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Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
Australia's relationships with the Pacific

FRANCIS, Ms Naomi Francis, Research Fellow, Monash Sustainable Development Institute

GORINGE, Dr Sureka, National Director, UnitingWorld

LALOR, Ms Stephanie, First Australians Program and Pacific Group Manager, Caritas Australia

MULLER, Mr Tom, Director of Policy and Programs, WaterAid Australia

POWER, Ms Sarah, Anticorruption Officer, Pacific, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

RICE, Mr Mark, Manager of Policy and Advocacy, RESULTS International Australia

WYTHES, Ms Annika, Regional Anticorruption Adviser, Pacific, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Evidence from Ms Francis, Dr Goringe, Ms Lalor, Mr Muller and Mr Rice was taken via teleconference—

Subcommittee met at 08:04

CHAIR ( Mr Sharma ): Good morning, everyone. I declare open today's roundtable public hearing of the Foreign Affairs and Aid Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade for the inquiry into strengthening Australia's relationships with countries in the Pacific region. The inquiry will examine the conditions necessary to strengthen Australia's relationships with the countries of the Pacific region to meet current and emerging opportunities and risks facing the region. The committee will particularly consider the implementation of Australia's Pacific step-up as a whole-of-government effort, explore prospects to improve and broaden engagement in the step-up through non-government Pacific community and diaspora links, and ensure step-up initiatives reflect the priority needs of the Pacific islands. Since the referral of the inquiry in February, some of the island nations in the Pacific have been affected by natural disaster and some also by the spread of COVID-19, which has affected millions worldwide, as you'd be aware. Both issues have implications for the communities, healthcare resources and economies of the Pacific and hence Australia's support in the region.

Thank you to all witness participants present here today and by teleconference who are assisting the committee with its inquiry program, and we look forward to your contribution. Witnesses are advised that in giving evidence to the subcommittee you are protected by parliamentary privilege. I also remind you of the obligation not to give false or misleading evidence. To do so may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. These are public proceedings, although the committee may agree to a request to have evidence heard in camera or may determine that certain evidence should be heard in camera. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness you should state the grounds upon which the objection is taken, and the subcommittee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the subcommittee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, also be made at any other time.

The hearing will be audio broadcast on the parliament's website, and the proof and official transcripts of proceedings will be published on the parliament's website. Before we get underway, is there anything that anyone would like to add about the capacity in which they appear today.

Mr Muller : I am a member of the WASH Reference Group executive.

Ms Francis : I am also on the executive of the WASH Reference Group

Dr Goringe : UnitingWorld is the aid and partnerships agency of the Uniting Church in Australia.

Ms Lalor : Caritas Australia is the aid and development arm of the Catholic Church.

CHAIR: I will ask everyone to make a brief opening statement, and we'll start with the witnesses present, Ms Wythes and Ms Power. Who would like to lead off?

Ms Wythes : Thank you, Chair. Thank you, committee members. It's a great privilege to be before you. The UN Pacific Regional Anti‐Corruption project, UN-PRAC, is a joint initiative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, and the UN Development Program. It is a partnership to prevent and fight corruption in 14 Pacific island countries and the territory of Tokelau. Since its inception eight years ago, it has been financially supported by the Australian government, and this has led to a strong partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. UN-PRAC has been successfully supporting Pacific island countries to: (1) strengthen their national integrity systems; (2) promote clean governments; and (3) create an enabling environment to increase trade, business, investment and sustainable development in the region. In turn, this will enhance the delivery of equitable and high-quality services to all Pacific islanders.

There are four main points that I wish to highlight to the committee this morning. The first point is that UN-PRAC supports a whole-of-government approach to preventing and fighting corruption in the Pacific. We recommend that Australia continues to support anticorruption projects as corruption is a major obstacle to sustainable development, realising the benefits of a whole-of-government engagement. Corruption knows no geographical boundaries. It leads to failures in governance, poor functioning of institutions and hinders economic and social development. These challenges complicate the Pacific island countries' already complex situation, with their own specificities, such as their size, physical remoteness and set of development challenges and vulnerabilities, including with regard to security in governance. In addition, climate change and environmental disasters, including now COVID-19, are further exacerbating corruption risks in the Pacific. UN-PRAC promotes and supports a whole-of-government approach to preventing and fighting corruption. We are working with Pacific governments to help them achieve the Sustainable Development Goals—notably goal 16, which specifically addresses corruption—as well as meet their international obligations under the United Nations Convention against Corruption, to which all 14 Pacific island countries that UN-PRAC supports have now acceded. Prior to Australia's initial support for UN-PRAC in 2012, only six Pacific island countries had acceded to the convention.

UN-PRAC has supported 14 Pacific island countries to participate in the mechanism for the review of the implementation of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. This is an intergovernmental peer review process whereby each state party is reviewed by experts from other countries in order to assist that state to effectively implement the convention. The reviews generate good practices, successes and recommendations in relation to four thematic areas: corruption prevention, criminalisation and law enforcement, international cooperation, and asset recovery. Since accession, all 14 Pacific island countries have made efforts to implement the United Nations Convention against Corruption, notably through country-led and country-driven processes supported by UN-PRAC, drawing on the UNCAC review recommendations. This is an ongoing focus of the UN-PRAC project.

UN-PRAC has worked with Pacific governments to develop and strengthen laws and policies, including national anticorruption strategies and laws on right to information, whistleblower protection, anti money laundering, criminalising corrupt behaviour, asset recovery, and so forth. Institutional capacity building, strengthening the integrity of institutions at the request of Pacific island countries, has also become a key focus of the Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Project. These activities include specialised training, facilitating financial intelligence unit personnel exchanges among Pacific island countries, and strengthening cooperation of the Australian and the New Zealand ombudsman and other integrity agencies with Pacific counterparts, commonly conducted at the national and regional levels. However, now we're also looking to conduct this training online during COVID-19.

