Interview with Inga Stünzner – Pacific Beat, ABC Radio Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Budget 2021 and foreign aid; Pacific vaccines; Chinese vaccines; Samoan election; Papuan provinces; Cook Islands travel bubble

Inga Stünzner: Well, this week the Australian Government handed down its National Budget, setting out how and where it will spend its money. With the global COVID-19 pandemic continuing, the Budget was heavily focused on domestic spending getting Australia's economy back on track and helping Australians who lost their jobs over the last year. But the Government has come under fire for not doing enough to help other countries, especially those in the Pacific who during their time of need. It will still maintain a $4 billion aid budget, but it won't be spending as much on COVID-19 support over the next year. And aid groups say that over all, that means the amount of foreign assistance will fall over the next year.

To respond to this and other issues in the region. We're joined now by Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development Zed Seselja. Good morning, and thank you for joining us, Minister.

Minister Seselja: Good morning, Inga.

Inga Stünzner: Well, first, Australia's economy is doing much better than was initially predicted at the start of the pandemic, but the COVID-19 situation is worsening in a number of our neighbouring countries. How does the Australian Government justify winding back funding for overseas coronavirus assistance in this climate?

Minister Seselja: Well, it's not a fair characterisation at all, to suggest that we're winding it back. In fact, when it comes to delivering vaccines to the region, we are very much ramping it up. And so, the picture, in terms of support, overall support for the Pacific, is that we are delivering a record amount this year and next year. Our aid to the Pacific, our support to the Pacific has sat at a record amount of around $1.4 billion dollars a year. This year and next year, we'll be spending substantially more than that. In fact, an extra $470 million over those two years.

Specifically, so that we can respond to this crisis we announced temporary and targeted measures that are about delivering vaccines to the regions. So, we've committed to full vaccine rollout for the Pacific as part of this multimillion dollar - hundreds of millions of dollars - support package. And we're delivering that now. In fact, we've committed at the moment to around 10,000 - at least 10,000 vaccines into the region per week. We've seen 10,000 go to Fiji last week, we saw over 8,000 go into PNG, 20,000 to Timor-Leste. And in fact, this week, we'll see more going to Fiji and PNG as they deal with their COVID situations in those countries.

Inga Stünzner: So in terms of- you know, the fact that the $4 billion aid budget is going to be maintained, this particular spending on COVID support, is that going to be in addition to that $4 billion budget?

Minister Seselja: Yeah, absolutely. And so, the whole purpose of the additional support we announced over and above our $4 billion aid budget, over and above the $1.4 billion that we give annually to the Pacific, is about dealing with this crisis. And so, we are dealing with the crisis with those countries, we are dealing with it with multilateral organisations like UNICEF and some of that money has been brought forward urgently whether it's in economy support or in health support.

Our political opponents who criticise it would effectively have us holding some of that back in order for the picture to look better in future years. I'm not interested in the picture looking better in future years, I'm interested in what we can do right now and we are delivering that support as quickly as we can get it out there, as soon as we can. We're working with those nations to deliver the support.

For instance, in the Solomon Islands recently, they accepted our offer of 60,000 doses. We recently signed an agreement with UNICEF to help deliver six million doses into the Pacific. So, our effort has stepped up considerably in the Pacific. It will continue to do that because the Pacific is our family, our friends and our Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said, we've got a moral and economic necessity to help vaccinate the region and that's exactly what we intend to do.

Inga Stünzner: Well, Minister, this week, the WHO approved China's Sinopharm vaccine and that's expected to start rolling out in countries like Solomon Islands, PNG and Vanuatu. So, in terms of this extra support that Australia is putting in, how much is this to do with the fact that China is getting in there to give vaccinations? Is this a little bit of a, I guess, a battle with China in the region?

Minister Seselja: No, I wouldn't characterise it like that. The way I would say it is really, I mean, this- these announcements we made very early in the piece about our obligation to help our region. And, you know, we are fortunate to have a sovereign capability when it comes to vaccine production here in Australia. That gives us greater ability to assist and we're doing that directly through doses. We're also doing it with financial assistance to COVAX or procuring vaccines, we're doing it through UNICEF.

So, we're looking at all of the ways that we can support it. In the end, governments will make their own decisions in the Pacific. They're sovereign governments, they'll make their decisions as to how they roll out vaccines in their nations. What we stand ready to do is to provide them with vaccines, to provide them with financial support so they have the ability to do it.

Inga Stünzner: Well, according to OECD data, Australia is now amongst the least generous of all big economic donors. Its generosity is actually fallen from 0.34 per cent of its gross national income - that was a decade ago - to a predicted 0.21 per cent in the next financial year. How concerned are you that Australia will be seen as an aid laggard?

