Australia’s Pacific region focus ignores needs, priorities

Australia’s focus on the Pacific region ignores needs and priorities identified by the region’s political and Church leaders, says Caritas Australia’s chief executive officer.

Paul O’Callaghan spoke out after Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an expansion of assistance to the Pacific. The assistance will include introducing long-term loans for new infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure is not a top priority for Pacific Islanders, O’Callaghan says. Rather, their focus is on climate change financing and local aid.

“As a former Australian High Commissioner to Samoa, I am aware that the highest policy priority presented by the Pacific’s political and Church leaders has been for Australia to demonstrate leadership in its own climate policy, particularly on national emissions and to commit a reasonable share on climate finance.

“The latest announcement continues to ignore that regional priority.

“Our Pacific partners from Kiribati to Fiji are the worst affected, while having contributed the least to global warming. They look to Australia to take real action on reducing emissions, so that the region’s future is secure.

“Ignoring the single biggest item of policy concern for regional leaders and then introducing a model for financing [infrastructure] that has been found for 40 years around the world to often lead to the most vulnerable countries getting into a debt trap … is not an ideal approach,” he says.

“Vulnerable, poor countries, just like individuals in our own society, sign on to loans and five years later they find themselves in a diabolical situation.

“Back in the 1980s, both sides of politics in Australia came to realise that there were major dangers in using concessional loans in the aid programme and that’s why we ended up with a solid bipartisan commitment to not use those loans.

“It’s a bit odd that Australia would now decide that is the model for us, which, by the way, is the Chinese model.”

O’Callaghan says about 65 percent of China’s financing to Pacific countries is through concessional loans.


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