My second point is that, in addition to supporting a whole-of-government approach, UN-PRAC promotes a whole-of-society approach to prevent and fight corruption. We recommend that Australia continues to support civil society, the private sector, learning institutions, youth and women, media organisations and whistleblowers, as this will strengthen and broaden Australia's engagement in the Pacific Step-up and further contribute to sustainable development. A good practice that UN-PRAC learnt early on was the establishment of a multifaceted, whole-of-society approach to preventing and fighting corruption. This is tailored to individual country contexts. UN-PRAC has therefore sought to empower and inform integrity champions, politicians, public officials, civil society and the private sector to make institutional and personal commitments to combat corruption. One step can be through the establishment of national anticorruption strategies and anticorruption committees, and when such a strategy is developed and strengthened in an inclusive and transparent manner, it is likely to ensure buy-in from stakeholders and non-state actors, and enable governments to draw on the wider community to support these national anticorruption efforts.

In addition, UN-PRAC stresses the importance of bringing youth and gender issues into the anticorruption and broader sustainable development discussion. Corruption often has a disproportionate effect on the vulnerable in society. UN-PRAC has therefore fostered partnerships, for example, in anticorruption education with the University of the South Pacific and the Australia Pacific Training Coalition. UN-PRAC also works with whistleblowers, disability advocates, women, youth groups, and faith based and other civil society organisations.

UN-PRAC, in partnership with the Pacific Islands News Association, established the Pacific Anti-Corruption Journalist Network. UN-PRAC commenced capacity building with member organisations of the network to strengthen the media's role in reporting corruption in the region. Additionally, UN-PRAC has worked with the private sector, such as by addressing corruption risks and drafting codes of conduct.

UN-PRAC has been investing considerable efforts to promote and support a whole-of-society approach to ensure the ownership and sustainability of anticorruption measures rest with and are done by Pacific Island countries. Partnerships between Pacific governments and civil society would gain to be further fostered, including through supporting initiatives like the UN-PRAC and other Pacific based partners.

My third point: UN-PRAC has received feedback from many Pacific Island countries on the need to support Pacific governments priorities in country, and to facilitate peer-to-peer learning. We encourage Australia in its Pacific Step-up initiatives to continue supporting Pacific Island countries in country, to target individual country priorities and to continue to facilitate peer-to-peer learning.

UN-PRAC has taken an in-country approach based on Pacific Island countries' specific priorities to ensure ownership, facilitate a whole-of-society approach, and to foster constructive dialogue between actors where previously some of them were working in silos even when based in the same country. This is particularly meaningful, as in many Pacific Island countries key actors who can facilitate change often wear many different hats.

Pacific peer-to-peer dialogue, experience sharing and shared learning can further be a key factor to implementation, be it of the UN Convention Against Corruption or in other forums in the Pacific. Regional engagement can foster better outcomes when they are Pacific led and provided with sustainable mechanisms, as highlighted in the Teiniwa Vision of the first Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Conference that was held this year from 4 to 5 February in Kiribati. The conference was supported by UN-PRAC and the Australian and New Zealand governments.

My fourth point: in Australia's COVID response, it is more important than ever to ensure that transparency, accountability and anticorruption measures are incorporated. Under the emergency COVID-19 circumstances, some countries have relaxed safeguards on transparency, oversight and accountability mechanisms, and limited open access to data. To address the emergency, there has also been a tendency to waive procurement safeguards, withhold information and suspend measures designed for constructive engagement of multiple stakeholders in various governance processes, enhancing significantly the risk of corruption. Economic recovery, along with health security and stability, would be seriously hindered by corruption. As a consequence, economic recovery and stability would suffer. If committee members are interested, we would be happy to share with you an advisory note that we put together on corruption and COVID-19 in the Pacific.

Corruption risks are also prevalent in the distribution of foreign aid and assistance. For countries largely dependent on foreign aid, over US$2 billion were distributed in foreign aid each year from 2011 to 2017 in the Pacific. This is of particular concern, especially if needed aid intended to fight the pandemic is diverted into the hands of corrupt individuals. There are multiple examples from previous health emergencies and natural disasters of money being dispersed to individuals rather than organisations, duplicated payments for supplies, disregard of procurement procedures, and patients being charged for health services and medicines that are already paid for by international donors. Regrettably, COVID-19 is providing ample room for new and existing forms of corruption to flourish. There is little doubt that there is increasing corruption, and this will exacerbate the economic damage the virus is already causing, and make it harder for Pacific Island countries to recover. It is therefore imperative that corruption risks are addressed and integrated across sector and government structures during the crisis itself, in the socioeconomic impact analysis and in the specific socioeconomic measures in the post COVID-19 response. UN-PRAC is clearly aligned with two of the three target areas in the Partnerships for recovery: Australia's COVID-19 development response—specifically, stability and economic recovery, noting that health is the third target.

In concluding, the actions taken by Pacific island countries, with the support of UN-PRAC, to address corruption and good governance directly contribute to creating a more secure and economically stable Pacific, and provide an enabling environment for sustainable development. Corruption therefore being addressed is a win-win for any Australian investment in the Pacific.

CHAIR: Thank you so much. We'll move to other opening statements; I want to have a chance to come back to questions. I'll ask Mr Muller or Ms Francis from the WASH Reference Group if they'd like to give an opening statement. Who would like to take the lead there?

Mr Muller : I'll start on behalf of the WASH Reference Group, and then Naomi will contribute further. By way of introduction, the WASH Reference Group is an Australian coordination body of WASH actors—actors that work on water, sanitation and hygiene. It's made up of about 30 organisations from the international NGO community, leading Australian universities and a number of private sector consulting companies that work on issues around water, sanitation and hygiene. As a network it's been around for over 10 years and has had an ongoing, deep, close relationship with the DFAT water, sanitation and hygiene team. Over the years it has provided a significant input into the shape and design of different DFAT WASH programs; most notably the current program, Water for Women, which is a $100 million program focused on water, sanitation and hygiene. As a group we focus on learning and knowledge exchange and improving best practice.

