Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC Radio's AM Program
Sabra Lane, Presenter: The federal government's overhauling its foreign aid policy, pledging an extra $1.7 billion over five years to help some of our near neighbours. It will counter China's influence-building in the Indo-Pacific as Beijing spends billions on financing and building key infrastructure. The Albanese government says its policy has been driven by the need to provide stability in the Pacific and help countries grapple with climate change.
Pat Conroy is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Pat Conroy, thanks for joining AM. How much of this new spending is about alleviating poverty and how much of it is about countering China's influence throughout the region?
Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Well, the release of the first development policy in almost a decade is about advancing our national interest and adding another tool to our armoury of statecraft. And we've been very upfront that there's geostrategic competition in the region. The last government cut $11.8 billion in aid, and that left a vacuum that other countries have filled. So, this is obviously about us being the partner of choice for our region, but it's also about lifting people out of poverty. 22 of our 26 closest neighbours are developing countries. It's in our interest for them to be stable and prosperous and to grow. So, this policy does both; it increases our influence in the region; and helps a stable and prosperous Pacific especially, which is in our deep national interest.
Sabra Lane: And that threat throughout the region, with this new infrastructure spending, the government is stipulating that local workers and materials must be used in building highly desired projects. That's really in contrast to what China uses when it offers projects. It uses its own workers. That's certainly a pushback, isn't it?
Minister Conroy: Well, it's responding to the priorities of the region, which is really important. And whenever I travel in the Pacific one of the most frequent complaints I hear is when they have development partners who build infrastructure projects by bringing in an entire labour force. A second complaint is that often the quality of the projects is poor and doesn't last. So in contrast, Australia, where we build infrastructure, we're really focused on the double dividend. Countries we partner with get economic infrastructure that helps grow their economy, it's high-quality infrastructure, and we use local workers who pick up skills, earn money for their families and pay taxes into their economy. And it's a key differentiator between how Australia will do development in the region versus other countries, and it's to our advantage.
Sabra Lane: Other countries? China?
Minister Conroy: China is one of them, absolutely. But this is not isolated to them. And this is really a focus on the Australian way. Where we build a market or a bridge or a road in partnership, I want local labour to be used so that it deepens our economic linkages and grows their economies. It's a really good thing for Australia to be doing and it's in our national interest.
Sabra Lane: The Albanese government is also setting targets too, that half of new investments over $3 million must have a climate change objective, raising to 80 per cent before 2030. There are targets too for gender equality. Why are you stipulating those things?
Minister Conroy: Well for a couple of reasons: one, it responds to the priorities of the region. It's very important that we turn up, we listen, we act on the priorities of our partners. And climate change is the number one threat to the Pacific. And that's why when we do infrastructure projects, when we do development projects in the region, that it should have a climate change objective as well.
On gender equality, this reflects the values of Australia, importantly but, secondly, it's about increasing economic and social inclusion of women in our partner countries. And that's in their long-term interests and helps grow their economy. An example is when we build new markets so that sellers can sell their produce, we look at how do we increase the security. Often, we see female vendors having to sleep under their tables to protect their goods. So how do we put in place security measures so that they have safe accommodation, or they can lock up their goods. That helps them sell more products. That helps lift families out of poverty. It helps grow their economy and helps push gender equality. So it's a really important approach to how we do development, and it's in the long-term interests of the region.
Sabra Lane: Look, I'm interested in the point about climate change. The report does point out that impacts from climate change and associated disasters are growing more severe and are outpacing our collective ability to manage risk. If that's so, what else will the government do?
Minister Conroy: Well, we've got very strong climate targets domestically to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and a 43 per cent reduction by 2030 and to hit just over 80 per cent renewable energy by 2030. So we're taking strong action domestically. But we're also part of the international effort. We've got a climate finance facility for the Pacific to help get renewable energy projects up in the region. We're also very active in negotiations. Australia is back at the table and being a good actor. I represented Prime Minister Albanese at the UN Climate Summit in Egypt last year, and we were working with the Pacific to advance strong action on climate change in a way that's consistent with Australian values. And that's why it's important that we deal with climate change that's happening, and that's how our development projects will have to be focused. But we fight very hard with the rest of the Pacific to stop more climate change occurring.
Sabra Lane: Still, I want to pick up on those words. It says it's outpacing our collective ability to manage risk. Many people would wonder then what else is the government going to do.
Minister Conroy: Well, we're all – one thing we're doing is obviously, as you picked up, which is that 80 per cent of all development investments will have a climate change objective. That includes, for example, when we help a partner to build a road, we make sure it's built in the correct place to survive rising sea levels, or that it's – another example is building new schools that have cyclone-proof screws so that the roofs survive the cyclones that are increasing in intensity. So this is a focus for us in development. It's a focus in our broader policy. And we're also spending $250 million on Australian Development Investments, which is about driving more private investment into the region that has a social impact, including an impact on fighting climate change.
Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for joining AM this morning.
Minister Conroy: Thank you. Have a great morning.
Sabra Lane: That's Pat Conroy, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific.
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