Radio interview with Stephen Dziedzic, ABC Pacific Beat

  • Transcript, E&OE

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Australia's Foreign Minister has called on other countries, to step up their aid contributions to Pacific Island nations. Julie Bishop made the comments while she has been in Samoa, and came after the Lowy Institute released a landmark analysis showing that Australia is still by far the largest aid donor in the region, but China has made plenty of big promises which could see it close the gap with Australia in the future. The issue of Australian and Chinese aid in Samoa has recently had increased attention, after the Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele made some rather pointed comments suggesting that those nations priorities differed to what Pacific nations actually want. While in Samoa, Julie Bishop has visited some of Australia's key aid projects and announced that Canberra will help build Samoa's new Legislatively Assembly building. Australia is also helping with the new Parliament House and that project recently drew the ire of the Samoan PM, but yesterday in Apia while he joined Ms Bishop during an announcement that Australia will also ramp up its monetary commitment to technical colleges in the Pacific, that is known as the APTC, Prime Minister Sailele welcomed the additional support and he is hoping that Samoa will also be able to soon join Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu as part of Australia's new pilot labour scheme that will see Pacific Islanders come work in Australia's hospitality and aged care sectors.

PRIME MINISTER TUILAEPA SAILELE – RECORDING: I am sure that my colleagues will agree with me that we all share a common need to building capacities, hence the interest to be involved in the likes of the Pacific Labour Scheme, particularly those that work with the APTC.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Meanwhile Australia's Foreign Minister has said that she would like other countries including the United States and the United Kingdom to also be pouring in more money to major aid projects in the Pacific.

JULIE BISHOP: Australia has a long standing and enduring partnership with the Pacific. We have been the largest overseas development assistance partner for some time and we continue to be so. 40 per cent or more of the aid flows into the Pacific come from Australia, and indeed this year we have invested our highest sum ever – a record $1.3 billion into the Pacific. Together with New Zealand, Australia makes up over 50 per cent of the aid flows into the Pacific, but there are a number of other countries that are significant donors – Japan, the United States, the European Union, and of course, China. China rates about sixth at this stage. The Lowy Institute's figures are from 2011-2016 but I know and expect that Australia will continue to be the largest donor in the Pacific for the foreseeable future.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Lowy's research also found that some 70 per cent Chinese aid funds came in the form of concessional loans. Now, Australian Government officials and Ministers in fact have warned about debt burdens being placed on Pacific Island nations. Does this figure reinforce Australian concerns about the nature of much Chinese aid in the region?

JULIE BISHOP: At this stage, the information is not clear because it does provide information on official aid, including grants and concessional loans, but it doesn't provide information on commercial loans, for example. So I think until we get the full picture it is hard to give a clear answer to that. We are concerned that any nation in the Pacific had been subjected to an sustainable debt burden, whomever the lender might be, is the message that we provide to the World Bank, it is the message we provide to the Asian Development Bank and to partners generally, but we know that some of the economies in the Pacific are extremely vulnerable and we want to ensure that we support those economies and that all of the other development assistance partners likewise are acutely aware of the vulnerability of some of these economies.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Lowy assesses the 'debt binge', if you like, that some nations took on particularly with Chinese loans probably peaked at around 2016. They say there is evidence that some nations are now walking away from borrowing unsustainable amounts. Do you agree with assessment?

JULIE BISHOP: I am not aware of the evidence that they have or what they are referring to. As I said, we welcome contributions to the Pacific from all donors. We encourage transparency and accountability and better coordination in the delivery of aid projects in the region. We are focussing on what we are doing, on the work we are doing in partnership with New Zealand, and also encouraging other countries. For example, I met with Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State of the US and talked about increasing US aid into the Pacific, and yesterday I met with Federica Mogherini, the Higher Representative of the EU and also talked to her about a greater commitment from the EU. Great Britain, post-Brexit, has a significant aid budget and we would like to see greater investment from the UK. So, there are a number of countries we would like to see invest more and spread the burden of meeting the needs of the Pacific across a larger number of countries.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: In fact, Lowy did find that the US, the EU and France have all cut aid over the same period. Do you think that in retrospect that was an error by some of our partners?

JULIE BISHOP: Well that is a matter for those sovereign governments.. What I have done as Foreign Minister of Australia is urged upon our friends and partners the importance of supporting the Pacific and ensuring that the interests of the Pacific are considered when they are distributing their aid budget..

- Ends -

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