Interview with Tom Connell, SKY News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s new international development policy, official development assistance, infrastructure projects, gender equality targets in Australia’s development investments.

Tom Connell: Well, Australia has released a fresh blueprint for international development, and will overhaul the nearly $5 billion a year foreign aid program. It's in part to counter China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. Joining me now for more on this is Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy. Thanks for your time.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Morning.

Tom Connell: So, it's about obviously countering Beijing's influence. How do we compete in dollar terms? Is there a rough annual amount that you can tell us, ballpark, that China tips into the area?

Minister Conroy: Well, other research organisations have done great work. Lowy Institute have done a great map on foreign aid, which I urge your viewers to go and look at. But I think if we go back to base principles here, the last government cut $11.8 billion from foreign aid. That left a vacuum. Other countries have filled that vacuum. We're now committing to get back in the game and use foreign aid to support - or international development - to support our other levers of statecraft, whether it's diplomacy, military cooperation, policing. So, today's policy announcement is all about us trying to be the partner of choice for the region because that's in our national interest. It's in our national interest to be the partner of choice.

Tom Connell: Okay, but I mean, Lowy's done work on this. You're the government. Do you have a government figure or ballpark figure? Are you saying Lowy's amount's accurate? How much are we talking?

Minister Conroy: Look, I don't think it's useful to compare figures because they measure different things.

Tom Connell: But I can understand that -

Minister Conroy: But let me give you an example.

Tom Connell: I'm not trying to say, what's the point here if they're spending? I'm just trying to say –

Minister Conroy: Well, let me give you –

Tom Connell: Do we have a handle on it?

Minister Conroy: So, Australia is the biggest development partner in the Pacific, and we give just over - well, we provide just over $1.9 billion into the region. So, we are the biggest development partner in the Pacific region. And that's really important if we want to be the partner of choice. Other countries make contributions –

Tom Connell: The loans from China too, they can get pretty significant, right?

Minister Conroy: There are loans that are obviously there, and how you treat them depends on the nature of the project. But we're proud to be the biggest development partner. This policy is all about emphasising that through new initiatives, particularly around infrastructure, driving local content, so that we get workers from Pacific countries and in the Indo-Pacific to participate.

Tom Connell: Are you reluctant to put a number on China because it sounds impressive?

Minister Conroy: I just want to focus on talking about what we're doing. I'm the Minister of International Development in Australia, so I'd like to talk about our policy and what we're doing.

Tom Connell: So, on the sort of parameters around the aid, we want to make sure the money is well spent, doesn't go towards corrupt projects, a whole lot of other, sort of parameters. Well, will we be in a situation where we won't hesitate to tell governments if they have, say, a less than stringent approach to money, "Sorry, we have these terms, we won't shift"?

Minister Conroy: Well, one part of our policy being announced is a real step up in evaluation of programs, real-time evaluation that feeds back into the program as it's being delivered and independent assessment after the fact. And the intention is most of that to be published publicly so people can review our program because it's taxpayers' dollars and people should have confidence that that money is being spent wisely to achieve something, which it does. We work with partner countries on their priorities, but we always make sure that the projects we engage in are the highest quality and they actually grow an economy, have an impact, and that's our focus.

Tom Connell: Does it risk putting off some countries or governments if they say, look, China's going to tip this money in or another country will, they have as many strings attached, if you like, on all these evaluations? Can't you - if you want to have influence here - help us out.

Minister Conroy: Well, we've got a great reputation for the projects we engage in and we sort of have a series of principles that drive it. Those principles are first, transparency. Secondly, responding to the priorities of the partner nations. Thirdly, highest quality projects, because often you see development projects that aren't great quality. Fourthly, they come with no strings attached. We don't place conditions on, we'll fund this if you do something over here. And fifthly, maximising local content so that we use workers in the Indo-Pacific rather than bringing an entire workforce to build a project.

Tom Connell: Yeah, so on that, perhaps you picked me up on my wording, but we don't have a quid pro quo, but we have conditions that have to be met.

Minister Conroy: Yeah, the money has to be used for the project, it has to be acquitted to the highest possible standards. This money should be used on what we're being funded for.

Tom Connell: Is there a hope that it sort of wins hearts and minds among the local people, even if it might annoy some governments? I remember hearing the story of a hospital that had been Chinese-funded, but Australians were working in it and the locals called it the Australian Hospital, much to the frustration of the Chinese government. Is that the sort of thing that you're hoping to get out of this? Even if you annoy some governments, if you do the right things, you win local hearts and minds for the longer term?

Minister Conroy: Well, development is enormously powerful as a way of building our reputation, us being a partner of choice, and that's why and I bore people, that's why I'm actually really focussed -

Tom Connell: Never bored on here. We talk policy on this program.

Minister Conroy: That's good. Well, I'm going to bore you or I'm going to talk policy for a second.

Tom Connell: I mean, I've got time limit.

Minister Conroy: I'm really focused on the local content aspect. People in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the Pacific, are sick of seeing projects funded by external partners - Asian Development Bank or specific countries - that bring in workforces from outside when their people can do the job. You get a double economic dividend. You get the economic infrastructure, the new road, the new markets. And they have their own workers building it, getting the skills to maintain it. And that's a key part of this policy, is focusing on those, to win the hearts of minds and to maximise the benefit of these development projects.

Tom Connell: One of the objectives you announced is 80 per cent of the projects would need to satisfy gender equality objectives. How that work (sic)? Let's say you want to, I don't know, build a hospital. How does that need to be - have gender equality? How do you achieve that?

Minister Conroy: Well, you could look at the services that hospital provides to make sure that they pay attention to the needs of both genders. Think of things around sort of birth, pregnancy, or it could be on training around it. Are we training sufficient doctors that are female? I'll give you -

Tom Connell: When the construction, like the construction - I imagine you've got a lot of male construction workers. You can't say, hey, 50/50 construction.

Minister Conroy: No, it's not about being that definite. I'll give you an example. We build a lot of markets in the Pacific because we want people in the Pacific to grow things and sell them to grow their economy. Often, they're female vendors, and if you don't have proper security in the markets, they have to sleep under their tables at night to protect their goods. That leads to huge issues around gender-based violence. So, when we build markets, we design them to have proper security to lock up and store their goods, so women are safe at night. That's meeting a gender objective, that's allowing them to participate in the economy, grow their economy and sell their products.

Tom Connell: So, it's not like every aspect of each thing, 80 per cent of it overall needs to be gender equal. It's more about where you can - where possible, where you can achieve that action.

Minister Conroy: So, in 80 per cent of programs, having a gender objective of how this is support advancing gender equality.

Tom Connell: Okay. I don't think you've bored anyone today.

Minister Conroy: Excellent. Always a KPI.

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