As a group we also have some leading NGO organisations working in the Pacific, implementing programs directly with society partners, national and subnational governments and working with private sector organisations and church partner organisations. We bring significant expert teams and experience from the Pacific, and we want to share some of our perspective in relation to the Pacific Step-up. Most notably, there's a risk that the Pacific Step-up is insufficiently focused on supporting an increase in access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene needs. While the Pacific Step-up and particularly the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific will direct new investment into large-scale infrastructure, there are significant risks that it will be at the detriment of increasing access to basic levels of water, sanitation and hygiene. The reason this is so critical, to really think about basic level water, sanitation and hygiene, is because WASH really underpins the quality of life of people within the Pacific, it underpins health care, it underpins the potential for economic development. When you think about the tourism industry of Vanuatu or elsewhere, unless you have good water, sanitation and hygiene, you're not going to actually be able to access the economic development that is needed.

When you look at the Pacific, it has the lowest water, sanitation and hygiene coverage in the world, with just 30 per cent of people having access to basic sanitation, and only 55 per cent of people having access to basic drinking water services. If you narrow this down to, say, Papua New Guinea, as a critical country of strategic interest for Australia, if you look at the WASH access rates, they're even more concerning. In rural Papua New Guinea, only eight per cent of households have basic sanitation, 17 per cent of household practice open defecation, and 74 per cent of household use what are globally defined as shared, unhygienic toilets. These are toilets where the excreta is not safely disposed so it doesn't touch the person, so there is a much higher risk of disease transmission, as you can imagine. There's no data in PNG on hand hygiene practises. When you look at issues on hand hygiene practices across the Pacific, there's very limited data. Generally, poor practice needs to be a priority, particularly within the COVID-19 context. Again, in terms of water issues, the vast majority of people in rural PNG only have access to surface water, which is untreated water in rivers and ponds, which have a higher risk of contributing to disease.

One of the points we would make is that, when you think about recovery and the focus on health, resilience, prosperity and stability within the Pacific, there really is a requirement to think about water, sanitation and hygiene, and nowhere is this more prevalent than when you think about the healthcare facilities. WASH references research across the entire Pacific, looking at healthcare facilities. We know that, across the Pacific, the vast majority of health posts and health facilities do not have soap and do not have running water and do not have adequate sanitation facilities. When we think about how to respond to COVID-19, the critical importance of increasing the quality of water, sanitation and hygiene in healthcare facilities is quite obvious. It's also linked to school participation and the participation of girls in school. WASH references organisations that have done recent research, looking at the experiences of girls in terms of mental health and hygiene, issues around stigma, issues around toilets, issues around having facilities with proper disposal. When you try to encourage and foster the recovery in the Pacific, thinking about how WASH contributes to the participation of girls in schools is critical.

We would really argue strongly that, as the Australian government thinks about the Pacific step-up in the longer term, it needs to complement the focus of large scale infrastructure with a more strategic focus on basic-level access to water, sanitation and hygiene. We would also argue that, with regard to the Pacific step-up and taking a whole-of-government initiative, there is a critical need to focus on government capacity and initiatives. When you look at the research of capacity initiatives that have been implemented in the Pacific over many years, there has been a failure to really focus on pedagogical approaches led by Pacific actors and long-term capacity-building programs that are structured in ways to actually shift the capacity in a sustainable and ongoing way. There is a risk from our perspective that the focus on the Pacific step-up in infrastructure may well lead to more infrastructure being built, but, unless you actually address issues around the capacity of water utilities, you're not going to see the sustainability of that investment, which will undermine the value of Australian aid. We would really expect there would be a deeper focus on Pacific-led capacity-building initiatives to support the investment in large-scale infrastructure.

The final point that I'd like to make is that there are numerous critical gaps across water, sanitation and hygiene where Australian expertise, whether it be in the water utility sector, the private sector, universities or the NGO community, can really assist. There is leading practice in relation to water supply asset management and leading practice in relation to how you address [inaudible] water issues and how you address tariffs structures and utilities to ensure that the utilities are financially viable. There's a need to focus on water security issues and have a deeper integration with climate change and climate change water security factors. While the immediate focus is on COVID-19 and there's a significant response in looking at COVID-19, the longer term threats to the Pacific really do relate to climate change, and water security issues would be prioritised in how Australia thinks about the long-term Pacific step-up. My final point would be the need to continue to think about water, sanitation and hygiene from a gender perspective and look at how water sanitation and hygiene can facilitate changes in gender norms. Our work in Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere really does show that properly designed water sanitation programs can be incredibly powerful in tackling the gender norm and barriers to women's participation in and ownership of global services.

When we think about the COVID-19 response to date, the NGOs who work across the Pacific and have deep connections with the church partner organisations have demonstrated the value of the deep connections that they have in terms of being able to respond very quickly [inaudible] to be to work in northern PNG, where an agency is working to reach about 400,000 people who have [inaudible] through the relationships with the front national government. When Australia thinks about how it actually gets [inaudible] in terms of supporting responses to COVID-19, it needs to look at the critical role that the NGO community can play through its trusted relationships with sub-national and national governing parties.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Muller. We will now move to Mr Mark Rice, from RESULTS International, for an opening statement.

Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to expand on some of the points from our submission today. I'll aim to keep the opening comments brief, so that later I can focus on any of the points from the submission that committee members are particularly interested in.

RESULTS International Australia has had a traditional focus on actions that contribute towards ending poverty internationally. Our focus has often been more on investment in particular sectors or services to achieve that goal rather than focusing on particular countries or regions. Nevertheless, I think the countries in our region do demonstrate and are particularly affected by many of the major income, poverty, health, inequality, nutrition and education issues that are also global issues. So focusing on how our assistance to the Pacific can contribute to addressing those problems is important.

