Interview with ABC Radio Australia Pacific beat

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: October 2022 Budget, Investment in the Pacific, COP-27

Richard Ewart: And for a more in-depth look at what funding is going into the Pacific region we're joined by the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy. Good morning, Minister, welcome back to Pacific Beat.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Good morning. How are you?

Richard Ewart: Great, thank you. Last night while delivering the budget the Treasurer spoke about ending disrespect to our neighbours in the Pacific and being diligent partners. How was that reflected in the Budget?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, this Budget demonstrates the deep respect and admiration that the Australian government has for the Pacific and it builds on our very strong election policies. And, most importantly, it reflects our listening to the priorities of the Pacific. So, it included a record amount of development assistance to the Pacific of 1.9 billion. It also includes concrete initiatives to support more infrastructure in the Pacific. It includes supports for independent journalism in the Pacific. It includes a very strong security package to enhance the security prosperity of the Pacific. And it really deepens and makes more attractive the Pacific-Australia Labour Mobility Scheme, which I think is critical to the economic future of both Australia and the broader Pacific region.

Richard Ewart: Minister, some experts are already calling it a broken promise saying by their calculations aid will decrease as a percentage of gross national income over time. Are you still committed to your promise in the Labor platform to increase aid as a percentage of gross national income over time every year?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: We've delivered on what we took to the last election, and, in fact, we've exceeded it. At the last election we promised to increase overseas development assistance foreign aid by about a billion dollars. And, in fact, we're increasing foreign aid by $1.4 billion. And all that additional money is going to the Pacific.

And it's really important to set in place what is the alternative. The alternative to our increase in foreign aid of 1.4 billion is what the previous Coalition government was going to do. The last Coalition budget had overseas development assistance foreign aid actually being cut this year, being cut next year, being cut the year after, back down to $4 billion a year. By contrast, we are spending $4.65 billion on foreign aid, and, as I said, 1.9 billion of that will be going to the Pacific, which is the largest ever development package for the Pacific that an Australian government has ever given.

Richard Ewart: Some would say the government's $900 million in funding to the Pacific over the next four years is a knee jerk reaction to China's growing influence in the region. Would that be a correct assessment?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: No, I reject that assessment. It's a response to the needs of the broader Pacific family. When we came to power we said our first job in the Pacific is to listen to the Pacific, and we've listened by taking action on climate change. We've listened by increasing our foreign aid, our aid to the Pacific. And we've done it in a way by responding to their priorities. So, for example, there's increased climate assistance within this package. So, this is all about listening to the needs of the Pacific and being a good long-term partner to the Pacific, building on the tradition of Labor governments that go back to the Hawke-Keating government and previously to the Whitlam government. So that's the main agenda here.

Richard Ewart: We see as part of that there is an allocation for the AFP's continued presence in Solomon Islands. How much is that, and what is the rationale behind that move?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, that funding goes to extend the SIA deployment beyond the Pacific Games and the assistance there is $45.5 million. So that's to continue the important work of the Solomons International Assistance force, which has been really important in helping stabilise the country post the riots last year. And, importantly, it responds to the requests of the Solomon Islands government.

Richard Ewart: As part of that also, though, reaction to China's presence in Honiara, which has been much talked about in the last 12 months?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: No, we're the security of partner of choice for the Solomon Islands. That's what Prime Minister Sogavare and his ministers have repeatedly stated. And this builds on the billions of dollars we've spent on the RAMSI deployment to Solomon Islands. So, this is just a continuation of our support for security and stability in our region.

Richard Ewart: You're listening to Pacific Beat on this post-budget morning. And on the line with me is the Minister for International Develop and the Pacific, Pat Conroy. Minister, the Pacific through the Pacific Islands Forum have said that climate change is the number one priority, and you mentioned before that there is funding for that in the budget. How is that reflected exactly in this Budget?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we'll be delivering $2 billion in climate aid over the next period of time. And a big – a very significant amount of that – 700 million, in fact – will go to build climate change and disaster resilience in the Pacific. And, importantly, we also deliver on our election commitment to establish a Pacific climate infrastructure financing partnership to really work on supporting the Pacific.

And that will do three things: one, it will support climate mitigation activities, so reducing the already very small greenhouse gas emissions from Pacific Island nations; secondly, to invest in adaptation, to invest in things like sea walls and building infrastructure that is responding to rising sea levels and greater storms; and third is to support small-scale renewable energy projects to give greater energy independence to Pacific Island nations, which is important not just from a climate change point of view but also allows them to cut their dependence on very expensive diesel fuel imports to their countries.

Richard Ewart: If the Australian infrastructure facility, which has been highlighted as a priority, if that's essentially a loan to Pacific Island nations, is that a good idea, especially since many countries still deal with the after-effects of Covid?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: We are very conscious about not adding unsustainable debt to our Pacific partners. And that's why when we look at projects we really work closely with the governments of those countries to make sure that any debt taken on is sustainable and adds to the economic potential of the country.

But, importantly, in this budget we also announced an additional $500 million of grants through the Australian infrastructure financing facility for the Pacific. So, the $500 million announced in this Budget is not for additional loans; there's already billions of dollars of loans available. It's $500 million of grants, and, of course, grants don't need to be repaid; they're one-off payments for support infrastructure being established.

Richard Ewart: And apart from that, Green Peace says there should be a loss and damage fund set up to fight climate change. What are your thoughts on that?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we're working through the various initiatives that people will be discussing at COP27 in Egypt next month. Importantly, we've said a number of things about how we want to work with the Pacific on climate change. First is from our point of view the most direct and significant thing we can do, which is cut our own greenhouse gas emission. And unlike previous Labor – unlike previous Australian governments, we've committed to 43 per cent reductions by 2030 on the way to net zero emissions by 2050 and delivering 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030. So that's very significant because obviously we are an emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.

We've got the climate financing facility for the Pacific, which is very important. We're also seeking to host a COP in partnership with the Pacific to highlight what the Pacific is experiencing right now, including Australia, on climate change. And, importantly, we're also changing our attitude to supporting Pacific voices in multilateral fora. Previously Australian governments have shut down Pacific voices. Instead, we're committed to amplifying those voices. And so, for example, international fora as diverse as the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

I supported calls from Pacific Island nations, particularly Tuvalu, on reforming the UN maritime laws so that exclusive economic zones are preserved when islands are lost. So that's just an example of how the new Australian government is committed to supporting strong climate action and amplifying the voice of the Pacific.

Richard Ewart: We'll be watching closely to see how the Budget is implemented over the next few years. Thanks very much for joining us, Minister.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Not a problem. Have a great morning. Bye-bye.

Richard Ewart: Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy.

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