Kieran Gilbert: From the local response, now let's look at how the Morrison Government is partnering with international partners in the region and elsewhere in terms of responding to COVID-19. With me is Alex Hawke, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Minister Hawke, thank you for your time. I want to start by asking you about this programme that was announced – Partnerships for Recovery. And it's been a shift in the development assistance spending from the federal government. Can you talk us through what's happening on that?
Alex Hawke: Thanks Kieran. Well as we know this is one of the worst crises to hit the world in our lifetimes and beyond. And the government has pivoted our development budget to match the needs in our immediate area – so the Pacific, Indonesia, Timor-Leste. All the things that Australians would expect us to be doing at this time, helping our near neighbours and our neighbourhood and our region get through this in the best shape possible. So, we've re-prioritised about $280 million of spending, which couldn't go ahead because of the crisis, to make sure we're focused on health security. But the health security of our region is also our own health security and to also look at what's next in the COVID situation which will be economic recovery. So it's Partnerships for Recovery, and we're working closely with partner countries in the region to make sure that the development budget also does its job to help countries recover.
Kieran Gilbert: And Minister what's the latest in terms of the total numbers in the Pacific? Last time I saw it was very- well basically non-existent in the Pacific. Are there any concerns there, or is it all about the economic impact of the shutdowns?
Alex Hawke: Both. As the Prime Minister has been saying, from the beginning, we've got a health crisis and an economic crisis, and look, Pacific countries, I can only praise them most highly because they've done a great job of keeping COVID outside their borders. They've taken some very strict measures – in some countries you've got 28-day quarantine restrictions. In others you've got complete travel bans, with economies wholly reliant on tourism. Tourism can be 50 per cent of GDP of a Pacific Island country. So, as a consequence of taking the very important decision not to get COVID into fragile health systems, you're right the economic situation in many of our neighbouring countries is going to be quite difficult in coming times. And that's why Australia is stepping up now to make sure we're doing everything we can to help that recovery and help them get through what I think will be one of the most fiscally challenging times in their histories.
Kieran Gilbert: Because while they've been successful in keeping it out, if there were to be an outbreak, it would be diabolical in some of those very small nations.
Alex Hawke: Exactly, and we've been taking the time working, partnering with the World Health Organisation in the Pacific, lots of multilateral agencies, more announcements coming in coming weeks to make sure that their health systems and the health security in our region is as strong as it can possibly be. Just like we've done here in Australia and getting our hospital system ready for any outbreak ready to handle anything that might come now or in a second wave, with the Pacific it is improving its preparedness.
I think all Australians can be very proud of commitments we've made and we've delivered lots of testing kits to Pacific countries. We're working with them on their health resilience and the system structures and all of our agencies are working together with Pacific countries to make sure and regional countries make sure they're ready.
Kieran Gilbert: When you look at the tourism issue – you touched on it – how realistic is it to expect that when the trans-Tasman bubble opens and we expect that within a few months that they'll be broadened out to, say, the likes of Fiji and so on? There'd be many in the tourism industry that would want to see that happen, given how important the New Zealand and Australian markets are to those countries.
Alex Hawke: Well that's exactly right, and Prime Minister Morrison has been clear that we're going to work very hard to get the trans-Tasman bubble up and running as quickly as possible. But that is some months away and as you can imagine the complexity of these arrangements is quite substantial. So, we're very attracted to the idea of, in the future, adding Pacific countries into the trans-Tasman bubble, and Prime Minister Ardern and Prime Minister Morrison mentioned that in their statement about these arrangements. And look, there's plenty of things to work on there. And even when countries are quite keen to do it with us, we're also quite sensitive to the fact that the COVID has been in Australia and New Zealand. We don't want to be infecting Pacific countries. We don't want it to be going from us to them, as much as we want to be helping them with tourism as well. So, there is a lot to do in those arrangements, and many countries in the Pacific at the moment are taking the time to make sure their systems are ready before we're able to reopen and have travel between us.
Kieran Gilbert: Tourism is important. So are seasonal workers, though, aren't they, for many of our agricultural producers, but also for their economies? Seasonal workers are pivotal. What's being done there to still enable Pacific workers to come here for that sort of seasonal work that they play such a crucial role in?
Alex Hawke: Well Kieran, you're right. The Pacific Labour Scheme and the Seasonal Workers Programme have been a great success story for our region and great cultural ties between us, and in some countries, the remittances from Australia are now greater than the development budget we give, real success. So, we send more money back through workers from the Pacific here in Australia who work on our farms and in other industries – they send more money back than we give to that country in development donations, which is a really outstanding success. So, the government has guaranteed Pacific workers here an extra year if they want to stay here. Of course, they have to make that decision that they'd like to apply and stay and they can. We've also given them the options of moving some industries, as you know, and our regional areas are completely shut down. Others can't operate, like tourism. So, we've enabled them to move between employers more easily, and that's happening. And I've been on the phone to a lot of regional employers, listening to them about their needs, and the government's keen to work with all of our Pacific partners at the moment to see if we can enable cohorts of Pacific workers to keep coming here during this time. They play a vital role in our economic development in the regions and they're very well regarded.
Kieran Gilbert: Have you picked up, finally, any sign that China is looking to increase its influence right now by its own support for the region?
Alex Hawke: Well, there's certainly been some assistance from China going to Pacific countries. You know, they're hindered by the same restrictions as everyone else. There's no travel, there's no ability to move. I mean, it's been very difficult. Australia, I think, I'd go back to and say: we made an important decision to keep all of our essential personnel in the region, even at the height of the crisis. And many people had to pull out for different reasons, many countries pulled out. Many contractors pulled out. Many officials from different agencies, multilaterally, had to leave. But Australia made the decision to keep essential personnel in place and work with countries all through the crisis. So, we've done a great job of that, and I would stand up and say Australia again is at the forefront in our region, as you'd expect, number one country in the world working with our partners to make sure they're getting through this crisis unscathed.
We do make the point though generally about assistance when it comes from other countries that it has to be valuable, has to be timely, and it has to work. And there have been examples of items sent to the Pacific that don't work – medical equipment, things that are defective. These things are not welcome. They do hinder the progress that we're making and it's incumbent on all countries to take the time to sort out that they're sending helpful aid to small and vulnerable countries, and make sure that it does assist.
Kieran Gilbert: Mr Hawke, thanks. We'll talk to you soon.
Alex Hawke: Thanks Kieran.
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555