard on that.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Alright. We'll leave it there. Alex Hawke, the Minister for Pacific and International Development, thanks for your time.

ALEX HAWKE: Thanks Catherine.

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