Thursday, 18 June 2020
Questions without Notice
COVID-19: Pacific Islands
My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Payne. Can the Minister inform the Senate how Australia is working with the Pacific Islands Forum, our Pacific family, to respond to pressing challenges in the region, including the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts?
I thank Senator Scarr for his interest and for the question. Australia, with our Pacific family, has swiftly and effectively responded to the health impacts of COVID-19, and our Pacific regional institutions have been absolutely central to this response.
Yesterday I joined PIF colleagues for the inaugural virtual meeting of the ministerial action group for the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19. The meeting—with my counterparts from Tuvalu, who chaired the meeting; the Cook Islands; Fiji; the Marshall Islands; Nauru; New Zealand; Tonga; and Vanuatu; and also key regional organisations, such as the Secretariat for the Pacific Community, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, the University of the South Pacific, the Pacific Immigration Development Community and the Oceania Customs Organisation—discussed the movement of essential supplies and humanitarian support and personnel in the COVID-19 context. We've strongly supported the Pacific humanitarian pathway initiative of the PIF since its inception, and forums like yesterday's are concrete examples of collaboration in the region to find that collaborative solution to the pressing health, social and economic challenges of the pandemic.
To perhaps illustrate the challenge, when ministers first met to discuss the pathway, there were 1.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide; today, there are over eight million. So our strong, collaborative approach has been vital to helping the region keep infection rates as low as possible. There are currently 322 cases in the Pacific, and that low rate is thanks in part to this excellent cooperation and to the efforts of those governments. Our two largest Pacific neighbours, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, have both gone at least 42 days without a confirmed case, which is very, very important in the minimising of transmission and infection rates.
We were very pleased to endorse an important set of regional protocols for deploying personnel, for customs and biosecurity, for immigration and for repatriations. That will help a lot with clearance of aircraft and clearance of ships that are transporting medical, humanitarian and technical assistance. The protocols are also going to support the safety of technical personnel for critical responses. That might include Australian medical and logistics experts, for example, in Solomon Islands, in Papua New Guinea and in Fiji. The pathway chair, who is Tuvalu's foreign minister, Simon Kofe, recognised Australia's support to the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization Pacific joint incident management team, which are both central to the regional response to COVID-19. I understand the joint team has received over 350 assistance requests and deployed 40 technical experts across the Pacific to support the collaborative effort in addressing COVID-19.
The Pacific Labour Scheme is very important to Australia and it's important to our Pacific neighbours. It allows Australian employers to fill labour gaps and it allows Pacific workers to earn remittances to send home to their families. Like other workers, Pacific island workers have had their lives and their work disrupted by COVID-19. There are over a thousand PLS workers in Australia, and, for those who have lost jobs, we have been working hard to help them find new employment or to arrange their safe return home. We've provided all relevant health advice and guidance on COVID-19 restrictions, and other support, including pastoral care and Pacific language information on COVID-19 responses.
I am concerned by recent reports about the situation of some Pacific islanders under the scheme. We are working closely with approved employers, with Pacific governments and with communities to safeguard the welfare of these workers. Senators opposite have also raised this issue, and I want to assure them and to assure the community that the government is committed to rectifying these issues for a successful and a safe PLS. (Time expired)