April 22, 2020

DAN COX, PRESENTER: Are you feeling pretty proud to be an Aussie right now? The closure of non-essential services, physical distancing, the not visiting friends and family has been tough but, as you’ve been hearing, it’s been really helping slow the spread of COVID-19.

JENNY MARCHANT, PRESENTER: There are certainly other countries struggling with community transmissions and thousands of deaths of course, and we’ve seen the stories out of Europe and Asia. What about the smaller Pacific island nations right here in our region? They’re our neighbours. Should we be doing more to help them through this time?

Pat Conroy is one of our Federal MPs as the Federal Member for Shortland. He’s also the Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Good morning Pat Conroy.


COX: What should we as a nation be doing right now to help Pacific island nations?

CONROY: Well we need to be supporting them by getting more medical equipment and personnel to the region. They desperately need help with testing and equipment like ventilators. To give you an example, in Australia, we’ve got one ventilator per 11,000 Australians. In Papua New Guinea, our closest neighbour, they’ve got one ventilator per million people. They literally have 10 ventilators for the entire nation. So medical equipment and medical advice is in urgent need.

The second requirement further down the track is economic assistance. This is a region that hasn’t had the health impacts of COVID-19 quite yet, but they’ve had the economic impacts. For example, 40 percent of the Vanuatu economy is tourism and that’s just fallen off a cliff with the ending of cruises, with airports being locked down. So imagine in Australia – we've had really serious economic impacts from COVID – but imagine if 40 percent of our economic activity, 40 percent of the jobs basically disappeared overnight. We really need to be supporting the region economically as well as medically.

MARCHANT: Can we afford that?

CONROY: Well I pose a counter question – can we afford not to? And I say that for three reasons. Firstly, I am talking about redirecting existing aid funding, so I am not talking about us increasing our spending at this stage, but just being smarter with how we spend our money which is really important for a few reasons. One, this is a region very close to us where we’ve got direct obligations to fellow human beings. Secondly, even if you weren’t worried about the charity side, it’s in our direct strategic interest. Other nations are getting very interested in building influence in the Pacific, for example China are currently flying in plane loads of medical equipment and personnel to places like Vanuatu. In the Solomon Islands, they were sending their COVID tests to Australia, they now have replaced it with a lab the Chinese have built in the Solomon Islands. So this is a region where previously we’ve been the partner of choice and nations like China are getting very interested, and that is quite unsettling from a strategic point of view. And thirdly, it’s about the health impacts in Australia. Papua New Guinea is only five kilometres from Australia at its nearest point. As we’re coming out of the COVID crisis in the second half of this year hopefully, do we really want an outbreak on our doorstep, which is what we are facing? So besides the human aspects, it’s in our direct national interest to support the Pacific through this crisis.

COX: I understand the health impacts, go back to point two, the strategic side. What do you think will happen if we don’t help?

CONROY: Well if we don’t help – the current Government has made much of the Pacific Step-up which I think recognises that when they won power in 2013, they really pulled back from the region. So in the last couple of years we’ve seen Mr Morrison and his ministers spend a lot of time talking about the Pacific. Well the true test of a friend is are you there when they really need you? And if we disappear, if we say we are not interested in looking out for you, this region will turn to countries like China. We’ve already seen reports about China being interested in developing a naval base in the Pacific relatively close to us, we’ve seen countries switching allegiances from Taiwan to mainland China. Our entire defence strategy over the last 60 years has been built on the fact that there is no major power in the Pacific near us, and if we prove to be a poor friend to the Pacific, that strategic security could disappear quite quickly and that’s very bad news.

MARCHANT: Is there much coronavirus in the Pacific nations at the moment? Because travel has been locked down so if it’s not already there it won’t be coming and going will it?

CONROY: They’re in a pretty good position from a health point of view so far. There’s about 260 cases across the Pacific island nations excluding places like Hawaii and New Zealand. But there are a couple of issues. Firstly, they just don’t have the testing facilities, so the number of cases could be much higher than that. Secondly, these nations, while a lot of them are island states that can be isolated, others can’t. For example, Papua New Guinea, which has 10 million people shares its border with Indonesia, and we’re seeing very worrying news out of Indonesia.

COX: Pat, we have to get to the news, but we appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

CONROY: Not a problem, thank you.

COX: You too. Pat Conroy, the Federal Member for Shortland and Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific.