House debates

Monday, 15 June 2020

Private Members' Business

Pacific: COVID-19

1:01 pm

Photo of Terry YoungTerry Young (Longman, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) commends the Government's Pacific Step-up and its focus on building prosperity across the regions, including by encouraging close links between Australian business and investors with the Pacific;

(2) recognises that the Pacific is part of Australia's family and that we have a special relationship with our Pacific neighbours; and

(3) notes that the significant Australian investment in key infrastructure projects, such as the Coral Sea Cable, is providing positive economic and social opportunities to communities in the Pacific.

The government's Pacific step-up is working closely with our region to ensure the security and prosperity of the Pacific. There has never been a time more vital than now for Australia to stand with our Pacific family in the face of the global COVID-19pandemic. The Pacific has been impacted profoundly. While the measures that governments have put in place with our support have helped to stop the pandemic's spread, the impact on economies and livelihoods has been severe. For example, countries reliant on tourism and remittance flows are facing significant economic downturns. In my own electorate of Longman in Queensland, we have a strong Pacific islander community. I've heard some of their stories about how COVID-19 has impacted them and their families back home in the Pacific. They were pleased to hear about some of the changes this government has made to support them during this pandemic and that our commitment to our Pacific family through the Pacific step-up has not wavered and has, in fact, been deepened. As someone with South Sea island roots myself, I am proud of the efforts this government is taking to support Pacific islander communities in Australia and our Pacific family in the region.

Australia's ability to respond to COVID-19 in our region is stronger as a result of our Pacific step-up. Our step-up has added considerable new depth to our partnerships across the Pacific to help grow economies, build resilience and enhance regional stability. It has put Australia in an even stronger position to work with Pacific island countries in times of crisis, building on many years of cooperation in areas such as education, health, security and humanitarian and disaster response. Australia has been determined since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to adapt our work in the Pacific wherever possible to support our region's health, security and long-term stability and prosperity. The government has moved quickly to reconfigure our Pacific step-up initiatives and our broader development efforts to provide immediate relief to Pacific island countries and Timor Leste, and to respond to our partners' most acute needs. Since January we have been working with our Pacific partners to help them prepare for and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We're prioritising funding for critical health services and helping to mitigate the financial and economic impacts, particularly for those countries that rely on revenue from tourism and commodity exports.

A number of our Pacific step-up initiatives adapted to this new environment are now an important part of our work to support our region's response to COVID-19. The Pacific Fusion Centre is delivering targeted and timely information on COVID-19 to decision-makers across our region. Our Pacific women's program is expanding support for crisis centres to provide frontline service support, including counselling for survivors of domestic violence. New visa arrangements announced in early April mean that workers in Australia under our Pacific labour initiatives, who are unable to return home due to travel restrictions, will now be able to stay and work in Australia for up to 12 months. We're working to redeploy workers whose contracts have expired or who have been stood down and providing expanded support for worker welfare, including additional services and resources in Pacific languages. These measures are enabling Pacific workers to continue to support themselves and send remittances to their families back home, and continuing to support the agriculture sector across rural and regional Australia.

The $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, or AIFFP, will be an important part of our longer-term work to promote economic recovery in our region. We are working with partner governments to review the AIFFP project pipeline in favour of infrastructure projects that will deliver more jobs and higher growth. This will include critical health infrastructure where this is a priority for our Pacific partners. While COVID-19 will impact the delivery of some of our initiatives in the short term, the Pacific step-up success will be measured over the long term, in line with our enduring commitment to support long-term economic development, deeper security cooperation and closer personal connections across our region.

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder for the motion?

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

1:06 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Longman for this motion. This motion recognises the efforts made by the government in its Pacific Step-up program, which will assist in developing relationships between Australian businesses and investors in the Pacific. It emphasises that Australia and the Pacific have a special relationship and highlights the role Australia continues to play in supporting infrastructure projects in the region which have a flow-on social and economic benefit.

The Pacific Step-up is one of Australia's highest foreign policy priorities according to the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade. Last year, announcing an escalation to the step-up, the Prime Minister stated that our Pacific Island family must be a focus of international support and there has never been a more important time for Australia's Pacific Step-up as we all face these massive challenges. I strongly agree. Central to the step-up is $1.4 billion in development assistance and a $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility. Recently some of these funds were reallocated to the health response to the COVID-19 in these countries.

I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of Australian Doctors International, based in Seaforth in Warringah, who are working with businesses and governments in Papua New Guinea to prepare their health system and communities for the pandemic as well as their usual work. As of June 2020, ADI reached an estimated 40,000 beneficiaries in remote and rural areas in Papua New Guinea. These are important programs.

