Time to recast Australia's role in the region

A new or re-elected government will give us a chance to better support our neighbours in Asia and the Pacific. The behaviour of the last one hasn't been good.

It has repeatedly used the aid budget as a sort of automatic teller machine to take money from development in order to get its budget in order.

A glaring example was the $55 million dollar refugee resettlement deal with very poor and dictator-led Cambodia. About $40 million came out of aid while $15 million was directed for resettlement services and support. Signed in 2014 by Scott Morrison as immigration minister, it was an abject failure. Only four people accepted offers of resettlement from Nauru. Only a Syrian man (with his family) is left but he's now hoping to move to Canada.

"Why is your country doing this?," perplexed Cambodians asked Australians in Phnom Penh at the time of the deal. "We all know where the money will end up." Corruption permeates Cambodia. The deal wasn't directed (as it could have been) at Cambodia's deteriorating human rights situation and the silencing of its media.

China has been delivering the region something closer to real aid, although like our special Cambodia and Nauru and Papua New Guinea contributions, much of it has been directed to elites in those countries rather than going to genuine needs.

As prime minister in 2018, Scott Morrison woke up and scrambled together a policy to renew focus on countries from the Solomon Islands to Samoa. The policy signaled support for the US, and while welcomed, the money for the region was redirected from the existing and an already drastically cut aid budget.

Aspects of the new policy are questionable, namely the new loan facility Australia set up to finance new infrastructure in the Pacific. We already lend to the Pacific through the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. It's the biggest lender. Is there a need for a dedicated Australian-branded loan facility, requiring another bureaucracy to deliver finance?

Some say yes. It's been put to me that Pacific nations have been crying out for targeted infrastructure assistance, for roads to communication technology to support education and health systems, in addition to support to address the climate crisis (last year Pacific Islander leaders said in a strongly worded Pacific Islands Forum statement that the biggest risk to the Pacific's security is climate change. Australia has been woefully slow and resistant to take action).

And there's a concern China's lending model has left some in the region, namely Tonga and Sri Lanka in desperate circumstances. Unable to pay back debts, they have been forced to transfer their liabilities into land grants and fresh access for China to their ports. A worried Australian government has felt an obligation to offer an alternative and a lending regime with clearer and more flexible arrangements and more safeguards in place. Direct lending by Australia to Pacific countries might also create a more diverse marketplace for lending.

Still, Australia's Pacific announcement was borne out of years of complacency across the region. We have been drifting and we have been losing influence and impact in Asia as a less than exemplary champion of human rights. And, existing development programs are legacy programs put there when Labor was last in power. "We've been doing some programs for so long and we keep doing them that Australia has forgotten why we do them," one outgoing parliamentarian told me.

Labor is seeking to correct things should it form government after May 18, but not in a hurry. Penny Wong has committed the ALP to rebuilding Australia's aid budget but cautions that it will take time, more than 10 years, to get anywhere near the .5 per cent of GDP target.

"All of us who believe in a strong and generous Australia must push back and articulate why Australia's international development programs matter; to the lives of those in our region, to our influence in our region, to our own national interest," says Wong.

The aid sector represented by the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) wants whoever is elected to not just commit to rebuilding Australia's aid budget but to make the policy air-tight and bipartisan.

Regional development is linked to security (transboundary disease is both people and agriculture, for example) and so Australia's shrinking engagement has adversely affected the national interest.

Australia should see the world as it is but with ideas and imagination, transform it into something better: see how to assist our neighbours but also to understand the challenges to work together to live in a safer and more equitable world.

Australia's aid program can also be our best soft diplomacy tool. We were there assisting Thailand rescue the young Thai soccer team trapped in cave. Australian volunteers are every year working in communities abroad to reduce maternal mortality rates and raising awareness about good nutrition to reduce the risks of diabetes in Pacific communities.

With a recast approach we must respond to the question - 'what is Australia really good at, so our neighbours benefit from us the most?' "That question has not been asked for many years," ACFID head, Marc Purcell, tells me.

"What's the point of having a deep-sea infrastructure cable providing more data to the Solomons if you have a population that doesn't have beyond primary school literacy?"

"We have scrambled to knock back China. The point is, does the Pacific need more Australian supported infrastructure or would they benefit more from things that Australia is good at, which would be governance experience and grant programs in public health and education," Purcell asks. Those programs improve the capacity of vulnerable populations and their well-being, to ultimately support stronger communities. An educated population is better able to determine the future course of its country and deal with the problems they have whether it preventable illness or the scourge of modern slavery.

It's not an either or, but the way we are going about it (signalling to the world's major powers that, 'hey, we are in the infrastructure game too') is not for clear reasons to do with the specific needs of any developing country that wishes to partner with us. Their needs should not be incidental.< First published in The Canberra Times, May 13, 2019. Photo by Duc Le on Unsplash

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