Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC TV's News Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s new international development policy, the new $250 million Australian Development Investment vehicle to encourage private investment, infrastructure investments, climate, the Voice, First Nations’ links with the Pacific.

Lisa Millar: The federal government has unveiled a new policy document on international development which it says is designed to underpin a peaceful, stable and prosperous Indo‑Pacific region.

Well, to explain what that means and if it's enough to counter China's growing influence, we're joined by Pat Conroy, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Minister, good morning to you.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Good morning, how are you?

Lisa Millar: What are you trying to achieve with this updated policy?

Minister Conroy: This is the first development policy in almost a decade and it's all about advancing our national interest by Australia being a partner of choice for our region.

The last government cut $11.8 billion in development assistance, in foreign aid and that left a vacuum that other countries have filled in our region. So this development policy is all about bringing Australia back, increasing our influence and adding another tool to our armoury of statecraft to make sure we're the partner of choice to advance a stable and prosperous Indo‑Pacific. So this is about our national interest as well as lifting people out of poverty in our region.

Lisa Millar: I get the sensitivities here, I know that you say other countries fill in the gap, you're not naming China, but we wouldn't be treating our viewers properly if we didn't just lay that out there because clearly, it is about China. China's been negotiating those security pacts in the region. How does that factor into what you're trying to do here? Does it mean the focus is on what you're doing security wise? Where does the funding go? Who gets employed?

Minister Conroy: There's no point denying the fact that there is geostrategic competition going on in our region and Australia's –

Lisa Millar: With China.

Minister Conroy: – and Australia's fighting very hard to be the partner of choice for that region. We're proud to be the security partner of choice, which means working with the police forces in our region to build their capacity, make investment in new police stations so that they can invest in law and order.

But it's also about economic security. So one of the big announcements out of this project is when Australia partners to do infrastructure investments in the region, that we prioritise and maximise local workers doing the work. That gives a double economic dividend. The country gets the economic infrastructure, whether it's a new road or bridge or markets, but their workers get the skills and the pay to build that infrastructure. And that is different from how other countries do development in our region and it's something that advances our national interest and grows the economies of our partner countries.

For example, 22 of our 26 closest neighbours are developing countries. We want them to grow, we want them to be stable and prosperous. That's essential to our national interest and our security.

Lisa Millar: Is there new funding to go with this strategy, or only what we've already seen announced in the Labor government's previous two budgets?

Minister Conroy: Well, we allocated through those two budgets a $1.7 billion increase in foreign aid. That's the biggest increase in official development assistance in a decade. So that was a very significant investment.

We also announced in this policy a $250 million Australian Development Investments, which is a fund to do impact investing to grow companies in the region that are making a social impact. Whether it's advancing climate change action, gender, disability inclusion. So there is a $250 million funding announcement associated with this. But the big funding increase is to try and fill the hole that was created when the last government dropped the ball, which we've done in our last two budgets and we are on a long‑term path to rebuild the aid budget because it's in our national interest. We don't want to have a vacuum continuing that has been filled by our countries.

Lisa Millar: The foreign aid budget is still very low compared to other developed nations, isn't it? We're among the lowest.

Minister Conroy: Well it depends on how you measure it. Other countries count things that quite frankly we don't count as foreign aid. Secondly, the last government was so opposed to using the words foreign aid, they didn't count it properly.

So, for example, when our Navy ships go and help a country like Vanuatu after cyclones, that is a form of foreign aid that has a monetary value that the last government didn't count. But the basic point is we saw the biggest increase in foreign aid in a decade through our last two budgets, $1.7 billion, and we've got a long‑term path to rebuild it over the decade. It's not just how much you spend, it's what you spend it on. Our focus on quality infrastructure investments using local workers, our requirement that in the long‑term, 80 per cent of all programs have a climate objective and 80 per cent have a gender objective, all about advancing the interests of our partners and having programs that reflect Australian values. This is how we become the partner of choice for the region.

Lisa Millar: I'm glad you just said then you raised Australian values, because I wonder looking ahead to the Voice referendum, if it fails, what's the message? Are you worried about the message that might send to these nations and what they might think about the relationship Australia has with its First Nations people? Have you thought about that?

Minister Conroy: Our development policy does include including First Nations history and First Nations approaches in how we've designed that development policy and how we're engaged in our region and the government –

Lisa Millar: Yes, so if the referendum is lost, if the referendum goes down, which the polls suggest it would at this point, what message does that then send?

Minister Conroy: Oh, look, the government has been clear that the rest of the world is watching what is occurring with the Voice referendum. How Australia relates to our First Nations is something that other countries do have an interest in. And when I travel, for example in the Pacific, people in the Pacific are focused on how we're advancing reconciliation with our First Nations people. And they've also got deep linkages. For example, when I go to countries like Vanuatu, they do talk about how we relate to First Nations. And there's been long‑term relationships across the Torres Strait, for example. So it is important and there is an international dimension. But the reason we're fighting for the Voice referendum and are fighting for a Voice is that it's in the interest of Australia, that it will improve policy making. We can no longer stand by and have an eight-year difference in life expectancy between Indigenous Australians and all other Australians and that's why the Voice is so important.

Lisa Millar: Yes, but just staying finally on your area and what we're talking about here with the Pacific and those relationships, given how we've seen China operate in that area could you imagine them using a result from the referendum as part of their domestic argument about what they're putting to the people?

Minister Conroy: Oh, look, I don't think it's productive to engage in hypotheticals other than say, of course, the rest of the world is watching what is occurring with the referendum, and we've got a tremendous diplomatic kudos by how we've advanced our relationship with First Nations since we came to government, and we want to continue that.

Lisa Millar: Pat Conroy, good to have you on the program this morning, thank you.

Minister Conroy: Thank you, have a great morning.

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