In looking at developing our relationship with the Pacific we must put two issues at the centre. These are issues that they are very much focused on and their challenges. They are women's issues and climate change. The Pacific women's leaders met virtually on 29 May 2020 to discuss the gender implications of COVID-19 within the Pacific region. I support the joint statement of the co-conveners of that meeting, which noted that women health care workers are at the front of the pandemic, that violence against women and girls in the region remains unacceptably high, and that the current pandemic is exacerbating the problems. According to United Nations Women, up to 68 per cent of women in the Pacific have experienced violence at the hands of their intimate partners, and women are overrepresented in sectors and jobs that have been impacted significantly by the economic downturn, especially in tourism, which has been devastated. Of course travel restrictions have meant that tens of thousands of jobs in tourism have been lost. The tourism sector in Fiji, for example, contributes nearly 40 per cent to Fiji's gross domestic product and directly or indirectly employs over 150,000 people in various industries. I urge government to consider including the Pacific in its travel bubble with New Zealand. This will assist both the airlines and Pacific nations to recover. In 2016, Australians and New Zealanders made up more than 500,000 visitors to Fiji, over 60 per cent of the tourism to the country.

Of course, to develop our relationship with the Pacific, taking meaningful climate action must be at the forefront of our strategy. Although financial and medical support is welcome, it is essential to Pacific leaders more than anything else that we also take strong action on climate change and reducing emissions. On 12 June last year I met with a group of young Kiribatian and Tuvalese men and women from the Pacific calling for partnership. They spoke very emotionally about the plight their islands are facing. They showed me images of inundation of their communities from current sea level rise and extreme weather, and their worry over their future was palpable. Their ask was simple: that Australia commit to concrete climate action, to carbon neutrality, as soon as possible. Australia's failure to tackle the climate change risks and emissions reduction risks is undermining any benefits the step-up will bring to our Pacific neighbours.

So whilst I commend the government for this action, I urge it to do more. A COVID-safe and inclusive economic recovery that builds back better must also advance gender equality and climate change mitigation. In so doing, we can hope to foster a deeper relationship with our Pacific neighbours.

1:11 pm

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My relationship with the Pacific Island nations is somewhat different. I deployed when INTERFET deployed in 1999 to East Timor. I went to a country that was ravaged by pro-Indonesian militia and insurgents, who were devastating the good villages and good folk of East Timor. I have seen it firsthand. I was deployed to the border between Indonesia and East Timor, and as the chopper came in you could see the plumes of smoke from all of these small villages. What was left was a decimated people: people that fled, children that had already seen their parents beheaded and killed. We were incredibly cognisant of the fact that here we were standing with a rifle in our hands, and we didn't want to scare them any further. We soon built relationships with those that were left in East Timor. Once they saw the rising sun and the Australian national flag on our arm, they soon knew that that meant they had a friend. The look in those kids' eyes really embellished this. That's a look that I'll never forget. I'm proud of the efforts of INTERFET, as I am proud of the Australian government's support for the good folk in the Pacific.

The government's Pacific Step-up is incredibly important. It is mutually beneficial for both Australia and the region. There is no doubt that government-to-government relations with our Pacific neighbours are fundamentally important. However, that bond extends far more than our Pacific neighbours would recognise at this time. There is a much deeper relationship between governments. We have deep-rooted personal, historical and cultural relationships and connections throughout the Pacific. We have built these through Timor Leste, the Solomons, Bougainville, Tonga, New Guinea. We were there during the Bali bombings. We are a respected friend to all these regions and their people.

The critical aspect of the relationship is to ensure that Australians seeking to do business in the Pacific are well supported. The Pacific Step-up is instrumental to that assistance, and the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility is the way that this will occur. This $2 billion investment makes available a mix of grant and loan funding to support the development of transformative infrastructure in telecommunications, energy, transport and water. The facility manages $1.5 billion in loans and $500 million in grant funding. As a neighbour and friend, Australia has a long track record of supporting this critical infrastructure in the Pacific region, most recently the construction of the Coral Sea cable system, which brings a new high-speed Internet connectivity to Papua New Guinea and our friends in the Solomons. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade manages an AIFFP with support for lending from Export Finance Australia. Australia is continuing to engage very closely with governments across the Pacific to ensure that AIFFP supports their development priorities and continues to work with bilateral and multilateral partners in the private sector as well. The facility funds high-priority infrastructure across the Pacific, including telecommunications and, as I said, energy, transport and water.

We continue to work with our Pacific partners to identify projects that will make their countries better. I am sure that the AIFFP will welcome bids from Australian and international businesses with capabilities in at least one of the following sectors: water, energy, telecommunications, transport, buildings and developments as they manage these projects and their construction through delivery of capital infrastructure. It gives me great pride to support the bill and support the relationship between Australia and our Pacific friends.

