Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the importance of climate action and Australian aid in the Pacific

15 June, 2020


I thank the member for Longman for this motion. This motion recognises the efforts made by the government in its Pacific Step-up program, which will assist in developing relationships between Australian businesses and investors in the Pacific. It emphasises that Australia and the Pacific have a special relationship and highlights the role Australia continues to play in supporting infrastructure projects in the region which have a flow-on social and economic benefit.

The Pacific Step-up is one of Australia's highest foreign policy priorities according to the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade. Last year, announcing an escalation to the step-up, the Prime Minister stated that our Pacific Island family must be a focus of international support and there has never been a more important time for Australia's Pacific Step-up as we all face these massive challenges. I strongly agree. Central to the step-up is $1.4 billion in development assistance and a $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility. Recently some of these funds were reallocated to the health response to the COVID-19 in these countries.

I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of Australian Doctors International, based in Seaforth in Warringah, who are working with businesses and governments in Papua New Guinea to prepare their health system and communities for the pandemic as well as their usual work. As of June 2020, ADI reached an estimated 40,000 beneficiaries in remote and rural areas in Papua New Guinea. These are important programs.

In looking at developing our relationship with the Pacific we must put two issues at the centre. These are issues that they are very much focused on and their challenges. They are women's issues and climate change. The Pacific women's leaders met virtually on 29 May 2020 to discuss the gender implications of COVID-19 within the Pacific region. I support the joint statement of the co-conveners of that meeting, which noted that women health care workers are at the front of the pandemic, that violence against women and girls in the region remains unacceptably high, and that the current pandemic is exacerbating the problems. According to United Nations Women, up to 68 per cent of women in the Pacific have experienced violence at the hands of their intimate partners, and women are overrepresented in sectors and jobs that have been impacted significantly by the economic downturn, especially in tourism, which has been devastated. Of course travel restrictions have meant that tens of thousands of jobs in tourism have been lost. The tourism sector in Fiji, for example, contributes nearly 40 per cent to Fiji's gross domestic product and directly or indirectly employs over 150,000 people in various industries. I urge government to consider including the Pacific in its travel bubble with New Zealand. This will assist both the airlines and Pacific nations to recover. In 2016, Australians and New Zealanders made up more than 500,000 visitors to Fiji, over 60 per cent of the tourism to the country.

Of course, to develop our relationship with the Pacific, taking meaningful climate action must be at the forefront of our strategy. Although financial and medical support is welcome, it is essential to Pacific leaders more than anything else that we also take strong action on climate change and reducing emissions. On 12 June last year I met with a group of young Kiribatian and Tuvalese men and women from the Pacific calling for partnership. They spoke very emotionally about the plight their islands are facing. They showed me images of inundation of their communities from current sea level rise and extreme weather, and their worry over their future was palpable. Their ask was simple: that Australia commit to concrete climate action, to carbon neutrality, as soon as possible. Australia's failure to tackle the climate change risks and emissions reduction risks is undermining any benefits the step-up will bring to our Pacific neighbours.

So whilst I commend the government for this action, I urge it to do more. A COVID-safe and inclusive economic recovery that builds back better must also advance gender equality and climate change mitigation. In so doing, we can hope to foster a deeper relationship with our Pacific neighbours.