Australian aid saves lives

Published on Mon 24 February 2020 4:10pm

I’ve listed the three consequences of our aid cuts—the fact that it undermines regional economical development, it undermines regional peace and security, and it prevents us from reducing aching poverty and saving lives.

Mr Wilson (4:10pm) — I’m glad to speak in support of the amendment to the Official Development Assistance Multilateral Replenishment Obligations (Special Appropriation) Bill 2019 moved by the member for Shortland and shadow minister for international development. And I’m glad to follow some very fine contributions from the members for Perth, Jagajaga and Sydney. Like my colleagues, I’m unashamedly a friend and supporter of Australian aid. It’s welcome that, through this bill, we’re taking the legislative action required to guarantee Australia’s contribution to various multilateral aid funds—six of them. Australian aid is, without question, vital in saving lives and reducing poverty. Poverty hurts people. Poverty causes suffering and preventable death, regional instability and conflict—all the terrible things that can befall human communities. It is hard to think of a more important cause than Australian aid.

This guarantee is welcome but it has to be seen in context—because, under this government, Australian aid has been badly knocked about. AusAID was dissolved, with a significant impact on skills, personnel, knowledge, morale and development assistance capacity. We know that $11.8 billion has been cut from the development assistance budget. It’s the one area of government that has taken the largest impact of cuts from this government. For quite a long time, the government wasn’t prepared to be open about where those cuts were falling. Thanks to inquiries by the shadow minister for international development and the Pacific, we know some of the detail of those cuts. We know, for instance, that those cuts have resulted in a 41 per cent decrease in education programs, a 32 per cent decrease in aid programs focused on health outcomes and a 42 per cent decrease in South Asia alone.

The funding in this bill is welcome but it comes against a background of huge cuts and a huge retreat in the scope and capacity of our development assistance program, and it’s a shame when you consider what well-targeted aid can achieve. The multilateral funds whose support is guaranteed through this bill include the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative, which supported 36 underdeveloped nations. An analysis of this initiative has found that participation is associated with a 16 per cent and a 12.5 per cent reduction in child and infant mortality respectively and that those beneficial effects are the largest in the poorest countries. But this government, since it was elected in 2013, has taken a wrecking ball to Australian aid. It’s where the largest cuts that it has inflicted have fallen. And that’s despite the supportive statements that the current Prime Minister made upon being elected. It is despite the interest that the former Foreign Minister, the former member for Curtin, had in aid. She is highly regarded, and not without justification. But she was the Foreign Minister who presided over the dissolution of AusAID and the massive cuts to Australian aid.

Development assistance has dropped to 0.19 per cent of GNI. It was 0.37 in the last term of the former Labor government. It has dropped to 0.19 per cent of GNI. That’s the lowest in Australia’s history. We’ve fallen from being a solid, middle-of-the-pack OECD contributor to being one of the least generous. It’s been a brutal hit in terms of the development assistance we provide to poor nations, including poor nations in our region. It means our influence on the economic development of countries in our regions has diminished, and our economic wellbeing will suffer as a result, because a lot of our programs are devoted to democratic capacity and other kinds of government systems that allow underdeveloped countries to develop and to become more economically capable. It means our influence on building peace and security in our region has been diminished. If you are serious about peace and security and serious about keeping Australians safe, one of the things you do not do is cut Australian aid, because it is one of the best ways of building peace and regional security. So, by not supporting better governance and democratic capacity, by not supporting better health and education, and by not supporting better environmental and climate outcomes, we undermine the peace and security of our region and our own peace and security. Make no mistake about that.

Taking the hammer to Australia’s aid program also means that we save fewer lives. We save fewer lives and we lift fewer people out of aching poverty. We look at the awful decision made last year to stop assistance to Pakistan altogether after 70 years—an underdeveloped country which faces many challenges and which with we’ve had a strong partnership and an aid program partnership that’s lasted 70 years, now cut away to nothing. In April last year, the Morrison government’s aid budget summary said that gender disparities are stark in Pakistan and noted that nine in 10 Pakistani women experience violence in their lifetime, among the world’s highest rates of gender based violence. The summary noted that it was a key objective of Australia’s aid to Pakistan to assist women and girls, with a focus on education, access to reproductive health and combatting gender based violence. Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in Asia. It was placed 150 out of 178 nations on the most recent United Nations human development index. So, despite the circumstances of Pakistan and despite only in April last year, less than 12 months ago, the Morrison government identifying the needs of Pakistan and the reasons why we should be supporting Pakistan, the decision was made late last year that we would stop supporting those kinds of development goals in Pakistan altogether.

