House debates

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Bills

Export Finance and Insurance Corporation Amendment (Support for Infrastructure Financing) Bill 2019; Second Reading

5:57 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | Hansard source

The Export Finance and Insurance Corporation Amendment (Support for Infrastructure Financing) Bill 2019 allows the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation, Efic as it's more commonly known, to fund offshore infrastructure projects in our region, most notably in the Pacific. It's an area that's dear to my heart as a former parliamentary secretary for the Pacific Islands. I worked for an extended period of time with many of our dearest and nearest neighbours, their governments and their people.

I understand the need for greater support from Australia for development initiatives in the Pacific, particularly around infrastructure funding. It's hopeful that this bill will provide that support. The bill will provide Efic with an additional $1 billion in capital to do so. These loans will be done on a commercial basis and must meet an Australian benefit test. Of course, infrastructure development is one of the most critical needs in the region, particularly the Pacific Islands. There is a clear expectation of many of those in the Pacific region that Australia will take a lead in supporting development in those nations.

The fact is that the Pacific is not travelling well at all. Many in our region face a range of development challenges. These include small domestic markets, narrow production bases, weak regulatory and private sector capacity, low savings and investment rates, and high trade and business costs. They also have a young and very fast-growing population that needs growth and jobs.

The Pacific has also performed as one of the worst regions when it comes to meeting millennium development goals. On the current measures of relative development, it's possible that it won't be too long before Africa overtakes the Pacific on progress towards achieving those development goals. That would mean that the Pacific would be the least developed region in the world. That is quite a scary proposition: the Pacific—our backyard, our neighbours, our friends—being the least developed region in the world. Australia should be a natural partner of choice to assist our close neighbours in their development needs.

Of course, under this decaying Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, we haven't been providing that leadership that our friends in the Pacific have needed. Our leadership role has been eroded under this government. Labor has been warning for some time now that, under the Abbott and Turnbull governments, Australia has dropped the ball in the Pacific. One obvious need in the region is for greater infrastructure investments. As Labor has repeatedly stated, infrastructure investment projects should be transparent; conform to environmental and social safeguards; and not place unsustainable debt burdens on regional countries. Australia has an interest and a responsibility to assist our small regional neighbours with projects that best meet their development needs and provide them with maximum benefit.

That is not to say this is not about any other country; it's about the role that Australia wants to have within the region. That's why Labor welcomed the announcement in July last year by Australia, the United States and Japan of a trilateral partnership to invest in infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region. Labor strongly supports moves to engage more closely with our neighbours within the region. While infrastructure cooperation is a good start, the government needs to do much more. We need to be proactive within the region and to demonstrate our commitment to our Pacific neighbours. The changes to Efic proposed in this bill align with Labor's policy on financing infrastructure within the region. Efic will also be the instrument for providing the loan components of the new Australian Infrastructure Finance Facility for the Pacific, the government's new, other mechanism for providing infrastructure projects.

Of course the Prime Minister's attempts to repair relations with Pacific nations were dealt a blow when the former Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, launched an extraordinary attack midway through the Prime Minister's tour of Vanuatu and Fiji in January this year. In an opinion piece to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the former minister slammed the Prime Minister's key Pacific initiative, accusing it of being 'disingenuous'. Labor has strongly argued that Australia must demonstrate greater leadership in the Pacific and play our part in ensuring a stable and prosperous region, but the one thing that we shouldn't be doing is demonstrating chaos and division and misunderstanding about the needs of our Pacific neighbours. We should be playing our part to ensure a stable and prosperous region.

The Liberals' announcements of funds for projects to deal with the impacts of climate change are welcome, but they're very late. No issue has done more damage to Australia's standing in the region then the coalition's refusal to take the issue of climate change seriously. When I was the representative of Australia to the Pacific Islands as the parliamentary secretary, whenever I would meet with representatives of the Pacific Islands, their No. 1 issue affecting the livelihoods of people within their region and their countries is climate change. When you talk about a place like the Marshall Islands or countries like Tuvalu or Kiribati, populations are facing the prospect of having to move. Governments are buying land in other countries to move those populations because they simply can't inhabit the lands that have been their traditional homelands for thousands of years—because of wells becoming salinised, because of being unable to cultivate or grow crops on salinised land, because sea level rise means water is literally lapping up onto vital infrastructure that they rely on for transport. This has been an issue that we've known about for the last decade.

It is unconscionable for the government to come along and have this argument within their caucus and within their party room about whether or not climate change is real and removing a price on carbon emissions, cutting back support for renewable energy development, trying to close down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and trying to close down the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which is financing projects that will reduce carbon emissions in our country, which will have a direct effect on the livelihoods of people in the Pacific. That is why our Pacific neighbours are upset with this government. That is why they've had enough of the bickering and the disingenuous nature of the debate that's been going on within this coalition about whether or not climate change is real, when every other nation in the world seems to accept the science of climate change, and want it to get on with the job of reducing carbon emissions.

The Pacific has felt the impact of the record $11 billion in aid cuts under this government. A quick trip by the Prime Minister to the Pacific, after years of his government's neglect of these critical relationships, isn't going to fix that. Unlike the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, Labor will treat our Pacific partners with respect. Unlike the coalition, we understand the need to reflect our commitments to our Pacific neighbours in our actions, particularly around climate change. A Shorten Labor government will work in partnership with Pacific island states to contribute to their security and prosperity and that of the entire region and will particularly work with those nations to boost living standards through infrastructure development and important social projects around health, education and women's rights in these countries but, most notably, around taking a serious approach to climate change, getting fair dinkum about reducing carbon emissions in our country so that the effects on our Pacific neighbours can be reduced into the future.

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