| The Guardian | Extract
SYDNEY - Labor has vowed to increase foreign aid to Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste by $525 million over four years, as it makes an election pledge to ‘restore Australia’s place as first partner of choice for our Pacific family’.
The opposition is also vowing to reform Pacific worker schemes, ramp up patrols to fight illegal fishing, boost regional broadcasting, and ‘listen and act on Pacific island warnings of the existential threat of climate change’.
Labor is seeking to intensify political pressure on the prime minister, Scott Morrison, in the wake of China signing a security agreement with Solomon Islands.
Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong, who outlined the Labor plan, accused Morrison of dropping the ball on the Pacific.
“The vacuum Scott Morrison has created is being filled by others who do not share our interests and values,” Wong said in a clear reference to China.
Labor’s seven-part plan includes a $525 million increase to Australia’s development assistance for Pacific countries and Timor-Leste over the next four years.
The party argued this funding would “help address the decade’s worth of development gains that have been lost due to the pandemic”.
It would include $5 million for a national critical care and trauma response centre “to strengthen regional health preparedness in the Pacific and Timor-Leste”.
Labor said it would ‘restore Australia’s climate leadership’ and establish a Pacific climate infrastructure financing partnership to support climate and clean energy infrastructure projects in Pacific countries.
Another plank of the plan will focus on regional broadcasting, which is seen as a key lever of ‘soft power’.
Labor will draw up an Indo-Pacific broadcasting strategy to ‘boost Australian content and to project Australian identity, values, and interests to the Indo-Pacific region’.
This will include an $8 million a year increase in funding to the ABC’s international program aimed at expanding ABC regional transmission and content production.
Labor will use the strategy to review the potential restoration of Australian shortwave radio broadcasting capacity in the Pacific.
It is planning to address Pacific economic challenges and ease Australia’s agricultural worker shortages by reforming the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme’s seasonal worker program.
The federal government will meet the upfront travel costs for Pacific workers rather than the costs being met by Australian farmers.
Labor said it will establish a dedicated agriculture visa under the labour mobility scheme, “creating a robust and sustainable four-year visa, with portability, strong oversight mechanisms, and protections and rights for workers”.
The opposition’s spokesperson for international development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said the move would be accompanied by increased compliance activity.
He said that would include “putting a firewall between the Department of Home Affairs and the Fair Work Ombudsman” so temporary migrant workers would not risk their visa by calling attention to abuses.
Earlier, Labor released details of three other parts of the plan, including doubling Australia’s $12 million in annual funding for aerial surveillance activities under the Pacific Maritime Security Program, which helps the region combat illegal fishing.
An Albanese Labor government would consult Pacific countries about options for boosting aerial surveillance, such as increasing flying hours and the number of aircraft, improving sensors, and using drones.
Labor will also pledge to deepen existing links between the Australian defence force and its regional counterparts by setting up a new Australia-Pacific Defence School at a cost of $6.5 million over four years.