The case for significantly greater assistance for Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific to counter China's growing intervention that in part is designed to dilute Australia's influence is one I have argued for in my On Line Opinion contributions this year.
It has long been a concern of mine that the federal government is worried about the public (voter) reaction to greater "aid" or as it is now called "development assistance".
The Lowy Institute survey out last week contains some very re-assuring statistics on public attitudes to supporting Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific. And it clearly gives the main reason why!
The same survey looks at the attitude of respondents to Australia's relationship with China – and that has changed dramatically in just a couple of years. In answer to the question whether China is an "economic partner" just 34% responded positively. And whether or not China was a security threat to Australia, 63% said it is!
The poll showed above 70% support for assistance for Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific to counter Covid-19 but also in the case of PNG because it is our neighbour, and a long term partner and friend. Support for assistance beyond vaccinations is also in the 70% plus range.
There is no doubt the message I and others have been seeking to pursue with regard to China's influence in PNG and the South Pacific is starting to resonate with the Australian community. Apart from what I am seeking to do, the coverage by The Australian's Ben Packham, by the Guardian's features supported by the Judith Nielsen Institute, and even by the ABC, has helped shine a light on just how extensive China's economic social and diplomatic activity has become in our immediate region.
Apart from Lowy's survey, a couple of other online surveys by think tanks offer similar conclusions. The people of Australia see China as a growing threat to our national security and the security and stability of our region.
The level of "development assistance" outlined in the recent budget is in reality not dissimilar to what was provided in the last budget for 2020-21. To that has to be added generous assistance to our region to manage the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now is the time for the Australian Government to ignore "aid critics" such as One Nation, and some right wing commentators, and significantly step up our support for our immediate region is a really targeted way.
The first step needs to be to downgrade the "development assistance" term when outlining what the government spends – on behalf of the taxpayer – in our region.
It needs to be quite deliberately identified as pursuing "the Australian national interest!"
The time has really arrived to stop promoting the $4 billion we spend as part of the aid budget (with about $1.5 billion going to the region) as just "development assistance".
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