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Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Page: 2684


Mr CONROY (Shortland) (19:16): My question is also to the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. It concerns Australia's engagement with the Pacific region and our program of official development assistance. The question is: why is the government sabotaging its own Pacific Step-up policy and why is it damaging Australia's foreign policy interests by slashing development assistance?

Our relations with the countries of the Pacific Ocean and our international development programs are central elements of Australia's foreign policy. They are both areas that are important to Australia's national interests and they are both areas that are important to Australia's standing in our region and our projection of Australian values in the international community.

When it comes to the high-level principles articulated by this government on Pacific issues and international development there is a bipartisan approach, but when it comes to the way that this government is implementing its policies we see cause for concern. We see a government that says it wants a step up in Australia's Pacific relations but which is undermining its Pacific policies through inaction on climate change, contradictory policies on labour mobility, and failing to treat our Pacific partners with basic respect. It is a government that risks turning the Pacific Step-up into a Pacific stuff-up.

On international development, we see a government that has cut $11.8 billion from Australia's aid budget since 2013. These cuts are having negative impacts on some of the poorest people in the world and they are having negative impacts on Australia's interests and our standing in the international community. Overseas development assistance is a key part of our foreign policy. It's the way we support economic, social and human development in low- and middle-income nations. It also reflects the Australian character—a generous nation committed to the fair go, helping people who need help, and doing our bit to respond to humanitarian crises.

In a region where millions of people live in extreme poverty it's in Australia's interests to strengthen our commitment through development. Development means greater prosperity, security and stability in our region, yet since the coalition government came to office in 2013 it has cut $11.8 billion from the aid budget, run down the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's skills, and outsourced delivery of an increasing number of programs to contractors.

The aid cuts have broken the bipartisan consensus in Australia about the level of investment we need to make in tackling global poverty. We've gone from an aid budget worth 0.33 per cent of Australia's gross national income in 2013-14 to one worth just 0.21 per cent of GNI in 2019-20. The government needs to stop the cuts and start rebuilding the international development program.

The Pacific is a region where Australia has longstanding responsibilities as one of the most advanced economies in the region. It's a region that faces challenges, such as a lack of economic opportunity; the need to improve health, education and gender equality; climate change; rising strategic competition; and security threats from illegal fishing to drug smuggling. It's squarely in Australia's national interest to help our Pacific neighbours meet these challenges. So we welcome the coalition's renewed focus on the region, after neglecting the Pacific for most of its first two terms. We're happy to extend support for the Pacific Step-up, but we have serious concerns that the government is undermining its own step up. Pacific leaders have declared that climate change is the most significant threat to their people. That means the coalition's inaction on climate change is harming Australia's standing in the Pacific. We saw that play out dramatically at this year's Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu.

We saw a lack of respect for our Pacific neighbours from the Deputy Prime Minister saying Pacific islanders don't need to worry about rising sea levels, 'because they can come to Australia to pick our fruit'. We have seen a disappointing start to the new Pacific Labour Scheme, because of the government's deregulation of the backpacker visa scheme. That's why I say that the government is sabotaging its own Pacific step-up through a mixture of arrogance, incompetence and policy contradiction. We saw that in the member for Wentworth's contribution where he didn't mention climate change once. How can he talk about our relationship with the Pacific for five minutes and not talk about climate change once? It reflects this government's innate contradictions.

We saw the Fijian Prime Minister—who is arriving tomorrow or who might, I think, be here today—talk about Prime Minister Morrison's insulting and condescending behaviour at the PIF. We saw their reaction to the Deputy Prime Minister's outrageous remarks where the Prime Minister of Fiji again said they've taken 'a big step backwards' in their relationship because of McCormack's comments.

My questions to the minister are: why did the Prime Minister alienate his counterparts at the Pacific Islands Forum? Can the minister confirm that Australian official development assistance will fall by 0.2 per cent of gross national income next financial year? Will he be locking away the Deputy Prime Minister in a dark box so he's not allowed near the Pacific again?