Labor is promising an expansion of military training and a boost in surveillance assistance to help Pacific islands protect their economic zones, as a part of its policy to strengthen Australia’s diplomatic and military footprint in the region.
In what will be a $525 million, seven-part plan to restore Australia as the ‘first partner of choice’ for Pacific island nations, the opposition has released a policy on Tuesday that will also increase foreign aid and broadcast communications to the region.
And it will assign more Australian Federal Police to the Pacific while also ramping up the fight against illegal fishing.
Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong said prime minister Scott Morrison had dropped the ball in the Pacific, which has become most obvious in light of the security contract recently signed between Solomon Islands and China.
“The vacuum Scott Morrison has created is being filled by others who do not share our interests and values,” Wong said.
Shadow defence minister Brendan O’Connor said the measures being announced by Labor are an acknowledgement that Australia needs to invest more in the region to build and reinforce relationships with countries.
“We need to invest more and engage more with pacific island countries and what we have seen recently is the government drop the ball in this area,” O’Connor said.
“We will be looking to invest more in defence training. We do provide some training now to Pacific Island countries. We can do more of that particularly in the non-commissioned officer area.”
The training would be done through the Australian Pacific Defence School for which there is an allocation in Labor’s policy of $6.5 million.
O’Connor also said the party’s policy was aimed at broadcasting Australian content across the region, with the opposition promising to kick in more funds to the ABC to push out Australian content to surrounding countries.
The national broadcaster will receive about $30 million in additional funding to help with the production of content.
“We will look to invest more in restoring our broadcasting in the region. We need more Australian content within the region. We are going to increase expenditure to the ABC and other outlets potentially to ensure we provide a voice to the region,” O’Connor said.
The policy announcement also follows intense debate between the Coalition government and the opposition over how much blame should be accepted by Morrison and his team for the Solomon islands-China agreement.
In Alice Springs on the election trail over the weekend, Wong said China was now more aggressive and assertive, and that cut backs by the federal government have not helped maintain strong relationships.
“What we’ve got to do to secure our region, we have to shore up our region. So, I can tell you what we wouldn’t have done, we wouldn’t have cut foreign aid and development assistance, which is important to development and national security, by almost $12 billion, which is what the Coalition has done,” Wong said.
“We wouldn’t have cut bilateral aid to the Solomon Islands by 28% on average per year.”
Shadow home affairs minister Senator Kristina Keneally said on Tuesday that Labor’s measures were not designed to outspend China in the region, but to provide practical assistance.
“We can’t outspend China and we’re not going to pretend that we can. We have such natural advantages with the Pacific family: our shared people to people connections, our shared values and interests and we have squandered that over the past decade under the Liberals,” Keneally said.
The prime minister has dismissed Labor’s plan as ‘farcical’.
“They think the way to solve the problem in the Solomon Islands is to send in the ABC,” Morrison.
Their answer to solving the Solomon Islands problem is to have Q&A in Honiara.”