1:15 pm

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

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on many of our Pacific neighbours. Not only has it put enormous pressure on what are already struggling health systems in the Pacific but it's also damaged the Pacific's largest industry, and that of course is tourism. A number have also had a major blow associated with Tropical Cyclone Harold, which devastated their communities. It's clear now that the Pacific needs our help more than ever. We must return the favour. During the summer bushfire crisis, many Pacific nations, including Fiji and Vanuatu, sent donations, and members of their defence forces came to Australia to assist in our time of need. This is what good neighbours do.

I must say that the Prime Minister's comments last week—that Australia had no slavery—haven't gone down well in our Pacific neighbourhood. Dan McGarry from the Vanuatu Daily Post tweeted in the wake of the Prime Minister's comments, 'That whole "no slavery in Australia" line is not playing well here in Vanuatu.' Many people from those nations have been saying that the Prime Minister's comments were disrespectful—particularly the ancestors of many that were involved in blackbirding, which many parliaments of Australia have apologised for because it was wrong.

While the government likes to talk about a step-up in the Pacific, the fact is that the coalition's been out of step with Australia's track record of being a true leader in this region. This region is critically important to Australia—to our physical security and to our economic security as well. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the vulnerabilities of our Pacific partners' healthcare systems. This comes after several years in which the coalition government's official development assistance cuts have fallen more heavily on health care than on aid programs in physical infrastructure, trade facilitation and international competitiveness. Healthcare systems in most Pacific countries suffer from a lack of resources, health professionals, basic equipment and infrastructure. As a former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, I can vouch for the fact that the healthcare systems in many of our Pacific neighbours' countries are simply not up to scratch. That's why many of these nations fail the Millennium Development Goals that are associated with health care in their countries. In many countries, poor logistics, transport infrastructure and geographic isolation add to the challenges in providing health services in remote regions. Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and limited fresh water supplies in remote communities also reduce the effectiveness of basic containment measures. Development assistance needs to build greater capacity in health care to support economic and social resilience. In health care, there's a need to improve resources, skills and capabilities in responding to health emergencies to tackle the region's ongoing challenges in non-communicable diseases and preventative health interventions.

The other area where the Pacific needs Australia to show leadership and needs our support is in stronger action on climate change. Whenever I used to meet with Pacific leaders in the role of parliamentary secretary, I'd ask them how Australia can help. Always the No. 1 answer, the No. 1 concern of Pacific nations is the damage that climate change is doing to their communities and their economy. Sea levels are rising, inundating infrastructure. Wells are becoming salinised and no longer able to be used as a source of water for communities. Stable crops that they have relied on to feed their populations for years are becoming salinised and damaged in irreparable ways. That is why we've seen some Pacific nations actually start to buy land in other countries—because they know the prospect of climate change ruining their countries and making them uninhabitable is just around the corner. They're actually talking about moving populations to other countries so they can survive.

The one area where the Pacific needs Australia's support and help is in stronger action on climate change. That's the one thing that this government is not showing leadership on when it comes to supporting our Pacific neighbours: stronger action on climate change, making sure that Australia is a leader, and ensuring that we're doing our bit to support our Pacific neighbours around climate change.

1:20 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In November last year I travelled to Papua New Guinea as part of my work as chair of the defence subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. I had the opportunity to see the impact of Australia's Pacific Step-up for myself. Touring the village of Buna, I visited the new double classroom built at the local primary school with Australia's help, which has allowed the school to grow rapidly to teach more than 100 students. I visited the Buna Health Centre, which has been totally refurbished with new inpatient and outpatient and maternity facilities, as well as training for the centre staff, provided in partnership with the Kokoda Initiative. I saw the village's simple solar light project, funded by the Australian government through the Kokoda Track Foundation. This installs a small solar panel on locals' roofs to power three lights. These lights change lives, allowing families to cook in the evening and, very importantly, allowing kids to study at night—something that they just hadn't been able to do.

Nations in the Pacific, like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, are the largest recipients of Australian aid because they are some of our most important partners. The Asia-Pacific is our region, and with a struggling world economy and increasing tension between the United States and China, our region is facing uncertain times. We must work together and promote prosperity for all. A prosperous Asia-Pacific will be a stable Asia-Pacific. A stable region will help secure our borders, defend our national interests and provide large new markets for Australian products and services.

