Stronger relationships with Pacific countries are essential for Australia’s national security and foreign policy interests. Labor has long advocated deeper engagement with Pacific countries to meet our shared challenges and build our region’s resilience to threats.
After years of neglect, the Liberal Government announced a Pacific Step Up in 2016. But the so-called Step Up has been compromised by Scott Morrison’s inaction on climate change, cuts to development assistance, poor management of Pacific labour mobility programs and disrespect of Pacific partners, which has eroded trust in Australia across the region.
The Morrison Government underinvested in core elements of our national power and left vacuums for others to fill. His government has slashed Australia’s official development assistance budget by $11.8 billion, shut down the Australia Network, and forced the cessation of ABC shortwave radio transmission in the Pacific which according to reports have been taken over by Chinese state-owned radio providers. He discontinued the Soft Power Review commissioned by Julie Bishop.
Labor understands the security and development challenges our Pacific family faces and we will commit the leadership and resources to address them together, and with likeminded partners, to build a stronger Pacific family.
Labor will establish a new Australia Pacific Defence School to provide training programs for members of Pacific Island country defence and security forces. The new School would expand and bring greater coordination to existing Australian Defence Force (ADF) Pacific training activities. The School would build on existing Australian Defence Force programs including the Defence Cooperation Program, Pacific Support Team, Pacific Mobile Training Teams and Defence International Training School. Participants would include members of the PNG Defence Force, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, Tonga’s Armed Forces, the Timor-Leste Defence Force, the Vanuatu Mobile Force and the Royal Solomon Islands Police. It will be funded through existing Defence resources.
Labor will step up Australia’s support for aerial surveillance activities as part of the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP) by increasing funding by $12 million a year from 2024-25. These operations help the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency in tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the exclusive economic zones of 15 Pacific Island countries. IUU fishing in Pacific tuna fisheries is estimated to be worth $US616 million a year, costing Pacific Island governments more than $US150 million a year in lost access and licensing fees. The cost of this measure will be met from existing Defence resources.
Labor will increase Australian Official Development Assistance to Pacific countries by $525 million over the four years from 2022-23 to 2025-26. The new funding will support Australian bilateral and regional aid and development projects in Pacific countries and Timor-Leste. It will be used both to expand existing projects and to develop new projects. Specific aid projects will be developed, designed and implemented in consultation and partnership with Pacific governments, civil society and communities. Pacific aid projects will support economic growth, health, education, water, sanitation and hygiene needs, climate change adaptation and resilience, gender equality and support for people with disability.
Pacific Island countries are especially vulnerable to impacts of climate change including rising sea levels, salt-water incursion and extreme weather events. In coming years, many of these countries will need to build new infrastructure that is more resilient to these climate impacts and to move to cleaner energy sources.
Labor will create a Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership to support climate-related infrastructure and energy projects in Pacific countries and Timor-Leste. The Partnership will be complemented by Labor’s bid to co-host a future UN Conference of the Parties with Pacific Island countries, demonstrating to our region and to the world that Australia under Labor is committed to rebuilding our climate leadership.
Labor will deliver an Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy that includes increased funding to the ABC as our international broadcaster to boost Australian content and to project Australian identity, values, and interests to the Indo-Pacific region.
The strategy will be delivered by the ABC and PacificAus TV, in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It will increase funding to the ABC’s international program by $8 million a year over the four years from 2022-23 to 2025-26 to expand ABC regional transmission and content production. It will focus on building audience engagement in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, as well as charting new ventures in South Asian markets and, in partnership with DFAT, enable the ABC to expand media capacity training for partners in the Pacific.
Labor will reinstate regular bipartisan Parliamentary Pacific visits to demonstrate to our Pacific family that stronger Pacific partnerships are in Australia’s national interest. Bipartisan visits were undertaken by the Turnbull Government and former Foreign Minister Bishop, but have not been continued by the Morrison Government.
The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Seasonal Worker Program (PALM–SWP) allows Pacific nationals to work in Australia for up to nine months in the agriculture sector where farmers cannot secure local labour.
Labor will make PALM–SWP more attractive to Australian farmers and Pacific workers. We will also tackle the exploitation and mistreatment of temporary migrant workers which has been undermining the reputation of Australia’s Pacific labour mobility programs in Pacific countries.
We will move to have the Australian Government meet SWP workers’ international and domestic travel costs upfront (less $300 to be met by approved employers), with costs recovered from workers through the tax system. The new arrangement will mean farmers will no longer face upfront costs any higher than $300 for recruiting Pacific workers. Workers will be no worse off given they already repay travel costs through pay deductions. The Government will recover the travel costs from workers either through an increase in the withholding tax rate or a deduction from their departing Australia superannuation payment. This measure will be budget neutral and will commence from January 2023.
Labor will also improve workplace standards for PALM–SWP visa holders by increasing workplace compliance activities and implementing the recommendations of the Migrant Worker Taskforce.
The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Pacific Labour Scheme program (PALM–PLS) allows Pacific nationals to work in Australia for between one and four years in rural and regional Australia. At present, PALM–PLS workers are not allowed to bring family members to Australia.
Labor will allow primary visa holders in the PALM–PLS to bring their partners and children to Australia. This will boost participation in PALM–PLS, increasing its benefits to Pacific nations and Australian employers.
The changes would apply to PALM–PLS workers but not to PALM–SWP workers, reflecting the longer stays of PLS workers in Australia. The policy would commence in January 2023. It would have a small positive impact on the budget’s underlying cash balance due to additional tax receipts from PALM–PLS family members working in Australia.
We will relocate the proposed Agriculture Visa to sit as a third visa stream under the PALM. This will create a robust and sustainable four-year visa, with portability, strong oversight mechanisms, protections and rights for workers. These protections will be consistent with the protections under the PALM-PLS and PALM-SWP. This will complement the PALM-SWP by providing a visa allowing Pacific workers to return to Australia each harvest season for up to four years.
Labor will boost permanent migration from Pacific countries to Australia by creating a new Pacific Engagement Visa for nationals of Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste. Up to 3,000 visas would be allocated annually by a ballot or lottery process modelled on the New Zealand Pacific Access Resident Category visa. Places would be allocated from within Australia’s overall permanent migration program. While detailed design still needs to be done, we envisage applicants being aged between 18 and 45 years, them or their partners being required to have a job offer in Australia, as well as some English .
There would be country-specific quotas within an overall quota of up to 3,000 places a year, and applications will be open to Pacific nationals in their home countries or who are in Australia on a valid temporary visa. The program will commence in July 2023. It will have no budget impact as the new migration places will come from within the existing migration program.