TAHLEA AUALIITIA, HOST: Australia’s Opposition has welcomed the Government’s special COVID-19 funding package for the Pacific but says it does not make up for the years of deep cuts to the aid program. In its Budget this week, the Government announced a two-year $305 million coronavirus response package for the Pacific and Timor Leste. It’s separate to the aid program which has decreased slightly to $4 billion, with the Pacific again the main target of Australian assistance with $1.4 billion committed to the region.
But the Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy says the Government’s Pacific Step Up has come at the cost of assistance to other parts of the world, and he tells Liam Fox that the COVID funding package is good news, but more needs to be done.
PAT CONROY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC: Just to give you some context, this is the equivalent of someone stealing $100 from you and returning $2.50 to you. It’s inadequate, but we obviously welcome it given the drastic cuts in the aid budget we’ve seen under this Government.
LIAM FOX, HOST: What are your thoughts on that supplementary COVID package being separate to the aid budget?
CONROY: I think it’s a bit bizarre to be honest. I think the sort of justification given by the Department around technical definitions may be the real reason. I think it could also be a pointer to the internal dynamics within the Coalition where so many of their Members of Parliament just hate the aid budget and are very happy to see it cut. So it might be an issue of Foreign Minister Marise Payne trying to manage some of her internal dynamics which is a real pity because it obviously would be much better being included in the official development assistance budget because that means it’s then baked into the base so any increase would be on top of each year’s.
FOX: And what do you think of the overall direction of the aid budget? It has been going down for some years as you pointed out. The focus remains the Pacific. Other areas in other parts of the world have been cut to maintain that focus, so what do you think of the overall direction?
CONROY: Well I think it’s a disgrace that the Pacific Step Up has been at the expense of a step down everywhere else in the world. That’s the frank truth about what’s occurred. We’ve been supportive of the Pacific Step Up. We called for it before the Government embraced it, so this is not a criticism of the Step Up, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of assistance to other key strategic partners. Just to give you an example: this Government has cut aid to Indonesia, a key strategic partner, by 50 per cent, and they’ve cut health aid to Indonesia by 86 per cent. That is insanity, particularly given the fact that Indonesia is one of the countries facing the hardest COVID outbreaks around the world. You also look at cuts to places like Afghanistan and Pakistan - we now give zero dollars to Pakistan, one of the most impoverished countries in the world that’s obviously a hotbed of radical Islamic extremism, so for us to not have any assistance there to help educate women for example, and this Budget also saw a 34 per cent cut to aid to Afghanistan, well what does it say to the people of Afghanistan who are dealing with the pull out of western troops, dealing with the Taliban, and for Australia to pull out so much assistance is very, very significant.
FOX: The Government is in the process of redirecting aid towards the COVID response through its Partnerships for Recovery program. Do you think that’s a good response to repurpose aid for other areas like infrastructure projects to help Pacific countries meet the impact of coronavirus?
CONROY: Well we’ve been calling since day one of the COVID pandemic for increased assistance to the Pacific to deal with the impact of COVID. It is a massive challenge for them. We are seeing a 40 per cent drop in revenue in Fiji for example because of tourism. We’ve seen massive cuts to every other nation in the Pacific. We’ve seen the health crisis in places like Papua New Guinea, so increased assistance from places like Australia is not only important, it’s essential. But it’s a real pity that they’ve redirected aid to fund that rather than found new funding sources, because the truth is they are neglecting other parts of our strategic interests to fund this.
FOX: How would things be different under a Labor Government?
CONROY: Well we are going through our internal policy process to develop our election policies so I won’t comment about where we will land, but I will say that obviously at the last election we took a commitment to increase the aid budget to align it with a long-term goal of reaching 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income, and that’s really, really important. And we also made other announcements around for example changing the focus of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to really look at aid properly rather than it being sort of an annex off to the side of their core business, to invest in their capabilities to deliver this budget, and to look at where this aid budget is being spent because we have seen a real reorientation of the aid budget under this Government towards hard infrastructure – building bridges, building roads – which is important, but that’s been at the expense of investing in the people of Asia and the Pacific, investing in their health and education outcomes.
AUALIITIA: Pat Conroy, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific speaking there to Liam Fox.