Speech to the UNICEF Vaccinating the World Breakfast - Parliament House, Canberra - 23/03/2021

23 March 2021


Thanks to Ann Sherry, for that introduction. Thank you to UNICEF for this event. My particular thanks to Peter Khalil and Katie Allen. In a period which has been rather difficult in the Parliament, it is good to remember there are things we can work together on and may there be more of them.

I’d like to acknowledge my frontbench colleagues, Ann, Zed and others and particularly I want to acknowledge Pat Conroy who works with me in the portfolio on Pacific matters and he brings such a passion but also a commitment and intellectual rigour to this.

Peter (Khalil) made me come today – I just want to make that very clear. He just kept nagging me until I said yes. I said, ‘it is an estimates week, I’ve got a few things on’ but that is a testament to his support for UNICEF.

Can I acknowledge the attendance this morning by members of the diplomatic corps, including High Commissioner for PNG, Mr John Ma’O Kali, the Consul-General for the Solomon Islands, Mr Kereta Sanga, as well as the Consul General for Timor-Leste, Luciano Da Conceicao.

May I start by reiterating to our Pacific partners that the Labor Party stands with you and supports the Australian Government’s efforts to provide urgent assistance to support the pandemic recoveries in your nations.

We know particularly, Papua New Guinea faces such a difficult period ahead. We will continue to give bipartisan backing to ensure that Australia’s assistance is implemented urgently and effectively. And I would urge the Government to consider expanding the number of doses immediately available to ensure that there’s adequate coverage, as far as we are able to achieve, of frontline workers.

Of course, what these recent events remind us of, is how closely Australia’s long-term recovery from the pandemic is tied to that of those in our region.

We won’t defeat this virus unless we defeat it everywhere.

Australia must work to rally a global response to ensure vaccine access for all and that requires leadership. It also requires resources.

We’ve already seen instances of vaccine nationalism – including from some of our likeminded partners.

But we cannot allow the world’s poorest countries to remain at the back of the queue - which is why the COVAX facility is such a vital element of the pandemic response – especially for our region.

And I do welcome Australia’s contribution of $80 million but I would note it is far less than say the contribution for example, from Canada of US$752 million.

We also know that even when we are able to contain the pandemic – hopefully we will - it will leave the scars of an economic downturn for years to come.

There are estimates which suggest that the Pacific faces a potential lost decade of progress in achieving development due to the pandemic.

As is always the case, existing disadvantage is magnified by crisis.

No one will suffer more from this economic downturn than the world’s most vulnerable children.

On top of all of this, we should remember that, amidst the chaos of this past year and the massive social, strategic, and economic changes brought on by the pandemic, the threats posed by climate change have continued to accelerate.

It is the next pandemic. And there is no region in the world where this discussion is more salient and more urgent than the Indo-Pacific region.

All of these problems are complex. They demand resources. They require global and regional leadership.

Put simply, we are living in a time where the usual playbook of how we might respond to external events is not enough.

Australia has to act to shape the world and region we want – one that not only respects sovereignty but is also stable and prosperous.

This means leadership. This means resources. And it means that our development assistance program should be central to our international engagement.

As we have seen through this, our security and our stability are inextricable from the security and stability of our neighbourhood.

We can’t achieve the region and the world that we want to live in without the work that UNICEF and other UN agencies do to respond to humanitarian crises, build resilience, empower women and girls, and improve transparency.

So, Labor will continue to call for the Australian Government to step up and provide the necessary resources to respond to these challenges.

The ongoing cuts in the aid program over the last eight years have not been in our national interest.

But what I would say to the Government is this; I understand that domestic politics, and internal party politics, can sometimes press against increases to the aid program. Labor will give bipartisan support to an increase in the aid program if the government chooses to take seize this moment - this critical strategic and humanitarian moment - to permanently shift its focus away from reducing the program, to rebuilding Australia’s aid program.

And I would say to all of you, it isn’t just the right thing to do when it comes to responding to the urgent needs of our friends and neighbours.

It is actually central to the role we must play in our region and to Australia’s interests in building the resilience and prosperity of the region.

I thank UNICEF for the work you do, not just this year, but for the work you do every year.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.