I would also note that we have had two major developments since RESULTS International Australia's written submission was made last month which are relevant to the inquiry. One is the release of the Partnerships for Recovery statement by the Australian government, which does in fact address several of the issues that we had raised in our submission and in the recommendations, including reorienting some of our assistance to the Pacific more towards the health, education and social sectors; working more closely with local partners; and identifying that, while the outright number of COVID-19 cases in the Pacific has been low in general, the impacts of the pandemic have still been significant due to the economic, health and education impacts that the countermeasures that many countries have taken to prevent a major outbreak have had.

The other major development earlier this month was the Global Vaccine Summit, which took place on 4 June, which raised globally $8.8 billion in pledges for GAVI, the vaccine alliance, including a pledge of A$300 million from Australia, which was an outstanding result. It certainly addresses one of the recommendations that was in our submission, which was that Australia provide increased support for improved access to vaccination, especially for those countries that have recently experienced outbreaks of disease.

I'll briefly highlight a few of the recommendations that we have made. Apart from the more general recommendations for a stronger health and education focus, Australia could provide—and I think we've already heard in the other opening statements that this has been identified as a common issue for people working with the Pacific—support for improved collection of data on how countries are progressing towards the Sustainable Development Goals in the Pacific. If we look at available data that is, say, published by multilateral organisations, it's often quite patchy, which does mean it's more difficult to get a comprehensive picture of how different countries are progressing towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

Of our final two recommendations, Australia is already doing one, and it's something that we'd recommend Australia step up—that is, encouraging multilateral agencies to increase the priority, in their support, for countries in the Pacific. That could include Australia doing more joint funding or partnerships with multilateral agencies in supporting countries in the region. The other is because many of the countries in the Pacific are classified as middle-income countrieseven though they do have some major challenges, if you look at their social indicatorsand may not be a high priority for assistance. It would be helpful for Australia to have a clear policy on its own support for middle-income countries and also to encourage multilateral agencies to increase support for middle-income countries that may lag in the different social indicators.

Having highlighted those points, I look forward to taking any questions from committee members who'd like to clarify any of the recommendations.

CHAIR: Thank you so much, Mr Rice. We might move now to UnitingWorld and your submission, Dr Goringe.

Dr Goringe : We are the aid and partnerships agency of the Uniting Church and, through our relationships with the churches in the Pacific, we have a history that goes for over a hundred years of connecting and collaborating with Pacific island churches and church communities. That's historically been in collaborations in social services like health, education and WASH, and in more recent times the collaborations have also included support for building up governance and leadership capacity, supporting Pacific churches to do sustainable community development in the Pacific communities, and working on gender equality, in particular around women's equality and the safeguarding of children. Our perspective is one of both an aid organisation and a church relational organisation which has very deep connections throughout the Pacific.

Our primary recommendation to this inquiry was that our relationships with the Pacific really need to engage with churches in the Pacific, churches being probably the strongest and most influential civil society organisations in the Pacific. Engaging with them has a whole range of reasons around it, which include the fact that they are deeply embedded in community and are very influential in the public. You can build on a very long relationship between Australian churches and Pacific churches, a history of collaboration and mutual respect. Also, the Pacific diaspora in Australia is very active within Australian churches. To channel that and to leverage those connections between the Australian Pacific diaspora and Pacific communities, working through churches, would be very useful. And, finally, churches, as established local community institutions within Pacific countries, have leadership structures at sub-national, national and also regional levels that give us hooks for the Pacific step-up program to connect with and meet people. I think it's a channel into deep community grassroots as well as highly connected and influential aspects.

Our second recommendation is that Pacific step-up and the building up of relationships in the Pacific really need to be centred on the aspirations of Pacific Island people, and I think that kind of manifests in a couple of different ways in our experience. For us, the biggest thing is that it requires Australia to deal with the issue of climate change with integrity. Before the pandemic wiped everything else off people's agendas, climate change was the No. 1 issue to worry about. Climate change remains, still, the biggest existential threat to life in the Pacific. And if we don't engage with Pacific people with a willingness to grapple with that, we have the risk of undermining everything else that we try to do with the step-up initiative.

The second thing that comes out of that—that is, if we focus our desire to build relationships with the Pacific on the needs of the Pacific people—is there is, in our experience of engaging very widely across many countries, a desire for models of development that are not just a mimic of the Western model of development that Australia may have pursued in terms of industrialisation and trade. There is obviously desire for an improvement in quality of living and access to services, but there is also a very strong desire for tapping into Indigenous knowledge, being conscious of social and cultural values in development. In particular, for the past 12 months we have been engaging with a movement called Reweaving the Ecological Mat, which is a collaboration between universities and churches in the Pacific. It is actually trying to put together a framework for development, from a Pacific perspective, that brings together the value of the natural environment, and the social, emotional health and wellbeing of people as well as the economic wellbeing of the community. We have an opportunity here. This is a moment in time where Australia could step in—not step in, but step up to partner, to nurture, to support and to accompany Pacific countries in a journey of development that is driven by their own agenda. This is a great opportunity for us to have a huge amount of integrity, rather than necessarily driving development in the Pacific based on our own understanding of what is the right solution.

Another aspect of the needs of communities and people in our relationship is just making sure that with the things we are doing to support Pacific economies, like the labour mobility programs that we've got—both of them—that we don't shoot ourselves in the foot by creating economic wellbeing at the expense of community. We are finding at community level that long-term absences of working-age parent cohorts cause significant harm to families, and there is a price being paid at the community level for having Pacific Islanders spending long times working in Australia. We're not saying we should stop that; we're just saying those schemes need to be re-evaluated to look at social impacts. As an aid organisation we're being asked by communities to support them to address the social problems that are being caused by the absence of adults when children are growing up, so issues of dependency, abuse of alcohol and other substances, gambling, pornography and whole range of other issues when parents are absent from communities for lengths of time.

