Labor pledges more foreign aid to Pacific with plan ‘to restore Australia’s place as first partner of choice’


Labor will vow to increase foreign aid to Pacific island countries and ramp up patrols to fight illegal fishing, as it makes an election pledge to “restore Australia’s place as first partner of choice for our Pacific family”.

A boost to regional broadcasting is also part of the package, with Labor seeking to intensify political pressure on the prime minister, Scott Morrison, in the wake of China signing a security agreement with Solomon Islands.

The shadow minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, who will outline the Labor plan alongside senior frontbench colleagues on Tuesday, accused Morrison of dropping the ball in 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.

Morrison said on Sunday that Australia shared the same “red line” as the US and that a Chinese military base in the south Pacific would be unacceptable, but did not spell out what Australia would do if this occurred.

Labor’s seven-part plan is understood to include a substantial increase to Australia’s Official Development Assistance, but the party has not revealed the exact amounts ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.

Labor has released details of three other parts of the plan, including doubling Australia’s $12m(US$8.5 million) in annual funding for aerial surveillance activities under the Pacific Maritime Security Programme, 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.

Surveillance could also be expanded to cover other security risks, including drug trafficking.

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 $6.5m (US$4.6 million) over four years.

The school would train members of defence and security forces from Pacific island countries, with a focus on noncommissioned officer level uniformed personnel.

Labor believes the new school will complement the existing Australia Pacific Security College, which is run by Australian National University and which targets senior officials and leaders with a focus on research and strategic issues.

The shadow defence minister, Brendan O’Connor, said: “Rather than just talking tough, we will provide practical support for our neighbours to improve their security and protect their economies.”

Another plank of the plan was focused on regional broadcasting, which was seen as a key lever of “soft power”.

Labor would 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 would include an $8m(US$5.7 million) a year increase in funding to the ABC’s international programme aimed at expanding ABC regional transmission and content production.

Labor would use the strategy to review the potential restoration of Australian shortwave radio broadcasting capacity in the Pacific.

The shadow minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, accused the government of complacency.

“It costs us very little to tell a positive story about Australia in the region, but Scott Morrison has squandered Australia’s natural advantage of shared values with Pacific neighbours,” she said.

The plan is also expected to include more support for climate infrastructure in the region and a resumption of bipartisan parliamentary trips to Pacific countries.

Labor is also set to promise to improve Pacific labour arrangements to address economic challenges in the Pacific and ease Australia’s agricultural worker shortages. The opposition is mindful of the need to include safeguards to prevent worker exploitation.

Morrison has been seeking to project strength on national security ahead of the 21 May election, but that message has been complicated by the finalisation of Beijing’s security agreement with Solomon Islands.

The draft security agreement raised the possibility China could “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”, while Chinese forces could be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.

Labor characterised the deal as the biggest Australian foreign policy failure in the Pacific since the second world war, but Morrison said China was exerting “enormous pressure” on Pacific island countries and did not “play by the same rules as transparent liberal democracies”.

Morrison has sought to rely on assurances from the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, that Solomon Islands will not allow a military base.

On Sunday, Morrison was asked to clarify what he meant by his statement that Australia shared “the same red line that the United States has when it comes to these issues”.

“We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep,” Morrison told reporters.

Pressed on what Australia would actually do to stop such a prospect, Morrison said Sogavare had been clear that there would be no bases “and so he clearly shares our red line”.

The Coalition has previously bristled at suggestions it had dropped the ball in the Pacific, insisting Solomon Islands is Australia’s third largest aid recipient overall, and the second largest in the Pacific region after Papua New Guinea.

Labor has cited figures showing Australia’s bilateral official development assistance to Solomon Islands averaged $167.5m(US$119 million) a year under the Coalition government, or about 28% lower than the $231.6m(US$165.8 million) average under the former government.

But the Australian government said it had offered additional assistance to the Pacific in separate programmes, including Covid-related help.