I’ve listed the three consequences of our aid cuts—the fact that it undermines regional economical development, it undermines regional peace and security, and it prevents us from reducing aching poverty and saving lives. I have listed the consequences in what I consider to be the reverse priority. I think our aid program should proudly have as our No.1 priority saving the lives of desperate people and reducing the poverty that hundreds of millions of people face. It’s absolutely a part of our character and values to lift up the lives of some of the most desperate and disadvantaged of our fellow human beings. But, if you don’t find that compelling enough, it’s worth remembering that Australian aid, dollar for dollar, is one of the best kinds of government expenditure when it comes to economic capacity, and that ultimately means our own economic wellbeing through trade in our region as countries develop and, as I’ve said before, building peace and security in our region. That’s why I’m an all-day and everyday supporter of Australian aid and that’s why that’s the position of the Labor Party. It was in government; it has been and will be in opposition.

I encourage people to consider and support Australian aid. I know the member for Perth talked about some of the misunderstandings about how big our aid program is, how much we contribute and what it achieves. I note that the campaign for Australian aid, which people might like to consider at, includes a whole number of reasons why we should support that program, and I will name a number of them. In 2014 alone, Australian aid vaccinated more than 2.3 million children; it ensured nearly one million additional mothers had access to a skilled birth attendant; it provided critical services for more than 66,000 women who have survived violence; it supplied 2.9 million people with access to safe drinking water; and it responded to emergencies in 24 countries, including Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and flooding in the Solomon Islands. That’s what Australian aid does. It’s absolutely part of our character and our values as a nation and it should be supported.

I know that the government is going through the process of reconsidering and redesigning the aid program. I guess I have to observe that it’s hard to imagine how they could make it worse.

I know I shouldn’t be too optimistic. I should be cautious and we should watch carefully. But you start by dissolving Australia’s stand-alone aid agency and you follow that by making Australian aid the victim of the largest budget cuts as a category of government expense. You take Australian aid to the lowest level it has been in our history. You talk about how you’re going to focus aid in our region, but actually aid to South Asia declines by 42 per cent. You talk about how you are going to be more Jakarta than Geneva but you cut 50 per cent of all aid to Indonesia, which means 86 per cent of programs that deliver health assistance in Indonesia and 57 per cent of programs that deliver education in Indonesia. You come in and fashion your aid related four-word slogan, ‘more Jakarta less Geneva’, and then you go and make a 50 per cent cut in aid funding to our nearest and one of our most significant neighbours in the region.

We welcomed the President of Indonesia here last week to talk about how trade agreements are important. We talked about how the strategic position of comfort that Australia has enjoyed in our region for a period of time is changing, that it’s much more challenging and that it’s a geopolitical contest in which need to be involved. Yet one of the means by which we are involved in our region in that process, our Australian aid program, has been ripped into a hundred pieces and thrown on the floor. Anything has got to be better than what we’ve got, I say cautiously. You could only hope that this process of looking at our aid program going forward will do a number of things. It will certainly ensure that there are more resources, that the cuts stop, that the retreat from supporting our regional neighbours stops and that we look at what we’ve done in relation to Pakistan and reconsider it. Any and all of those things should occur.

I note the comments of the CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for Australian NGOs in the international development space, Marc Purcell. In relation to this aid review he has said:

“For 70 years, Australia has assisted countries to create a more stable, peaceful and prosperous world through international aid and development. But we must always be vigilant about how the international environment is changing and tailor our foreign policy accordingly.

“A new development cooperation policy provides an opportunity to consider that environment and shape our response accordingly so it can best tackle poverty, injustice and inequality.

“The case for relevant Australian development assistance is compelling: Pacific Island nations are facing an existential crisis created by climate change; in Bangladesh, more than one million Rohingya people have fled persecution from Myanmar; and in South-East Asia over 300 million people live in extreme poverty, and inequality is rising.

“Australia’s response should be to rise to these challenges and for the best of Australian expertise and experience to be harnessed to work with our neighbours.

Hear, hear! I entirely endorse that. I can only hope that the government and the responsible minister are listening to what the sector has been saying for a long time.

Let me finish by paying tribute to all those who work in the aid sector both within Australian aid and in the non-government organisations that are our delivery partners. I was fortunate to be with a number of colleagues as part of a regional leadership initiative that visited Bangladesh in January. We saw the work that’s being done to combat one of the greatest humanitarian crises afoot in the world, where you have nearly 1 million Rohingya people from Myanmar who have been forcibly pushed off their land and subjected to terrible violence. They are being looked after in Bangladesh with the support of international NGOs, including NGOs that rely on Australian government support.

There are also programs in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, because Bangladesh itself is a country that has very significant development challenges. It has some 10 million people who are classed as ultrapoor, which means they survive on considerably less than US$1.50 a day and generally struggle to have more than two meals.

So to all people involved in aid: we know you take on work that can be physically and emotionally draining. What you do is vital. What you do is some of the most compassionate and life-changing work that human beings can undertake. It matters so much. Thank you. Keep going.

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