Australia is willing to consider changes to any of its existing programs to help nations in the region, including Palau, respond to the global pandemic.
“We have to be as nimble as we possibly can and that means re-examining all pre-existing COVID, programs,” Australia’s Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, told reporters yesterday as economic ministers head to the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting (FEMM) this week.
“We’ve obviously …in the last couple of years initiated our Pacific Step-up really to try and ensure our relationship with …Solomons, Palau, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, and many others, are as deep and as broad as it possibly can be,” he said.
“We have always had very good institutional links. I think strengthening the people to people links where possible and of course also the economic opportunities.”
With eight projects now approved under the AUD$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, Mr. Sukkar will use the online meeting with Pacific ministers to hear what is needed next.
“I think that will be important to do a bit of a stock-take on the approved projects and where our Pacific partners see the, you know, the next sectors of opportunity and need as far as that infrastructure goes,” he said.
For Australia, the FEMM will be an opportunity to further strengthen the Pacific Step-up, defence, police, and border security, cooperation, and humanitarian and disaster response.
“And I think it’s fair to say in a humanitarian sense the full scope and challenges of COVID- 19 as a humanitarian challenge is probably not yet fully realized,” Mr. Sukkar added.
He anticipates the meeting to be COVID-19 focused, but it is also important to discuss the movement of people and achieving a COVID-safe nation.
“How we manage …particularly fragile areas of the Pacific that maybe don’t have as great an outbreak as other areas, how we protect those whilst still trying to ensure that channels of economic trade including people movement continue to the greatest extent possible,” he said.
Sukkar, who was talking to the reporters from his home in Victoria while in full quarantine, said COVID-19 is affecting every part of the world, including nations that have a weak healthcare system.
“So I think the full humanitarian consequences of COVID-19 are yet to be realized, but you know our ability in the humanitarian sense to be able to respond to those I think will be at the forefront,” he added.
Other issues on Mr. Sukkar’s agenda include COVID-safe labor mobility paths, greater economic integration through the PACER-plus trade agreement, and potential ways of managing Pacific debt.
When asked if the economic pressures Pacific nations face would prompt Australia to offer concessional loans as well as non-concessional loans through the AIFFP, Mr. Sukkar said: “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.”