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Foreign Minister disputes focusing too much on Middle East

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, April 13, 2011) – Australia’s foreign minister Kevin Rudd has said this that he has not taken his eyes off Papua New Guinea or other South Pacific Island nations.

He told Radio Australia that the Labor government had always been committed to PNG and the region and he planned to reiterate this when he meets with Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare next month.

Rudd was rejecting opposition claims he was spending too much time focusing on the Middle East unrest at the expense of "local trouble spots" like PNG, Fiji and Timor-Leste.

"We have been active from the earliest days of this government in reframing our development assistance relationship with each of these countries to make their performance measurable against the investments made on behalf of Australian taxpayers," he said.

"Two, we have had a 40% increase in the overall development assistance budget to these countries because we’ve got to lift them from where they were, because they’re lagging against the millen­nium development goals globally."

"Three, parliamentary secretary Richard Marles has been exceptionally active in each capital across the region and that is why he has a full-time job."

"And, finally, as to the prime minister, you are looking at someone who, I think, had a 100% turn-up record for the Pacific Island Forum, my predecessor did not."

"So, there’s always much more to be doing and I will be looking forward to doing more when I spend some time with Michael Somare during the course of next month."

Australia’s opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said she was concerned that Australia had not been getting value for its aid dollar.

"We must focus on our region and our region includes Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands and I believe that we are losing influence there, we’re not directing our aid in a most effective way," she said.

"We’re not harnessing the business sector and there are a number of ways that I would revamp the aid budget."

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