That aid money should not be dropped or deferred. It should be redirected in an innovative way.
One option which should be urgently examined is to expand the seasonal worker program in our agricultural sector. With appropriate quarantine systems in place, the program could be stepped up at a time when Australian farmers need workers. We can forget about European backpackers picking fruit and doing other work in rural communities for at least the next year.
The relatively low virus rates among our South Pacific neighbours ought to enable men and women from those nations to fill the gaps in our workforce. Most will return some of their income to their families, which will help ease the desperate economic circumstances most now face.
This program will only work with substantial federal government funding and management and the involvement of the states and territories. It might be just a short-term measure, but it would enhance our people-to-people engagement in the region-and that must be the heart and soul of our aid program.
Support for the private sector in our regional neighbours through our development assistance program needs to be maintained at least at current levels until the pandemic's impact diminishes. That is many months, if not years, away.
The other reason we must maintain our regional development assistance is that, if we don't, the People's Republic of China will happily step into any gaps we leave. China is already increasing its aid in the region, as local media has noted. Any impression that we're reducing our regional engagement will play into China hands.
We need to assure the people in our region that we are not neglecting them despite our own massive fiscal and economic challenges.
A targeted development assistance program, focused even more strongly on our people-to-people and business-to-business engagement, is surely what Australia needs today and as far as we can see into the future.
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