And the last aspect of what we're really recommending to this committee is the whole-of-government aspect and how Australia's efforts to approach the Pacific through the step-up is perceived in many places as being fairly self-serving. We're hearing back this idea that Australia was treating the Pacific like a pawn in a game of a regional stand-off with China. I think we need to make sure that other policies and how we work holistically, particularly in trade agreements around our aid program, and in particular how we as a country address climate change with our internal policies, is going to play a significant role in whether our approach to the Pacific is seen to be genuine and have the interests of both parties. The Pacific's relationship with Australia is very strong. One of the most profound experiences for us in the last months is realising that when, during the summer of the bushfires, when Australia was going through a pretty tough time, all of our Pacific partners raised money for the Australian churches' emergency effort. This contribution and this mutuality is a very strong base from which to build.

I'll wrap up by saying that we have very strong relationships between Australia and the Pacific, particularly through the churches and through a huge amount of collaborative work that has been done in social and sustainable community development. But that approach will have to be built on a centredness in the Pacific and a willingness to grapple with climate change and our ability to make sure that things that we do in one place don't backfire in other places. That's what'd we'd like to say, and we're very happy to take questions later.

CHAIR: Thank you for your submission and your statement, Dr Goringe. Finally we will go to Ms Lalor from Caritas Australia.

Ms Lalor : Thank you. On behalf of Caritas Australia I'd like to thank the committee for the opportunity to be here today and for acknowledging the importance of this inquiry. Caritas is the aid and development arm of the Catholic Church. The Caritas network in the Pacific is involved in a range of development and humanitarian programs. We have a wide presence across the region. Ninety per cent of the population in the Pacific identify as Christian. Churches play a central role in Pacific societies, and in countries like PNG they deliver 50 per cent of community based health and education services. Pacific churches also play an important role in advocating on issues affecting communities and calling for systemic change.

Our submission to this inquiry incorporates the voices of the Caritas network in the Pacific. I'd like to share two of the key recommendations referenced in our submission. The first recommendation relates to the significance of engaging the churches in the Pacific Step-up. Churches are a key part of localised engagement in the Pacific, and there are many examples of success which can be replicated. For example, the long-term support of the Australian government for the Church Partnership Program in PNG has enabled a robust ecumenical partnership to develop among the churches in PNG and Australia and strengthened engagement with government. This has enhanced the churches' existing development and service delivery work and provided unique opportunities to work collectively on common issues.

This investment is now enabling the churches to play a key role in the COVID-19 response in PNG. For example, using their networks in communities, Caritas PNG and other church based NGOs are implementing risk communications and broader sanitation and hygiene activity in local dioceses and parishes. This is significant given the limited access by rural populations to water, sanitation and hygiene.

We acknowledge Australia's commitment to work with churches in the Pacific Step-up. We recommend that, given their unique role in the Pacific, the Australian government strengthen this engagement with churches, building on successful models like CPT.

Secondly, in relation to ensuring that Pacific Step-up initiatives reflect the priority needs of Pacific communities, our experience working with Pacific partners and communities has shown us the importance of having open, respectful dialogue between partners and listening deeply to each other's priorities. The same approach will help ensure Pacific step-up initiatives reflect the priority needs of Pacific communities. For the Catholic Church in the Pacific, these priorities include environmental protections, climate change and increasing participation of women and youth in decision-making. Therefore our second recommendation is that the Australian government facilitate meaningful opportunities for engagement with churches on these priorities.

In summary, stronger relationships in the region will be achieved through long-term partnerships and funding that strengthen the capacity of churches to deliver programs and to be a local voice engaging in dialogue on priority issues facing Pacific communities. This will improve Australia's relationship with our Pacific family and will enhance our collective ability to navigate times of great change and uncertainty.

CHAIR: Thank you so much, Ms Lalor. We've now got time for questions. Deputy Chair, would you like to start?

Mr HILL: Sure. There's a lot there. I did actually read your submissions on Sunday night, so thank you for them. I'm not sure where to start, actually; you took me by surprise. Senator Abetz, did you want to go first?

Senator ABETZ: Yes, if you need to gather your thoughts, because I do need to sneak off. My questions are to UN-PRAC; thank you for your submission. Very quickly: how long have you been in existence?

Ms Wythes : We started in 2012, and I've been with the project since inception.

Senator ABETZ: What's the cost? Can you point to any successes as to the level of corruption being, let's say, at X per cent, and now it is as X minus whatever?

Ms Wythes : Thank you very much for your question, honourable senator. It is very hard to gauge how much corruption there actually is and to put a figure to it. There are institutions that have tried to ballpark it. Maybe just to mention one figure, if I may, it was said that corruption can cost the world more than five per cent of the global GDP.

Senator ABETZ: The world?

Ms Wythes : The world. That's about US$2.6 trillion. That's the World Bank's statistic. It's hard to know really what the figure is in the Pacific. We don't know, but we do understand there to be corruption in different sectors, and this is why this whole-of-society, whole-of-government approach is so key to addressing it. Did you mean, in terms of cost, how much we—

Senator ABETZ: What's your budget?

Ms Wythes : Over the last four years we received roughly US$5.4 million. That was increased from the first phase to the second phase, which we're currently in. We're at the stage of negotiating, hopefully, a third phase going forwards.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you for that. Can I mention that which some might not want to mention. It seems to me that our friends from China are heavily engaged in the Pacific and that there would be very real opportunities for corruption: belt and road initiatives, et cetera. What is UN-PRAC doing to identify that? Getting right to the point, what is the UN's approach to that, given the very concerning influence that China had with the World Health Organization and its initial announcements on COVID-19? What's the Chinese influence in the Pacific?

Ms Wythes : China is a state party to the UN Convention against Corruption. It also engages in—

Senator ABETZ: That was my concern, quite frankly. Thank you.

