Labor signals more aid to south-east Asia and accuses Scott Morrison of ‘bullying behaviour’ towards Pacific


Labor has flagged an increase in aid to south-east Asia while ramping up its attack on Scott Morrison by accusing him of “bullying” behaviour that undermines Australia’s relationships with Pacific island countries.

The opposition has promised to increase foreign aid to the Pacific by $525m (US$365 million) over four years. Labor says the money would be additional funding and not involve redirecting aid from other parts of the world.

The shadow minister for international development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said on Monday that south-east Asia would be “another key priority for us” and the Coalition’s cuts to aid to Indonesia had been “shortsighted”.

The aid boost to south-east Asia is expected to be substantial but observers believe the figure is unlikely to be as high as the $525m for the Pacific and Timor-Leste. Labor has refused to spell out a specific timeframe for achieving its policy of lifting Australia’s overall foreign aid to at least 0.5 percent of gross national income.

Official Development Assistance (ODA) has emerged as an election issue amid soul-searching in Canberra over the newly signed security deal between China and Solomon Islands. Beijing continues to push to expand areas of cooperation with Honiara across a range of other fields including fishing.

Conroy said Australia needed to work with the region to “restore” the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and to engage in a respectful way.

He noted Australia had signed up to the 2018 Boe Declaration, reaffirming climate change as “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific” and committing to action to implement the Paris agreement.

“We’ve signed up to something, but not only do we ignore it, we actively sabotage it,” Conroy told an international development election forum at the Australian National University.

“Morrison’s behaviour at the 2019 PIF was an absolute disgrace and I say that very clearly. His arrogance, his bullying behaviour, not only was deeply disrespectful to our Pacific neighbours and undermined the PIF, it undermined Australia.”

Conroy pointed to comments by Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji, who described Morrison’s approach during the leaders’ retreat in Tuvalu 2019 as “very insulting and condescending”.

In an exclusive interview with Guardian Australia, Bainimarama was asked whether Morrison’s approach might cause some Pacific leaders to look to China.

“After what we went through with Morrison, nothing can be worse than him,” Bainimarama replied.

“China never insults the Pacific … they don’t go down and tell the world that we’ve given this much money to the Pacific islands. They don’t do that. They’re good people, definitely better than Morrison, I can tell you that.”

Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, previously told the Guardian that Australia had several “red lines” during negotiations that it refused to budge on, meaning Pacific leaders had to remove all references to coal, references to limiting warming to less than 1.5C and to setting out a plan for net zero emissions by 2050 from the forum communique and climate change statement that came out of the meeting.

Conroy cited Bainimarama’s remark that Morrison’s behaviour would push Pacific countries towards China. “Look where we are now,” Conroy added.

He said Labor’s pledge to restore bipartisan parliamentary visits to the region was important to build a sense of partnership. The joint travel by the then foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, and Labor’s Penny Wong had sent important signal about the bipartisan Australian commitment to Pacific, he said.

Since the 2019 PIF blow-up, Morrison and Bainimarama have sought to rebuild their personal relationship. Morrison has repeatedly described the Pacific as “family” and vowed to work with them.

But Conroy said on Monday: “Who needs family if they blatantly disregard an issue you see as your greatest threat?”

Conroy said Morrison argued the government was committed to net zero by 2050 “but his Coalition is hopelessly divided on it”, with the leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce, implying the target is non-binding.

The Coalition has retained Tony Abbott’s formal target of a 26 to 28% cut in emissions on 2005 levels by 2030, even though it says it will likely overachieve that. Labor has pledged to cut emissions by 43% by 2030.

Morrison said on Monday the government was “very aware of what’s happening in our region and of the pressures there are that the Chinese government is seeking to put on countries across our region”.

The comment followed a report in the Australian newspaper that a draft maritime co-operation agreement outlined plans for China and Solomon Islands to co-operate to establish “deep-sea fishing bases” and develop oil, gas and undersea mining ventures.

Morrison said he would work with the “broad family” of the PIF. He added that Australia’s ODA to the Pacific now stood at $1.85bn (US$1.25 billion) a year.

The prime minister has repeatedly defended his government’s inability to prevent the security deal between China and Solomon Islands from proceeding, saying Beijing was exerting “enormous pressure” on countries in the region and did not “play by the same rules as transparent liberal democracies”.

The trade minister, Dan Tehan, told Sky News on Monday: “In the end, sovereign countries make sovereign decisions but we have been working with the Pacific to ensure that they understand the importance of a free and open Pacific region.”

Morrison’s office has been contacted for a response to Conroy’s comments.