Right now, the Defence subcommittee which I chair is undertaking an inquiry into our defence relationship with Pacific island nations. Submissions close today. Mr Deputy Chair Rick Wilson, I know you will eagerly join with me in putting in some submissions for that. I'll have a great deal more to say about that aspect of our Pacific Step-up in weeks to come. However, towards the end of the last parliament, I had the privilege of attending the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the Cook Islands to address parliamentarians from all over the region on another aspect of the Pacific Step-up which is so often frequently overlooked. Critical to our work in helping build prosperity across the Pacific is Australia's focus on anticorruption and good governance. Prosperity in the region cannot grow where corporate or governmental corruption or poor governance exists. That is why Australia's largest aid investment this financial year, of some $793 million, was allocated to building effective governance. In combatting corruption, we have, for example, provided $7½ million to support a UN Office on Drugs and Crime project, the global regime against corruption in South-East Asia and South Asia, which is coming to an end later this year. We also provided $6.6 million to support the UN development's program Anti-Corruption for Peaceful and Inclusive Societies in the Asia-Pacific, and another $5.7 million to the Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Project. We allocated $6.9 million for a four-year grant to Transparency International's Asia-Pacific program and made contributions to the UN Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Project's work in Tonga, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Palau.

To fight corporate corruption, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade publishes the Fraud Control Toolkit for use by the region's governments and organisations, with practical advice on how to manage fraud and corruption risks and how to deal with incidents that occur. We also provide more hands-on support, like delivering relevant training to 934 police and justice officials in the Solomon Islands. Our support builds capacity as well as helping stamp out corruption. We support the Pacific Leadership and Governance Precinct in Papua New Guinea, a partnership which furthers the development of ethical and capable public sector leaders in PNG through sharing firsthand experiences at all levels. We support initiatives like the Development Leadership Program, funded by Australian aid, which brings together international research leaders to explore how to create legitimate and robust government institutions. Overall, working closely with our partners in the region, together we have a great deal of success in helping to build good governance. Results like this, achieved together, will lay foundations for economic prosperity, security and success across our region.

1:25 pm

Photo of Vince ConnellyVince Connelly (Stirling, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a real pleasure today to rise to speak about Australia's Pacific Step-up program, which is focused on building prosperity right across our region. It recognises that Australia is part of the Pacific family. I have some personal experience in this space as well, having deployed to Solomon Islands as the second in command of a company group which was the first infantry deployment as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands. You can imagine my excitement as a young newly promoted captain, having previously deployed as a platoon commander to East Timor, to be getting ready to go overseas and work in support of our region and its interests again.

We were pouring over maps and satellite imagery and looking at the different threat forces, but we were also looking at some of the region's history, some of the language and some of the culture. One of the things that we learned as we looked into both language and culture was the concept of wantok. 'Wantok' in Tok Pisin literally means 'one language', but it has a cultural meaning much more significant than that. It talks about the Melanesian cultural practice of relying on one wantoks—those who speak the language; those who can share in the good times and the bad. Ultimately, this was what Australia was doing at that point in time with RAMSI. We were being a good neighbour, being a good wantok. The name of that operation was Helpem Fren, which translates to 'helping friend'. That's certainly what we were there to do. This Pacific peacemaking and nation-building operation saw the deployment of about 300 police personnel, 1,700 military people and also a range of other personnel from nine countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, PNG, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Cook Islands. As well as military and police, there were also judges, lawyers and bureaucrats because this was truly a holistic government effort to seek to provide security but also, once we did manage to arrest the criminals who were the cause of the unrest, be able to reliably prosecute and incarcerate them as well.

I was also pleased to lead the first outpost to the Weather Coast, which is a very remote area on the southern side of the island of Guadalcanal. I figured out why they call it the 'Weather Coast'; it rained for about the first 10 days and we struggled to keep ourselves out of water as we slept. It was an amazing opportunity to go and engage with local village chiefs and talk about why we were there, doing that hand in hand with the police and medical personnel as well. The outcomes were fantastic. We had a great deal of cooperation. In fact, we had people coming to hand in weapons. Overall, we collected more than 3,700 weapons, including about 700 high-powered military style weapons, and destroyed them. We did that quite publicly to send a message that no longer would violence be tolerated in these local communities.

Australia has always been a very close friend, a wantok, to our regional neighbours, but there's never been a more vital time for Australia to stand with our Pacific family than right now in the heat of the global pandemic of COVID-19. We've seen heavy impacts on the economies and the livelihoods of our Pacific neighbours. There are impacts on these communities, which are so reliant on tourism and on remittance flows. This has seen significant economic downturn. Australia's ability to respond has been increased because of Step-up, but we are also remaining agile and are adapting programs to suit. For example, we have seen the reconfiguration of our programs such as the Pacific Fusion Centre, which is now collating information about COVID-19 now and arming our regional decision-makers with that information, and our Pacific Women program, which is expanding support for crisis centres to provide frontline services, such as counselling for survivors of domestic violence. Also, there are new visa arrangements to support the workers who are unable to travel back home to ensure they can remain here in Australia for up to 12 months. Of course, we also have our $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific. This is part of our very long-term objective to promote economic growth in our region. The Pacific Step-up has seen support for our enduring commitment to see economic development, security and prosperity with our wantoks.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 13 : 30 to 16 : 00