Ms Wythes : China is not a donor to our project. We are not directly engaged with China. We look at corruption really through the framework of the UN Convention against Corruption, but also through Sustainable Development Goal 16. They are our two anchors. The way in which we engage is really country led and country specific. So we do have a concrete understanding of what legislatively, institutionally and practically exists. We have a lot of information through the reviews and the recommendations, and we are working with countries to prioritise those recommendations. I mentioned the national anticorruption strategies that are country driven, and they have been a great anchor for countries to drive the process themselves and for us to help support them, also with many other partners. So, it really is each country, and in some countries the focus will be different; it will be more on the legislative capacity building, or maybe more on corruption prevention. Some countries are focused more on criminalisation. It was interesting because there are some areas where there are big gaps—for example, on the right to information. That's a big gap in the Pacific. There are currently only three countries that have functioning right-to-information mechanisms. Money laundering is also a big topic that is also a key priority for Australia. We also have corruption and bribery in the private sector that is not holistically addressed, which is a focus for countries and also for our project going forward.

Senator ABETZ: There's undoubtedly the possibility of corruption in the private sector—seeking to buy off government officials to allow projects et cetera to go ahead in the various island states. Has your attention ever been drawn to a state player such as China having that same sort of influence and impact in relation to some of the Pacific island states or nations?

Ms Wythes : We have looked at the laws, and there are gaping gaps in the laws. Practically speaking, the media has reported on concerns in the private sector, but it's also been addressed by citizens. It is of concern. It is a key priority for the region and for countries individually but also for the project as we do the step-up to the next level. Also, with the Pacific step-up, I understand that trade and investment is a key focus for Australia. Also, stability and social cohesion will be really important in this regard.

Senator ABETZ: If I can ask about China, has your attention been drawn to any specific examples? Are you concerned that some of these island states have now indebted themselves to a level that is unsustainable and that, in those circumstances, make them more prone to potential undue influence or corruption?

Ms Wythes : In relation to good governance in general, there are issues and there are gaps that need to be addressed. We focus on specific areas, on specific laws. Under the framework of the convention, we understand how countries prevent corruption, how they criminalise it, be it public/private sector, how effective law enforcement is. We often say that you're only as strong as the weakest link on the criminal justice chain. Then, of course, international corporation corruption knows no boundaries. Then there is asset recovery, which has been the one area that we have focused least on to date. I think asset recovery will be a priority going forward.

Mr HILL: Thank you for your presentations. With regard to the step-ups generally, and particularly for those development partners listening at home, I'm curious about two things: firstly, what are your general impressions as to how the step-up was going before COVID-19—were we doing the right things, were we doing enough, where would we need to be doing more? Secondly, post-COVID-19, do you have any early impressions of the government's response to the pandemic? I'm mindful in asking that of the paper from Stephen Howes, which points that, out of every area of government expenditure and effort, it appears that international aid and development is the only area of government where no additional expenditure or budgetary allocation has been provided. That is a pretty stunning statement, really. I hadn't realised that it seems to have been the only area of government expenditure where nothing extra has been done. So, I'm curious about the perception of the focus and scope of the step-up beforehand and then your views as to the adequacy of the government's response more recently.

Dr Goringe : From our perspective, before COVID-19 the step-up initiatives, particularly the Church Partnerships Program and its willingness to engage with leadership from the Pacific to discuss priorities and concerns and focus the conversation around that, was very promising. It also struggled with the fact that it was a very small and highly constrained engagement. Step-up was trying to do the right thing, but it hadn't really thought about how it was going to do it and what it was going to look like, and there were a lot of preconceptions about what the church partnerships agenda would look like. There was a little bit of frustration where there was a willingness to listen but there wasn't much capacity to actually respond to what was being said. A lot of the step-up initiatives focused on infrastructure and labour mobility and it meant that the civil society actors felt that their level of influence and agency were somewhat limited. But I think that, in general, Australians' desire to be more engaged in the Pacific was very warmly received and with a lot of enthusiasm.

Mr HILL: Do WASH or RESULTS have any comment?

Mr Muller : My observation would be that, pre-COVID, the Pacific step-up probably was still leaving insufficient investment in critical areas around water, sanitation and hygiene, and there hadn't been sufficient dialogue and focus with Pacific partners around the government capacity constraints that need to be addressed. While there are lots of good initiatives, at an individual post level or project level, at a more strategic level, in terms of how the Australian aid dollar is spent in the Pacific to support national governments and civil society actors, and in influencing other donors who invest in water, sanitation and hygiene, it just wasn't there. There was a lack of strategic agenda. We were hoping the Pacific step-up would provide the catalyst for a more strategic approach to issues around water, sanitation and hygiene. What I would say about post COVID is, again, while there are individual programs that have contributed significantly and the Australian government's shown great flexibility in allowing organisations to pivot their programs to respond to immediate need, the fact that it's all coming from existing aid budgets is problematic in the longer term in that there are many development challenges that should be the focus if we are trying to really step up in the Pacific perspective. Certainly, from the WASH reference group and I think the broader international NGO community perspective, there needs to be a significant increase in investment in ODA for the Pacific step-up in the COVID-19 context.

Mr HILL: Thank you.

Mr Rice : I think the point that Tom made is similar to our primary interest or concern, both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is that we're certainly in favour of an increased role for Australia in assisting the Pacific region, but we have, in the last two years, expressed concern about that being at the expense of other countries and other regions. Especially, recent developments have shown that economic and social progress in Pacific countries relies on other countries and other regions, such as Asia, also making progress. In that sense, it might not be a great benefit for the Pacific if they're receiving increased assistance at the expense of other regions.

Mr HILL: Thank you. Finally, Caritas.

Ms Lalor : I might talk more to post COVID as I think Sureka really covered off on the pre-COVID perceptions, which I very much agree with. For post COVID, we've definitely seen an opportunity to strengthen engagement with churches and the Australian government. For example, in Papua New Guinea the staff in the Australian high commissions, our posts, have really been engaging in bringing together church actors, other civil society actors, clinical support and the government of PNG to support a coordinated response. We see that as a really positive contribution. We acknowledge that there is not significant new additional funding, and particularly in countries like PNG there is already significant existing need in addition to those needs presented through the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges. So certainly there's more work to do and more opportunity there to build support and engagement, particularly for churches. Their role is acknowledged and is perhaps even more critical than ever in terms of that service delivery work, and they need the support to be able to deliver on that.

