Illegals undermine seasonal labour; Asia-Pacific policy adrift; Israel election. By Hamish McDonald.

Vanuatu’s Cyclone Pam disaster exposes aid cuts

A father and son amid the ruins of their home in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila.
A father and son amid the ruins of their home in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila.
Credit: AFP

Vanuatu’s distress from the direct impact of a level-five cyclone will quickly disappear from news reports, if it hasn’t already. And no doubt the cruise ships will soon be back in Port Vila for their passengers to buy the souvenirs knocked up by locals to earn some cash.

Cyclone Pam has come at an awkward time for the Abbott government, however. Its savage cuts to the aid budget announced by Treasurer Joe Hockey in his midyear adjustments in December are due to take about $1 billion from the current $5 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year. This is the largest-ever slash to Australia’s aid program, and will be followed by further cuts. By 2016-17 the aid budget will be 33 per cent below the level set before Abbott took over.

The question now is whether Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will sacrifice even more of her turf in the upcoming budget, as Hockey still seems to be trying to pursue fiscal consolidation at the same time Abbott has dumped many of the last budget’s savings and is talking of putting money in family pockets ahead of election year. Cutting foreign aid is an easy option.

So far Bishop’s managed to keep the aid programs in Asia and the Pacific largely intact, by cutting programs further afield in places such as Latin America and Africa and by the administrative savings of merging the formerly separate AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But with 92 per cent of our aid now going to the near region, principally to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and large humanitarian crises such as Syria making demands, the scope for further cuts looks limited without eating seriously into Canberra’s “soft” strategic power. 

Then again, Abbott has talked of “consequences” if Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are executed.

1 . Illegals undermine seasonal labour

Anyone who travels in South Pacific countries will be struck by the number of fine young men and women who would love to come do the work Australians are reluctant to do, such as pick fruit, make hotel beds and care for the elderly.

Canberra was reluctant to buy into this idea, despite a successful operation in New Zealand for seasonal employment in horticulture. There, fruitgrowers and vineyards find Pacific Islanders from places such as Vanuatu’s Tanna island work at a Stakhanovite pace, compared with those local unemployed who could be persuaded to work, or the floating population of backpackers. The islanders return to their families with a wad of savings for schooling, sturdier homes and small businesses.

Kevin Rudd started a three-year pilot scheme in 2009 with small numbers of workers from Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tonga. It was successful enough to launch the Seasonal Worker Program in 2012, allowing workers from eight Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to work in Australia for between 14 weeks and six months every year.

But it’s yet to take off in a significant way. Australia issued 2014 visas for seasonal workers in 2013-14, not reaching the cap of 2500 visas, which is still a tiny fraction of the estimated 75,000 to 175,000 workers nationally employed in horticulture. By contrast New Zealand is taking in more than 8000 seasonal workers each year.

A report last month by the World Bank suggested several reasons. The scheme is badly promoted and not well known among smaller growers. Many growers are daunted by the paperwork involved, the upfront subsidy of airfares, the need to provide accommodation and so on, in contrast to the larger outfits that do employ Pacific seasonal workers, which tend to say the upfront costs are more than offset by the benefits of having reliable returnees who don’t have to be trained.

The major reason, however, is the availability of backpackers and illegal labour, which undermined demand for Pacific islanders. A change in 2005 to the working holiday visa scheme allows backpackers who work for three months in agriculture, mining or construction to stay in Australia for a second year. The number seeking extensions under this provision increased from 2692 in the first year (2005-06) to nearly 46,000 in 2013-14. Some 90 per cent obtain the extension by working in agriculture. The World Bank report suggests either shortening the working holiday visa extension to three months, as New Zealand does, or allowing backpackers to earn their extra year in a wider range of industries, including hospitality.

As to be expected, the information found by the World Bank about illegal labour was anecdotal. Four out of five growers said undocumented workers were used to some extent in the horticulture industry. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection located some 17,000 “unlawful non-citizens” in 2013-14 but doesn’t break down how many were working in horticulture. The World Bank report gently suggests the level of enforcement is “in contrast” with a tougher approach in NZ. It seems Scott Morrison had his telescope turned to the sea, while a vital Australian input to grassroots resilience in the South Pacific was being undermined.

2 . Asia policy adrift

But where is Australian foreign policy going? Especially in the Asia-Pacific region, there is a lack of direction, as chest-thumping for domestic political reasons and Abbott’s fascination with distant military glory have undermined the narrative.

Many of our leading experts profess to be baffled. “You’d certainly say that halfway through the term there is no clear foreign policy concept,” Allan Gyngell, the former head of the Office of National Assessments, tells me. “There have been slogans such as ‘economic diplomacy’ and ‘Jakarta not Geneva’ but no conceptual framework,” says Gyngell, now at the ANU’s Crawford school of public policy. “It’s been overwhelmed by national security issues.”

Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, says the Abbott government’s ready compliance to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s request not to sign up to China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank made us look “almost a vassal state”. Now Abbott is about to flip back and become a founding member, under pressure from Hockey and Trade Minister Andrew Robb, but has been beaten to the punch by Britain’s David Cameron.

Peter Drysdale, also at the ANU Crawford school, this week pointed out the vacuum left by the “electronic burning” of the Gillard government’s 2012 white paper on “Australia in the Asian Century”, which he helped draft. By this he means it was taken down from the DFAT website by the current government, in what John McCarthy, the former ambassador to Jakarta (and other important capitals) also calls a “foolishly partisan” move.

Writing on the ANU’s East Asia Forum website, McCarthy says our problems with Jakarta are cultural. Our leaders have to avoid appearance of condescension or superiority, and recognise that a low-key and patient approach might be better than expecting instant high-level rapport in a time of populist politics over there (and here). Australia needs to revive the study of Indonesia and Asia generally, which will cost money. But somehow money is always found for Middle East excursions and the extra national security precautions that follow.

3 . Israel election

In the end it was Bibi not Bougie. 

Israel’s elections showed Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute lurch to the right has all but certainly saved his prime ministership against the challenge from the centre-left’s Isaac Herzog. Coalition brokering in the Knesset may still take weeks, but a returned Netanyahu will have a lot to explain to Israel’s usual foreign supporters about his remarks on the two-state solution and settlements.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2015 as "Vanuatu disaster exposes aid cuts".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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