Thursday, 10 February 2022
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Seselja. Can the minister please update the Senate on how Australia is supporting Tonga following the recent volcanic eruption and tsunami?
I thank Senator Fawcett for his question, and for his interest in the Pacific and in humanitarian relief. On the evening of Saturday 15 January, I received a call of a kind I dread, of course, as minister for the Pacific, with news that one of our Pacific family had just suffered a devastating natural disaster. The explosive eruption of underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai and subsequent tsunami was declared an unprecedented disaster by Tonga's Prime Minister in the days following.
At the request of the Tongan government, Australia and New Zealand coordinated closely to provide initial surveillance flights to Tonga to assess what was needed. Australian donated patrol boats which, together with landing craft undamaged from the tsunami, went to survey the damage and evacuate people. Once the need was clear, we jumped into action.
We had pre-positioned supplies with the Red Cross in Tonga, which were delivered immediately. We've delivered 190 tonnes of humanitarian support to date with more to come. Thirteen RAAF humanitarian assistance flights have landed, carrying essential supplies and equipment, including food, water and shelter for families who lost their homes, medical supplies to support those who were injured and communications equipment so that friends and family in Australia and elsewhere could contact their loved ones.
HMAS Adelaide arrived in Tonga on 26 January, carrying additional supplies, including equipment to help with the clean-up and rebuilding efforts. All deliveries have been done in a COVID-safe way in close cooperation with the Tongan government and our partners in the region. I acknowledge the presence of one of our partners in the region: my good friend Jelta Wong, who is with us in the gallery.
This support will continue for as long as it's needed. That's our commitment to our Pacific family and they know this. They can see it in our actions. This government spent a record $1.76 billion in the Pacific in 2020-21. We don't just talk about support; we deliver, because that's the right thing to do for our neighbours and our family.
Our assistance to support Tonga is consistent with what we do for our good friends across the Pacific and is not limited to a single mission. Rather, it is our enduring presence and our high-quality development, policing and defence cooperation programs that have built trust over decades.
Under the coalition, defence, stability and national security are a priority. Those opposite, unfortunately, take a different view. While under this government our investment in the region and in defence is at record highs, the Labor Party gutted the defence budget by $18 billion—the lowest level as a proportion of GDP since 1938. While we on this side take a strong stand with our partners in the region and, indeed, across the world, Senator Wong won't condemn former Labor Prime Minister Keating for his appeasement of China. That's the contrast we have in this place. We don't shy away from prioritising—
You know, you might not like hearing it, but that's what you're going to do. That's your record: cutting defence in the past, and you would do it again.
Yes, I can. Thank you. The coalition hold national security as our highest priority. We've demonstrated in the Pacific that, in a complex geostrategic environment, we will go out and support our partners in very practical ways.
As I said earlier, in contrast, the Labor Party have a very different view. The Leader of the Opposition, of course, has never held a national security role; he's never held a financial role. He's never delivered a budget. He voted to unwind our strong borders under the Rudd-Gillard government, and he has flip-flopped on everything. Now of course he has the Greens in his ear, holding him to ransom, demanding that he cut the defence budget in half—costing jobs and harming our national security. Australians are right to ask if they can trust those opposite with the security and stability of our region.
Senator Watt might not like us highlighting these things, but these are serious questions for Australia and they are serious questions for the stability of our region. If you've got a government that doesn't care about these things, all of these things will be undermined. (Time expired)