Scott Morrison ‘absolves himself’ of responsibility for Pacific nations

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, October 16, 2018. AAP/Mick Tsikas/via REUTERS

CANABERRA, 30 OCTOBER 2018 (THE AUSTRALIAN) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has “absolved himself” of responsibility for Australia’s role in the Pacific by sending Malcolm Turnbull to this week’s Our Oceans conference in Bali, Labor senator Kimberley Kitching says.

Senator Kitching said Bill Shorten’s plan for a government-backed infrastructure bank for Australia’s Pacific neighbours was a sign of the “respect” he has for the region.

“The respect we need to show to our Pacific neighbours which, under this government, has been lacking,” she told Sky News.

“I think the Prime Minister sending the former prime minister to the Pacific Islands Forum, for example, is not the best look, particularly at this point in time. And I think he’s absolved himself of some responsibility in that.”

The Opposition Leader use a speech at Sydney’s Lowy Institute to unveil his new approach to the Pacific Island nations with the aim that island neighbours will “look to Australia first” for economic opportunity.

The Pacific nations have been aggressively targeted by China economically in an attempt to expand their sphere of influence in the region.

Senator Kitching also echoed comments made by former international development minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells earlier this year that Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in the Pacific Islands were “roads to nowhere.”

“I think that under the One Belt, One Road initiative what we have seen, and I was in Papua New Guinea this time last year, and there was a road that was supposed to be built. It hadn’t started yet,” she said.

“It stops the exporting of some of the wonderful things they have in Papua New Guinea, their coffee, their fruit and vegetables, because the trucks break down on that road because the potholes … are feet deep.

“Not having that infrastructure has meant that Papua New Guinea has not been able to have the exports it could possibly have. And we need to help our neighbours address some of their infrastructure concerns.”

Shorten has also proposed elevating the portfolio of international development and the Pacific in the ministry.

Assistant minister for finance Zed Sesjlia said the government was committed to maintaining a role in the Pacific and that the current ministerial arrangements had helped strengthen Australia’s relationship with its neighbours.

“We have had a very strong focus on our Pacific neighbours. It is our neighbourhood, we will continue to work very closely with our neighbours,” he told Sky News.

“We certainly stand by our record. The foreign minister of course, along with the assistant minister, are working closely with our Pacific neighbours. There has some very, very strong relationships there. They have been strengthened in many ways under our leadership.”