Minister Seselja: Well, first thing to say about that OECD analysis is it was based on an incomplete picture of the years' aid spent and what we've seen in the budget is that we've fully accounted for our baseline of $4 billion plus the additional spending. So, what we are doing at the moment is in addition to our $4 billion annual aid budget.

We are delivering, hundreds of millions of dollars in extra support over and above to deal with this crisis. And the other point I would make for listeners in the Pacific is the amount we are delivering to the Pacific is the highest that we have ever given and the highest in fact that any nation has. So, the $1.4 billion that we are giving year on year, is more than Australia has ever delivered in previous years or any other country has. But of course, this year and next year, it is much higher because of that temporary targeted support to deal with COVID. So, our commitment to the Pacific remains absolutely steadfast. It's reflected in, not just our aid budget, but in a whole range of other ways we reach out to the region. Whether it's in our diplomatic presence, right throughout the region, we have the biggest presence of anyone. Whether it's through loans facilities, which of course are over and above the aid budget.

So, when it comes to our engagement in the Pacific, it is absolutely at record levels and it will continue to be so.

Inga Stünzner: You're listening to Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development Zed Seselja here on Pacific Beat.

Well, Minister, Fiji is set to see the largest increase in official overseas development assistance under this new budget with a boost of $15.6 million in the next financial year. How is this money going to be spent?

Minister Seselja: Well, obviously, we'll be working with Fiji in a number of ways. I mean, if you look at the situation in Fiji, they've, obviously like a lot of countries, have had particular challenges in recent years. They've handled COVID very well, they're dealing with an outbreak at the moment. So, of course, no doubt, health support will be part of that, delivering vaccines, of course, will be a big part of that and we expect more doses to be going to Fiji very, very soon.

But in recent times, of course, there'd been dealing with things like Cyclone Yasa and Australia sent significant support in relation to that. Of course, there's continued rebuilding when it comes to those things.

So, our aid budget is broad, it goes to obviously things like health and education. Of course, at the moment with a particular focus on vaccines, it goes to economic support, it goes to support for women and girls to make sure they get the same sort of opportunities as boys do in education and other areas. So, all of those areas are important in Fiji as they are in many other countries.

Inga Stünzner: And, you know, and we're seeing in Fiji, really grappling with the COVID crisis with a lockdown, in some areas, coming this weekend. But in terms of the new vaccine doses for Fiji, how soon and how many are going to be delivered?

Minister Seselja: Well, I'm anticipating- we're anticipating that we'll see another 10,000 doses going to Fiji from Australia in the next couple of days. And that will come on the back of the 10,000 doses that came last week. And look, we stand ready to provide more support to Fiji. I think Fiji are doing- have done a very good job, as we've seen right across the Pacific. We've seen- keeping the rate of COVID low has been a great success in the vast bulk of the Pacific. And Fiji is grappling, as you say, with an outbreak at the moment, but working very hard to vaccinate their population, and we stand ready to support them in that. And these 10,000 doses will be part of that. Of course, it won't be the last. We're committing to rolling out vaccines in the region and we will continue to ramp that up in Fiji and in other nations.

Inga Stünzner: Now Minister, you were mentioning that as part of the aid for the region, Australia's going to be giving loans and things like that. And I know the Government's also given large loans to PNG with direct budget assistance. Is this something that Pacific countries are now demanding?

Minister Seselja: Well look, we're just- we're always in discussions, and so the point needs to be made that our assistance is broad when it comes to the Pacific. So I've mentioned the record $1.4 billion annual support for the Pacific, but of course more, significantly more at the moment because of COVID response. But it doesn't end with that aid budget and loans to support infrastructure, to support other important imperatives for governments is a part of our assistance package. And of course, we're often in discussions on those matters, and we think it's just another way that we can support development and we can help nations at this difficult time. But not just at this particular difficult time, it's also about looking to the future and looking at what kind of developments can occur, which will improve prosperity in the region.

Inga Stünzner: Okay. And in terms of providing loans and any other assistance, are there certain requirements from the Pacific countries to ensure transparency on how Australian taxpayers' money is being spent?

Minister Seselja: Yeah, look, there's a lot of transparency, and there's all sorts of ways that these things occur, sometimes through multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank. But also, we have mechanisms through our infrastructure financing facilities. So all of that is very heavily accounted for, very transparent, and is legislated support. So we take those issues very, very seriously, but it's just another way that we work with nations in the Pacific to ensure that we have a secure, a safe, and a prosperous region.

