Interview with Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i, SBS Radio 1

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: China relationship, Pacific Islands Forum, Assistance and aid, Climate change, Offshore processing, Labour visas

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: Senator Pat Conroy. First up, Congratulations on winning the election and, of course, becoming the Minister for International Development and the Pacific.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you very much. It's a real privilege and I'm really excited about the role.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: The last time we spoke before the elections (sic), I asked you a few questions about the relationship with China. Now that you are the Minister on Pacific Affairs, how has that relationship changed since you came into office?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I think obviously we've seen some small changes from China, where obviously we had the bilateral meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Marles and his Chinese counterpart on the side lines of the Shangri-La Dialogue last week, and that's obviously a good thing. But we've been very clear that the Albanese Labor government will prosecute very strongly our national interest, including strong messages to the Chinese government about lifting the trade barriers they've imposed on our exports.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: The Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, has done the rounds of Pacific Nations since you came into office. How has that changed the tone in the dialogue with members of the Pacific Islands Forum?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, I think it's a very important symbol of the new government's intent to deepen our relationship with the Pacific family. I think that visits alone aren't enough. But I think it's very important to show respect to our Pacific family and, to have Foreign Minister Wong visit so many nations so early, I think it's a great sign. And one of the criticisms I had of the previous government was that the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, was more interested in Paris than the Pacific, and I think that was against Australia's interests and weakened the Pacific family.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: The Pacific Islands Forum, is it next month or not too far away? Any plans from the Federal Government?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, Australia will have a strong representation at the Forum. We're trying to finalise that now. I know officials were there early this week or late last week for the officials' level meetings, but the PIF is the critical piece of the regional infrastructure for the Pacific Islands, and it's something where we are very committed to it to deepen the Pacific family. I certainly welcomed the Suva Agreement that was led by the PIF chair, Fiji, and Prime Minister Bainimarama and I really welcome the fact that everyone is working hard to strengthen the Pacific family after obviously a couple of years of stress around COVID.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: On COVID, it's still around not just in Australia, but right around the region. Where to from here, further assistance and in what form?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we've obviously provided a significant number of vaccines to the Pacific. That includes over 220 tonnes of humanitarian supplies and obviously millions of vaccine doses. So we stand ready to support further requests there. We also acknowledged the deep economic impact of COVID and the isolation of some of the Pacific Island nations. I had a meeting with the Prime Minister of Cook Islands yesterday where this was a topic of discussion, and we're very committed to being a partner in the economic recovery for Pacific Islands, and particularly the need to diversify economies away from tourism, which is one of the lessons out of the COVID pandemic.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: Environment, climate change?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we've made significant election commitments around climate change that have been welcomed by the region and quite frankly, by most of the world, including a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 on the way to a legislated net zero emissions by 2050, and 82 per cent renewable energy and a recommitment to the global talks, including bidding to host a UN conference of the parties in partnership with the other Pacific Nations. So I think people have been very positive about our reengagement on climate change, and I think that you've seen messages from Pacific Island leaders to that effect, and I think that's something where we're very keen to discuss that at the Pacific Island Forum leaders' meetings about how we can further support the region in combating climate change. And obviously dealing with climate change that is unavoidable. That's why our climate financing facility for the Pacific is obviously so important as well.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: The other thorny issue is the issue of offshore processing centres. Any chance of those offshore processing centres being opened again in the Pacific Islands under your government?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we remain committed to the same border policies of the previous government, with the exception of, we do not support temporary protection visas, so I think the Pacific can expect a continuation of the previous policies. So I'm not anticipating any other changes, but again, that's more a question for the Minister of Home Affairs rather than myself. But can I just reconfirm that our border protection policies are the same as the last government, with the exception of TPVs.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: I guess it would be back to normal with regards to assistance in the form of scholarships and health?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well, we're certainly committed to investing in the education and health of the Pacific region, in particular in education. For example, we had invested $236 million in Pacific education and skills last year, and obviously very significant investment in health, particularly around the pandemic. We're also really interested in how do we support skills transfer and economic development via Pacific participation in the Australian labour markets. For example, right now there's a trial going on of Pacific Island workers working in aged care, which is obviously has huge potential for Australia, given we've got a shortage of aged care workers, but also of those Pacific Island workers bringing those skills back to care for people in their own community, as well as remitting significant amounts of income. So we've been very clear that we think that we want to work with the Pacific Islands around education, skills and training, as well as temporary migration schemes that provide strong remittance flows back to the region, as well as significant skills transfer.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: And the Ag visa that was proposed by the last Minister of Agriculture, is that still alive and active or?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: As part of our?

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: As part of your Pacific seasonal workers policy?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Yes. We announced that the agricultural stream would be folded into the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme (PALM) as a third stream there and would only be open to Pacific Island workers and workers from Timor-Leste. We would honour all agreements made by the previous government, which mainly relates to Vietnam, but we think the agricultural visa is better located within the Pacific Labour Schemes and we've being very clear that we think, not think, we want Pacific Island workers to be the primary source of temporary migrant labour for rural and regional industries such as agriculture, tourism, hospitality, potentially aged care. We think that obviously fills the economic needs of Australia but as importantly helps provide opportunities for economic development in the Pacific and we've got that obligation to our nearest neighbours and as members of the Pacific family we think that's a great opportunity.

Ioane Tiperio Lafoa'i: That's very much in line with what you told me in our chat just before the election. Senator Pat Conroy, thanks very much and congratulations again on the win.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Thank you again and have a lovely evening.

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