ABC Radio National Breakfast
HAMISH MACDONALD: Well on Breakfast this morning, you've already heard about the severe economic impact of COVID-19 on Pacific Island nations, with the loss of international tourism, and their hopes of being included in a possible Trans-Tasman travel bubble. Australia is also expanding its aid commitments in the region, diverting at least $280 million from existing aid programs. It comes as China seeks to capitalise on the current global crisis, prompting some to urge the Government to strengthen our strategic influence in the Pacific as it deals with the challenge of coronavirus. Alex Hawke is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, he's also the Assistant Minister for Defence. Welcome back to Breakfast.
ALEX HAWKE: Good morning, Hamish.
HAMISH MACDONALD: I want to get to the Pacific, but I do want to ask you about developments in Hong Kong in the last 24 hours. The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, is joining her counterparts in the US, Canada, and the UK in issuing a pretty strongly worded statement of condemnation. How do you describe what's just happened in Hong Kong?
ALEX HAWKE: Well, Australia joins with the international community in expressing its concern. We look at this as — what is happening to the One Country, Two System understanding and undertaking that China has given to the international community, but also, importantly, to the people of Hong Kong? And so we've joined with international counterparts to say the passing of this law is deeply concerning to the future of that system and that understanding has been the basis for a very successful Hong Kong.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Do you think the spirit of that concept — One Country, Two Systems — is still alive after this?
ALEX HAWKE: Well it's certainly undermining the commitment to the One Country, Two Systems, and we've expressed our deep concern about that, and I think you'll see the international community put a lot of attention on what will happen now.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Alright. What are you doing in the Pacific? Obviously very significant concerns about the impact of COVID- 19 amongst our Pacific neighbours. But that's coupled, I suppose, with the rising influence of China in that region.
ALEX HAWKE: Well look, I think Australians can be very confident about what we're doing in the Pacific. It's not about China and it's not about strategic influence; it's about helping our family in our neighbourhood. And we've had about 80 requests since January. As you can imagine, COVID has hit us hard, it's hit every major country in the world, hard hit. It's hit every country in the Pacific very hard as well. So with those 80 requests, Australia's stepped in. We've done everything we can to help our neighbours. We're doing health security, economic security, and our budgets and our people on the ground, they're helping everyone that we can, and that's what Australians expect. And they can be confident there that the Government will also be very flexible, as we have been domestically, to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help neighbours with the absolute unforeseen consequences of a very serious pandemic.
HAMISH MACDONALD: You're saying this has nothing to do with our strategic interests? Are you not concerned about the rise of China's influence in the Pacific region?
ALEX HAWKE: Well you see, we're talking here, today, about the development budget and the re-prioritisation of the development budget, and that is about helping our Pacific Partners and our Pacific family. It's not about competition with anybody else. We're not doing it for that reason. We're doing it because COVID threatens Pacific countries in the same way it threatens us, except that there are issues of food security. There are deep economic issues that flow from COVID. And the health challenge, their health systems are not as strong and stable as you might find in Australia. Australia has one of the best health systems in the entire world and it's incumbent on us to make sure that for the people of the Pacific, we're doing as much as we can for them.
HAMISH MACDONALD: To be fair, though, there is competition in the Pacific region. China is there, is increasing its presence there, not just on aid, but in a whole range of different ways. I mean, it's just obvious, isn't it? To observe that Australia's aid programme, in the region, is part of a broader, strategic initiative? Are you denying that?
ALEX HAWKE: Australia's eyes are wide open about our geostrategic issues in the region, always have been. What I'm saying here is with our development budget, the priority is absolutely helping people. And that's the way, I think, Australians want it to be. It's not about a competitive issue and when you look at it, you can see with the health challenges that people face in the Pacific, they're very serious challenges. When I look around and I do, regularly, and I speak to my counterparts regularly and I speak to sections of community in the Pacific; it's often Australia that is leading — absolutely. Not just in dollar terms, but in people on the ground terms, in actual impact and I know we get criticism from a lot of quarters – that we can do more, we should do more. But actually, Australia does more than anybody else and I think Australians need to understand that. We do more than anyone else and sometimes the focus is on other countries and you know, whether it be big powers like China or the US in the region. But actually, Australia's leading the way and we do that out of love for our Pacific family.
HAMISH MACDONALD: But you are diverting $280 million from existing aid programs. Where is that money coming from? What's it being pulled away from to do this?
ALEX HAWKE: The money's coming from existing programs and as you can imagine, with the COVID unprecedented situation, where you've got the situation where private capital is not available, like it has been in the past, and not just in the Pacific but everywhere indeed, we're able to reprioritise with programs that can no longer go ahead. Some of them were very sad, I've got to tell you, like the secondary students’ program with PNG. I mean, Prime Minister Marape came to Cherrybrook Technology High just outside my electorate in Sydney and the secondary students from Australia and PNG were really developing very deep relationships. But the ability to travel, of course, you know, can't continue and so they can go on virtually, but there is a lot of money in programs where, for the next year, that money can be repurposed and spent on life-saving health initiatives and economic initiatives that can really help the Pacific.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Amid all of this, you found $17 million to repurpose some Australian television content; Neighbours, Master Chef, The Voice. How's that going to help the Pacific region recover from the pandemic?
ALEX HAWKE: That was an existing commitment and that was just being delivered now. And some things have to go ahead regardless.
HAMISH MACDONALD: I'm just wondering why that gets prioritised. I mean, you're saying that you're having to find money in some places and put it elsewhere. I mean, is this value for money?
ALEX HAWKE: That's not quite what I'm saying. What I'm saying is there is available money, because when you can't travel and when programs cannot go ahead because of what's happened, we are able to repurpose money. And what I'm saying here is, is the TV commitment's an important commitment, a long-standing commitment from the Government to reimagine our broadcasting and communication in the region. And it sets the beginning of a process, I think, that you'll see from the Australian Government. Now, it can-
HAMISH MACDONALD: So how is an Australian production of an America, of an overseas format like The Voice, in our strategic interests in the Pacific?
ALEX HAWKE: Well, there is a thousand hours of Australian content, being sent into the Pacific and broadcasting within arrangements with different providers, all throughout different countries.
HAMISH MACDONALD: So what's the purpose? How does that benefit?
ALEX HAWKE: Well, there's a huge amount of content in the Pacific, so it is meeting a demand. Of course, there are other methods of doing that. I mean, New Zealand has dedicated channels. Other countries are buying bandwidth to try and provide content. Australia is providing that content and its good Australian cultural content. And I think the links between Australia and the Pacific are a two-way exchange; Australian culture is a good culture and it's good for us to send our content into the Pacific.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Alex Hawke, Thank you very much for your time this morning.
ALEX HAWKE: Thanks so much, Hamish.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Alex Hawke is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, and he is Assistant Minister for Defence.
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