Oct 24, 2020 Last Updated 9:52 PM, Oct 21, 2020

Australia’s Assistant Treasurer says in the post-COVID environment Canberra is willing to re-examine its policies including loan concessionality, debt consolidation and aid allocations to Pacific Islands nations but is not giving any promises or firm commitments.

 

Michael Sukkar is attending the Forum Economic Minister Meeting which kicks off this morning. Australia has already reallocated well over A$100 million to assist Pacific Islands respond to the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19. But those funds have been reallocated from the existing aid budget.

The next federal budget is due for delivery on October 6, and Sukkar says: “if we do seek to supplement aid or humanitarian assistance to our region, that will be done with the broad principles of the Pacific Step up and will be focussed primarily on our immediate Pacific region and neighbours.”

Sukkar expects discussion of the A$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility at today’s meeting. He says eight projects have been approved, utilising a mix of grants and non-concessional loans, and has not ruled out revisiting the nature of those loans, as there is “great value to moving to concessional loans”.

“Whilst I don’t want to necessarily announce any change of policy, I think the broad view is that we have to be nimble as we possibly can and that means re-examining all pre-existing COVID programmes,” Sukkar told Pacific journalists yesterday.

“I think it’s safe to say that in a post-COVID environment the Australian government is willing to re-examine everything with fresh eyes… and the view is that with the infrastructure facility, more concessional loan rates or loan terms would be likely to unlock particular projects.”

The Minister said discussions about consolidating debt  in multilateral forums is “certainly gathering steam.” He also said the demand for Pacific island seasonal workers is likely to continue and the Australian government has done “some fairly important work in ensuring that appropriate quarantining arrangements  and protocols are established to ensure they can continue to come.”

“With the Pacific yet to experience COVID-19, we need to err on the side of caution to ensure that the COVID-19 doesn't get a foothold.

“I think it would be a disaster with fragile health systems and other infrastructure for Australia to effectively be sending COVID into the Pacific through the Pacific island workforce,” Sukkar says.

Preparations are currently underway to send 120 ni-Vanuatu workers to the Northern Territory to help with the mango harvest and there are hopes in other Pacific nations that they will also be able to supply workers for upcoming harvests.

On tourism, Sukkar believes in the longer-term, travel bubbles are “an absolutely worthy way to go” but there is still a lot of work to do on protocols, and that no country in the world could say they have yet “perfected the art of contact tracing and ring-fencing before COVID-19 has the opportunity to spread like wildfire.”

“Until you really have perfected that, I think it is very hard to put in place a 'bubble'. 

“But the concept of a bubble is really the only long-term solution and the only sense of certainty that we can all have in getting back to what is an economic engine room for the Pacific.”

PACER Plus ‘modest’

WITH the European Union abandoning long-running negotiations for a comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), the proposed Pacific PACER-Plus trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand now takes on greater significance.

With negotiators aiming to conclude the PACER-Plus negotiations before July 2016, a May meeting in Vanuatu meeting saw progress on issues such as trade in services and funding for aid for trade. However, the unresolved debate over labour mobility will determine whether a regional trade deal can be struck.

At the Port Vila meeting, Pacific negotiators announced that increased access to the Australian and New Zealand labour markets remains a pillar of any agreement: “With respect to labour mobility and development assistance, without substantive commitments by Australia and New Zealand on these two issues, it would be difficult for PACER Plus to fulfil its objective of enhancing the participation of the PICs in international trade. The demands from the PICs are clear and have been stated numerous times. We want to see concrete steps forward in these areas as soon as practicable.”

Dr. Edwini Kessie, who heads the Office of the Chief Trade Advisor (OCTA) in Vanuatu, told Islands Business: “Modest progress was made on labour mobility. However, Australia and New Zealand haven’t responded to our core demands: firstly, to remove or substantially lift the cap on the number of workers to be recruited under the (Australian) SWP and (New Zealand) RSE programs; secondly, to extend those programs to other occupations such as aged care; and thirdly, to extend the schemes to all Forum Island Countries.”

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by Nic Maclellan

AUSTRALIA’S Pacific Seasonal Workers Program (SWP) is coming under close scrutiny to the extent that any future expansion could be in jeopardy.

Implemented in July 2012, the SWP scheme allows for people from 10 Pacific countries to work in fruit picking and some other sectors in Australia for a period of between 14 weeks to six months.

It is a popular scheme because of Australia’s high wage rates. However, unlike New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) program, which has flourished since 2007, the SWP has struggled to increase its numbers.

Backpackers have the numbers

Australian industry preferences for backpackers is high because of a lower regulatory regime.

Australia has three types of visa for temporary migration: the Temporary Work visa (subclass 457) for skilled workers; two types of Working Holiday Maker visas (subclasses 417 and 462); and the Seasonal Worker Program (subclass 416), which allows Pacific island workers to be recruited for the horticulture industry.

The s417 Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visa enables young backpackers to holiday in Australia and supplement their travel funds through short-term employment.

In November 2005, the then Howard coalition government introduced immigration reforms which allowed for a 12-month WHM s417 visa to be extended for a second year if the applicant does harvest work for three months in a rural or regional area. This reform was extended in 2006 to include the whole agriculture sector and again in 2008, to include mining and construction.

Since the 2005 reforms, the number of people granted a second year s417 extension has risen from 26,821 in December 2012 to 37,088 in December 2014. There is now growing debate about these schemes in Australia with a Senate committee investigating the impact of Australia’s temporary work programs on the Australian labour market. Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman is also investigating breaches of labour law for migrant workers. 

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by Nic Maclellan

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