Mr HILL: Thank you. You said at the start of those remarks that you broadly shared the views expressed about pre-COVID. The phrase I've noted down here is 'a lot of good initiatives but a lack of a strategic agenda, still yet to emerge'. Is that reasonable? I'm not trying to be openly critical of the government. It's a huge endeavour that they've set out on, and that's one of the things I think we should be reflecting on. There's a lot of good work going on and there's a lot of busy work, but is it strategic and where might be some of the gaps or improvements that could be made now, reflecting on what's happened so far? Is that a fair summation of the pre-COVID environment that I heard? That's with the overlay, of course, of 'we'd like more money and could to more'!

Ms Lalor : I'd agree with that, and certainly the point that there's an intention there to listen. But are we really walking the talk? Are we listening and being responsive to what our partners are telling us and being led by the Pacific?

Ms Wythes : I definitely agree with you, Deputy Chair. I wish to commend the Australian government's Pacific step-up and the initiatives that are ongoing. I would agree that a coordinated response that is very adaptive to Pacific priorities and in-country needs is key, as is allowing the Pacific islanders to lead a lot of the processes. Partnerships in the Pacific between Pacific island countries and also, of course, with Australia and beyond are really key in this. It is also ensuring that we listen to what the needs are and address them accordingly, because PIC's, Pacific island countries, need to have that ownership and sustainability to drive it going forward.

I will give you an example if I may. I worked with an attorney-general and we were looking at the international cooperation framework in place. She said, 'Oh, yes, we had a consultant from an organisation come in a few years ago. She sat with us for three months.' But she couldn't find the soft copy or the hard copy, nor could she remember what organisation the lady had come from or her name.

Mr HILL: She sounds like a spy!

Ms Wythes : No, but it was one of these things where she said at the time: 'We didn't need it. It wasn't our priority. It was the priority of the organisation coming in. They had wanted to support us, but at the time we didn't need it.' So the idea of it really being that it needs to be country driven, Pacific driven, to support them with their agenda in order to be able to move forward is really key. That's what I'm trying to highlight—ownership and sustained commitment.

Mr HILL: So doing with and for, not to?

Ms Wythes : Exactly: listening and then acting upon it accordingly.

Mr HILL: Many years ago I was involved in starting the first friendship agreement between an Australian council and an East Timorese village. It's still going, actually; it's the 20-year anniversary this month. The whole ethos was about community development. It was much slower to get off the ground but it has made it sustainable because, at every step, we sought—albeit on a small scale—to be driven by the community's priorities. It is quite messy and tortuous at times for our engineering types, who want a spreadsheet and a task list and to get on with it.

Ms Wythes : If I may add to that: it is that long process. It's a medium- to long-term investment, and to appreciate that it's the counterparts on our side having that long-term investment. For our project UN-PRAC, DFAT has been great. We've had two people—Dr Stephen McElhinney and Mr Kristian Futol. For eight years they've been on the project together with us. To have that continuity from the DFAT side, from our project side and with our counterparts, whereby we can empower integrity champions within different sectors in Pacific island countries to drive that agenda, has really been—

Mr HILL: So DFAT left those officers on the same project for eight years?

Ms Wythes : Yes.

Mr HILL: They must have forgotten about them. Don't they rotate them to avoid capture, Mr Sharma?

CHAIR: Not the locally based staff, no; only the Australian based staff.

Mr GORMAN: I wanted to ask about the Pacific step-up, which I always call the 'Pacific catch-up', because we are really trying to scale up quite rapidly. What are the corruption risks in doing such a rapid scale-up and how well are they currently managed?

Ms Wythes : We are currently the only regional anti-corruption project across the board.

Mr GORMAN: What resources do you have in terms of people?

Ms Wythes : We are two organisations and we have roughly five people. We work across the 14 Pacific Island countries, currently fully funded by the Australian government, but we work with a lot of partners. The partners will vary according to the different areas that we are focusing on. I mentioned the private sector in my opening remarks. We work with the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation (PIPSO) and it's affiliate members; with the media, the Pacific Islands News Association, and the network that we established; with governments, it is holistic, across the board; and with parliamentarians, you also have the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption. So the way in which we have operated is to draw on and work with many partners.

Mr GORMAN: Does that work become harder when a country such as Australia tries to come in with quick and large amounts of cash into a part of the world which you have already seen has some capacity and institutional constraints?

Ms Wythes : There are definitely challenges associated with that. If we can support countries to drive the process through their national anti-corruption strategies that they are developing, with the influx of funds coming into these countries, they can ensure that there are those accountability, transparency and anti-corruption measures in place to ensure that there isn't that divergence of funds or other corrupt behaviour going on. So I would very much say that, in empowering countries, they can ensure that there is less risk of corruption. One of the benefits is that we are the UN and a neutral partner in all of this. We do have access at many different levels, and we do try to empower the integrity champions in the different areas in order to support them with their work.

Mr GORMAN: In terms of those strategies and Pacific island nations, how many countries currently have such strategies in place approved by their parliament or their executive? I am happy if you want to take that on notice.

Ms Wythes : There are currently three Pacific island countries, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, that have already developed national anti-corruption strategies that are supported by anti-corruption committees—so essentially coordinating mechanisms that implement these strategies. But there are also other committees that exist in order to coordinate anti-corruption efforts. There is one in Vanuatu that also includes non-state actors—Transparency Vanuatu. There are a number of countries that are currently establishing these national anti-corruption strategies. We are currently supporting Federated States of Micronesia and Tuvalu. We have a request from the Cook Islands, and we have also worked closely with Vanuatu, and it is before the Council of Ministers for approval. So there is this big push at the moment, and I think that is where we should be supporting them so that they drive that process through that holistic multifaceted approach—and also with non-state actors. Having civil society and communities involved ensures that the government's anti-corruption agenda becomes a country agenda and everybody is on board. But, of course, on the back of that, it is key to still focus on the legislative side and also institution building.