Inga Stünzner: Now Minister, I know you were saying that in addition to, I think it's the $4 billion aid budget that the Australian Government is giving extra funding for COVID. But just bringing it back, in 2017 there was a Foreign Policy White Paper that the Australian Government outlined that it's going to spend $500 million every year on humanitarian aid to address crises and conflicts around the world. But this budget falls short of that target with less than the $486 million budgeted each year until 2025. So looking at that, with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that the world continues to have many other crises such as cyclones, floods, and famine, do you acknowledge that the Government is failing to meet its own targets?

Minister Seselja: Well, we respond- of course, we set out long-term targets in things like the White Paper. But I think it's fair to say that in the last year, in particular, what we've been responding to is the immediate crises, and we've ramped up our efforts quite significantly. And so we continue to support aid and development, and crisis, and humanitarian support right around the world. But we absolutely have a very, very strong focus and increased focus in our immediate region, as is reflected in our aid budget.

Inga Stünzner: If you've just joined me on Pacific Beat, you're listening to Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development Zed Seselja. Now Minister, to Samoa where a snap elections being called for next week after a month- last month's country has been in a political deadlock. But some claim the country is facing a constitutional crisis, that the Prime Minister is being accused of acting illegally to hold onto power. So neighbours like Australia are being urged to take a stand. What's the Government's view on what's playing out? Are you concerned?

Minister Seselja: Well, our view is that Samoa should be given time to work through its constitutional processes. These are always difficult issues when we have very, very close elections. We've see that from time to time in Australia. We see that right around the world. And Samoa has its own process, its own constitutional process, its own legal processes to follow. And you know, they are a democratic nation. We respect their sovereignty and we look forward to seeing them resolve this issue through their own processes.

Inga Stünzner: Well, Samoans on both sides of the political spectrum are confused, and they're worried. And there's a- we'll find out tomorrow and Tuesday what happens with the court cases. But in a scenario where the court finds that it was unconstitutional to appoint another woman onto Parliament, which would then give the opposition the government, and then the current HRPP refuses to hand over power and goes to an election, will the Australian Government act in that situation?

Minister Seselja: Well, look, I wouldn't want to get into sort of hypotheticals. I really want to emphasise we respect Samoa's sovereignty. They have their own constitutional processes. You rightly point out that they have court processes to go through and potentially another election. That is their internal processes, just as we don't expect other countries to try and dictate to us how our courts rule or how our democracy plays out. We likewise respect their sovereignty and we look forward to seeing the outcomes of those processes.

Inga Stünzner: Well Minister, to another big issue in the region is the volatile situation in West Papua and the Papua provinces. And the situation has really escalated in the last week, with hundreds of extra troops being deployed. The Government's labelled armed separatists as terrorists, senior independence leaders have been arrested, and there are reports that the internet's been cut, and Benny Wenda, he's the interim President of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, is calling from Australia to help prevent what he claims could be a massacre. What is Australia doing?

Minister Seselja: Well look, on that, obviously, we always are very closely watching the situation in the Papua provinces. We recognise Indonesia's sovereignty, but I would just on these matters, I would just leave it to Foreign Minister Payne to make any statements that may or may not be made.

Inga Stünzner: How different is this to the situation in Myanmar? We spoke yesterday with Vanuatu's opposition leader Ralph Regenvanu, who said that the two crackdowns have parallels?

Minister Seselja: Well, again, I wouldn't want to sort of draw direct comparisons. All I would say is we always watch these issues closely. From time to time, we will raise issues. I will leave that to Foreign Minister Payne if and when that's appropriate.

Inga Stünzner: And finally Minister next week, quarantine-free travel bubble is going to start between the Cook Islands and New Zealand. And we're told that talks with Australia are also underway. So when can we expect an announcement? Will it be anytime soon?

Minister Seselja: I can't give you a date, unfortunately. But Inga, I would share with you and with many of your listeners a desire to see when it's safe to do so more travel in the region. Of course, we've all been well served by keeping Australian safe and keeping the region safe. But that, of course, comes with some tough decisions. And as we see it safe to do so, the ability to travel- I had the opportunity to go to New Zealand recently, which was wonderful, and to meet with a number of counterparts. There would be a hope, of course, that not just countries like Cook Islands, but others, we might be able to open up with at some point. But, of course, we're treading carefully, so I'm just not going to be able to announce anything today. But the desire is there when it's safe to do so.

Inga Stünzner: Yeah, it can't be soon enough. Well, Zed Seselja, Australian Minister for Pacific and International Development, thank you very much for joining us on Pacific Beat this morning.

Minister Seselja: It's my pleasure.

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