March 17, 2020

CATHERING GRAUE, HOST: The Australian Government has been accused of not doing enough to help Pacific countries face coronavirus. Countries in the region have been taking some drastic steps in an effort to try and slow the spread of the highly contagious virus to within their boarders because there are fears that a significant outbreak could overwhelm their health systems and damage vital industries like tourism. Now despite the Pacific Step-Up policy of the Australian Government that should see it working more closely with the region, the Opposition here in Australia says that the Government is missing in action.
Our foreign affairs reporter Melissa Clark is in the Australian capital Canberra. Melissa, the Australian Government has been offering some support for the region in terms of coronavirus. What exactly is that involving?
MELISSA CLARKE, REPORTER: The Australian Government responded to early requests from several Pacific countries for help with laboratory tests and protective equipment for health workers. Australia has also offered technical support for civil servants working on national response planning, so this is help for things like budgeting and communication and contingency planning.
Australia and New Zealand are both jointly funding the World Health Organisation’s Regional Response Plan, but we don’t have a lot of details of precisely what all of this involves such as how many people are going to be involved, are there people already in country with diplomatic and aid roles or are they extra hands heading into the Pacific. This was announced around two weeks ago and we’ve had no further details since then.
GRAUE: And so Melissa is it clear about whether this support is considered to be sufficient given that we do know there are limits of the health systems in many parts of the Pacific to deal with any kind of major health crisis?
CLARKE: Well the Opposition in Australia is convinced it’s deficient. I spoke to the Australian Opposition’s spokesman for the Pacific and International Development, Pat Conroy. He said what has been announced so far is welcome, but nowhere near enough.
PAT CONROY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC: That undoubtedly will help, but much more needs to be done. We need to urgently restore the aid cuts that have impacted on the Pacific. For all the talk about the Pacific Step-Up - I was just looking at the figures recently - total health funding to the Pacific between 2014-2018 was cut by 10 percent. So while we’re providing some short term assistance to deal with this crisis, it’s on the back of significant cuts to health assistance to the Pacific. That’s an urgent need to reverse those aid cuts as well.
CLARKE: What about beyond the immediate medical needs? The coronavirus could have – or will have – a very significant impact on tourism for many Pacific nations. We’re already seeing announcements of cruise ships being banned from docking, we know that international travel has been greatly curtailed and particularly from China which has been a key source of tourism revenue for many Pacific countries. What sort of economic state are some of these countries going to be in once the coronavirus has passed?
CONROY: In one word it’s a dire state, it’s a dire state. A lot of Pacific Island nations really rely on two industries, one being fishing and the other being tourism, so to take away tourism at the same time as climate change is impacting on fishing is really a massive, massive challenge. So we do need to think profoundly as a nation on how we support the economic rebuilding of this region because as you said, tourism has taken a massive kick and is likely to for some time to come.
CLARKE: The Minister for the Pacific Alex Hawke hasn’t been very visible in recent weeks, should he be more forward leaning in getting information out to the region?
CONROY: Well Minister Hawke is the public face of the Government’s Pacific Step-Up and unfortunately he’s in witness protection. He constantly refuses to talk to the media about what Australia is attempting to do in the Pacific, he’s constantly running from attempts to be held to account for budget cuts and other policies that impact on our Pacific neighbours like climate policy and he’s missing in action in terms of basic provision of public information. If we’ve lost the public face of the Pacific Step-up, it’s pretty hard for the rest of the Pacific to engage with us.
GRAUE: That is Pat Conroy, he is the Opposition’s spokesman for the Pacific and International Development. He was speaking there with our foreign affairs reporter Melissa Clarke. Now Pacific Beat has requested an interview with the Minister for the Pacific Alex Hawke multiple times in the past few weeks including in fact the last month he has not made himself available.

You can listen to the interview here.