Interview with Pacific Beat, ABC Radio Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Budget, responding to Pacific priorities, Pacific security, climate change investments, Pacific Engagement Visa, Official Development Assistance

Prianka Srinivasan: You're listening to ABC Radio Australia; my name is Prianka Srinivasan. As we heard earlier in the show Australia's putting almost $2 billion into the Pacific but where exactly will that money go?

To find out we have Australia's Pacific Minister Pat Conroy on the line. Good morning to you, Minister.

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

Prianka Srinivasan: I'm well. Now most of this money is actually going to security in the Pacific, things like developing Pacific wharves, Defence training, funding for Papua New Guinea and Fiji's Air Forces. Is that really what the people of the Pacific want Australia to prioritise?

Pat Conroy: Well we're listening to our partner governments and that's very important to emphasise, that when we discuss our funding priorities it's listening to the priorities of Pacific governments and the people. We show up, we listen, and we show respect.

One of the key messages we've got from governments of the Pacific is that they need help with infrastructure, particularly the Pacific Maritime Security Program that we run to combat illegal fishing. And they'd like more support around policing in the Pacific.

Of the $1.9 billion, yes, there's a big security component and a big chunk of that is supporting policing and law and justice in the Pacific, which I know is a key priority for governments in our region.

Prianka Srinivasan: But Minister Conroy, I mean you say it's a priority of a Pacific government but is it mainly Australia's priority?I mean it sounds very similar to some of the agreements China is penning with Pacific governments. Is this really just an outcome of China's own increasing security influence in the region?

Pat Conroy: Well first I should put this in context. This is a $1.9 billion package. Over $300 million of it is supporting the Pacific Labour Scheme to increase remittance flows back to the Pacific and provide further protection to workers. There's also money for deep ‑‑

Prianka Srinivasan: Oh, I think we just lost the Minister there but ‑ I hope ‑ no.

Pat Conroy: ‑‑ and cultural connections and this is on top of everything we do.

Prianka Srinivasan: Oh sorry. Sorry, Minister, you did just cut out.

Pat Conroy: Right.

Prianka Srinivasan: We will go into some of the other money and the other funding that this, as you said, this $1.9 billion funding is going to. But I return to the question on security. I mean 1.4 billion of that 1.9 billion is going to security, so again I ask is this simply an outcome of China's own increasing security in the region?

Pat Conroy: It's an outcome of listening to our partners. I'll give you an example. I was in Tonga at the end of last year and one of the key messages when I sat down with the Prime Minister and the Commissioner of Police was they were keen for more investment to support their policing needs. So Tonga faces challenges through things like, for example, transnational crime, Tonga being a cross‑shipment point across the Pacific. So they were keen for further support for policing in the region.

When I sit down with the Government of Papua New Guinea they're very clear with me they'd like support, more infrastructure support for their Police Force, more training, more equipment.

So we respond to the priorities of the Pacific, that is what being part of the Pacific family is about and that's what governments of the Pacific have said to us is a critical priority.

Prianka Srinivasan: I'll put it in another way, Minister. Are you worried that if Australia didn't come to the table when it comes to the security agreements and the security funding, that China might?

Pat Conroy: Well we're putting into action the spirit of the PIF leaders’ declaration from last year, which is that the Pacific looks to itself for its security needs, that if any member of the Pacific family has security requirements they should look to other members of the Pacific family to provide that security first.

This package is a practical manifestation of the PIF leaders’ communique, that's why I'm so proud of it. It's about the Australian Government showing up, showing respect and listening to the priorities of the region.

Prianka Srinivasan: The Pacific has said time and time again that the region's biggest threat, including its security threat, is climate - but there's very, very little new investment on climate in this budget compared to security. How do you justify that?

Pat Conroy: Well I think you need to place it in context of everything else we're doing. First, we've provided a $1.4 billion increase in Official Development Assistance in the October Budget last year. The assistance to the Pacific reaches record highs of $1.9 billion and a big component of that is ODA related to climate change, both reducing emissions and dealing with the inevitable impacts of climate change.

Our development assistance has had its highest increase since 2011, and that has a focus on climate change - is my point one.

Point two is the fact that this Government has listened to the priorities of the Pacific, and climate change is the number one issue for the Pacific, and that's why we've passed climate laws in Australia to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 on the way to net‑zero by 2050, plus a safeguard mechanism to actually provide the institutional support to drive those emissions down, and we are playing a much stronger role in international climate change debates.

For example, at the PIF foreign ministers’ meeting last year I announced that Australia would be supporting Vanuatu's process to get an International Court of Justice opinion on climate change. That's a significant change from the last Australian Government. We are bidding to host a UN climate conference in conjunction with the Pacific. So this is a government that's all in on fighting climate change, and we absolutely agree that it's the number one priority for the governments and peoples of the Pacific and that's what we're doing as well.

Prianka Srinivasan: Let's turn now to Pacific migration to Australia. It's something that our listeners really want to know about, specifically the Pacific Engagement Visa to get more Australian permanent residents from the Pacific into the country. Will the Government be investing in that?

Pat Conroy: Well we've made significant investments in the Pacific Engagement Visa. This is a revolutionary change in Australia's migration system to allocate at least 3,000 permanent migration spots to one region, the Pacific, which we proudly do as a member of the Pacific family, and we're very keen to get the scheme up and running. Importantly, Pacific countries determine ‑ we determine in conjunction with Pacific countries how many people will come from each Pacific country. Some countries see the potential more than others so this is something that will be determined in conjunction with Pacific governments, but this is all about building the people-to- people links in the Pacific and there's huge amounts of support for newly arrived Pacific migrants under this scheme. There won't be the normal waiting periods for most social support measures that other permanent residents would get. So that's recognition of our special relationship with the Pacific.

Prianka Srinivasan:

When will it happen though, Minister?It's earmarked for July, is that still expected that that's when it will pass, and you'll start accepting applications from the Pacific?

Pat Conroy: Well we'll see. We still have to get it through the Australian Senate. The Opposition is embarked on a bizarre strategy of opposing it. They're opposing the Pacific Engagement Visa ostensibly because they object to the lottery ballot system that we'll be using to select participants. That's a critical part of it. It's been modelled on the successful Green Card scheme in the United States and the New Zealand scheme because unless you have a random ballot selection of people who are pre‑qualified, you do face issues of brain drain.

But under the system we've got a school leaver from the Pacific has as much chance of being selected as a lawyer, a teacher or a doctor. So that random ballot part of the system is critical. And it's incredibly irresponsible of the Opposition to oppose that. It undermines the whole scheme, and it undermines our attempts to improve our relationships with the Pacific.

So we're working hard to get the numbers in the Senate and once we've got those numbers we'll pass the legislation, and we'll get it into operation.

When I go around the Pacific, governments and people are really excited by the Pacific Engagement Visa because it's all about building the people-to-people links between countries in our region, and that can only be a good thing for our region.

Prianka Srinivasan: Yes. We're almost out of time, Minister, but I did want to ask you there is no increase in aid in this budget. Is that fair considering that many Pacific countries are still recovering from COVID lockdowns and major disasters?

Pat Conroy: Well that's actually incorrect. There's a small increase in the annual amount going to the Pacific this year.

Prianka Srinivasan: But not an increase in the percentage?

Pat Conroy: And secondly, we have restored the 2.5 per cent indexation of the ODA, Official Development Assistance. So we have the biggest increase in foreign aid, in Official Development Assistance since 2010/11. We are providing record amounts to the Pacific and that is going up, and we're proud of our efforts there. This is a critical part of us supporting the Pacific family and developing their priorities. What I'm saying to you is it's going up; it will continue to go up in --

Prianka Srinivasan: But there is criticism that the overall percentage, which I believe stands at 0.2 per cent, is below what the UN in fact advises.

Pat Conroy: Well there's many ways of counting the percentage, and I know for example some countries count onshore refugees ‑‑

Prianka Srinivasan: Well we'll have to agree to disagree, Minister, because we are out of time. But thank you for going through this. We'll invite you back on the show to clear some of that up. Thank you.

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