Mr CONNELLY: I don't want to repeat what the senator spoke about earlier, but, I suppose through my own experience in business over a decade or so, I have a bit of a habit of setting KPIs and looking for results. I don't think anyone would really disagree that combating corruption is extremely important, including in our region. It would be very helpful if in future we could have KPIs and examples of corruption, if we can identify what are some of the vectors and threats and that level of being able to be specific about what we are seeing and how it is trending. I concur with Senator Abetz that fundamentally, knowing whether the pattern is stable, getting worse or getting better would be very helpful; and then of course there is the volume and those examples. From my perspective, to be able to have that picture of our region would be extremely important.

I acknowledge that climate change popped up a few times from our submitters today as one of the key concerns of the Pacific region. I was a bit surprised, given that we're talking about a big blue ocean, that issues around the integrity of fisheries, the security of the Exclusive Economic Zone, sovereignty and foreign influence haven't emerged, at least in this round of hearings, to what I've heard and read. I'm not saying that these issues haven't been raised, but they haven't been presented as on the radar in this session. On the point of climate change, I certainly acknowledge, and I think this government would—and we have very publicly—that our engagement as politicians with other politicians is one small element of important engagement. Our defence cooperation is very healthy and, from reports we've had on the on the joint standing committee, continues to advance positively. But those people-to-people links—the agencies and organisations which you guys all represent—are extremely important in magnifying our connection to listen and to react appropriately.

My concern is that opinions are very important, but they should always be informed by some facts. As a government we're constrained in how much we can share some of the positive things that Australia does with regard to the environment. What I'm saying is that in our engagement with Pacific nations we can and certainly do share at a political level what's happening within Australia in terms of our response to global environmental challenges. We do that. But we've always acknowledged that people-to-people links are extremely important. Certainly there'll be people who want to disagree on whether Australia is or isn't doing enough, but if we just look at some of the facts and the ability to communicate those—I suppose it's a comment more than a question—I would be interested in ways that information which is factual, which relates to Australia's commitments to the environment, to climate change and to the environment locally and globally, for example initiatives like the marine plastics one, which is very regional, and like our global commitments on climate change. If those facts are not at hand, then they could shape opinion, and opinion is quite important in our relationship within our region, as I think we would all acknowledge.

CHAIR: Thanks, Mr Connelly. I have a question for Dr Goringe. I noticed your concern about the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme, which was interesting because I hadn't heard that concern expressed before, and generally speaking the desire has been about how we get more people participating in this scheme and how we broaden the sectors and the number of participants—and, frankly, concerns about some of the conditions in which some of these people are working in Australia, too. Could you elaborate a bit on that recommendation you made?

I think you mentioned your work with a Tongan community group in your submission—some of the social cohesion or family cohesion aspects you'd seen from operation of this sort of scheme.

Dr Goringe : There are a couple of different issues. One is the social cohesion issue. About the first conversation, I was actually in Tonga and I was approached by a youth organisation talking about the significant issues in villages where kids have been brought up by grandparents and don't have that direct mentoring. So they were looking for aid funding for a youth mentoring program to deal with children who have addiction issues with gambling and porn and alcohol and drugs. When we did the root cause analysis it came up that the fundamental driver of this was this absent group of adults to mentor these children. So it was an eye-opening conversation for us to realise that the aid program is being asked to support something that is actually collateral damage from something that is actually economically quite positive for Tonga.

I think we've had the same issue brought up in other places like Vanuatu, where issues of breakdown of family relationships have resulted. I think we have a fair amount of research from our own Australian experience with fly-in fly-out schemes, which shows a significant issue. You're absolutely right. Not my agency but our broad church has been involved in advocacy for some of the conditions under which people are being employed in Australia, which is also a concern. I guess our main advocacy issue is that just figuring out the benefit of this scheme on the remittances to the Pacific island nation is not a sufficient measure of the quality of the program. There is nothing wrong with people from the Pacific coming and working in Australia and earning money and sending it home; that's great. But the way the scheme is structured and the way things are supported have to take into account the longer-term problems we might be creating.

I think, at a higher level, as a development organisation, ultimately we must be looking to a long-term, sustainable solution for the Pacific economically. So it isn't always going to be a good idea for the only way to earn reasonable amounts of money for a family to be to send someone across to Australia. So what is the underlying development work that we're doing to support communities in the Pacific so that the economic viability of families is actually sustainable without having to have a significantly disruptive activity being the major economic input bringer? Does that answer your question?

CHAIR: Yes, it does. Thank you very much, Dr Goringe. I think we'll make this the last question. Ms Lalor, I notice that both your submission and UnitingWorld's submission make reference to using the churches and church based organisations in the Pacific as bigger partners in development efforts. Is it your view that we're not doing that sufficiently at the moment? Is that something you'd like to see more of, particularly when you consider the government-to-government elements of our engagement and the Official Development Assistance program?

Ms Lalor : Yes, certainly. As I mentioned, we've got some great examples to build on, and it's been through that long-term commitment by the Australian government to support churches to build their capacity to be local actors on the ground that has really made a difference. We've really seen a maturity in the partnership—for example, in PNG, with churches working collectively together. There's a big value-add there. Also their engagement with their own governments around governance issues and other issues as well. Certainly there is traction being made, but there's more we could do to support the churches to be the local actors in communities and strengthen their role.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Lalor. Are there any further questions?

Mr GORMAN: I'll go for a 30-second one for everyone on the line. For those who deliver aid programs in the Pacific or are in partnership in the Pacific, if there were more funds available, could you deliver more programs in coming years?

Dr Goringe : Yes

Ms Lalor : Yes.

Mr HILL: Did you just ask, 'Do you want more money?'

Mr GORMAN: Yes, I did!

CHAIR: What kind of a dixer is that?

Mr HILL: You heard it here first!

CHAIR: Thank you all for your attendance here today. You will each be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, and you will have an opportunity to request any corrections to transcription errors. I now formally close the public hearing roundtable.

Subcommittee adjourned at 09:24