Address to the Monash Sustainability Institute Workshop

Thank you to the Monash Sustainability Institute for the opportunity to speak at this very important workshop. I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and pay my respects to elders past and present.

Yesterday I met with a group of young people from Kirbati and Tuvalu. They are visiting Australia for the first time to inform us of the effects of climate change on the communities they live in.

Meteka Raoi told me that the sea wall that protects Kiribati from damage on high tides is now regularly inundated and is collapsing.  Coconut trees in his country have all but disappeared.  The well that provides water to his local village has been affected by salinization and people now walk miles to another well for drinking water.

Merineta Kitara told me of her joy of giving birth to her son recently but her anxiety that he will no longer be able to live in the community her family have inhabited for hundreds of years.

Australians, like the rest of the developed world speak of the effects of climate change as something we need to worry about in the future.

In the Pacific climate change is a clear and present danger.

It is effecting lives and changing communities and countries. It is also inhibiting improvements in living standards.

Climate change is the Pacific double whammy. It makes a difficult life harder.

Most Pacific countries are afflicted by high rates of preventable disease such as tuberculosis, low rates of access to education, unbelievable rates of domestic violence and high rates of poverty.

Climate change just makes tackling these social and economic issues all the more difficult.

Australia is compounding that hardship by abolishing a price on carbon emissions and pulling out of international climate change bodies like the Green Climate Fund.

I wish to congratulate the Monash Sustainability Institute for your work and commitment to tackling climate change. The establishment of Climate Works Australia which of course is aimed at facilitating significant reductions in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions is one example of the great work of your institution.

It is also pleasing to note that the Monash Sustainability Institute has been appointed the Australia Pacific Regional Centre for the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and is charged with supporting the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

When we discuss the relevance of the sustainable development goals we need to recognise that many Pacific nations have not met the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s).

In politics the term ‘killer fact’ is often used when someone introduces a fact into a debate that destroys their opponent. Oxfam publishes a list of killer facts about the Pacific that I think shows the overwhelming problem we face in our own backyard;

  • Around one million Pacific school-age children are not receiving an education.
  • The primary school completion rate in Vanuatu was just 59 per cent in 2006.
  • The adult literacy rate is 65 per cent in the Solomon Islands.
  • The proportion of people in the Pacific with access to an improved water source is just 50 per cent, which is the worst in the world – 10 per cent lower than sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Kiribati and PNG are well off the MDG target to reduce child mortality to 30 per 1000 live births. In Kiribati 69 children die per 1000 live births.
  • Only 58 per cent of infants in the Pacific have received at least one dose of measles vaccine. This is far worse than sub-Saharan Africa, where 72 per cent of infants receive the vaccine.

These facts are very real and very confronting because they outline the scale of the task ahead of us in the Pacific and show us the life and death realities of our Pacific friends.

The Sustainable Development Goals are of course a set of proposed targets relating to future international development to replace the MDG’s.  First formally discussed at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, the SDGs have developed into 17 goals with 169 targets. 

The targets cover a broad range of sustainable development issues including ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making cities more sustainable, combating climate change and protecting oceans and forests.

The MDG’s and SDG’s are a valuable tool for assessing development and living standards in Australia and our region.  They also provide important information regarding areas of greatest need when it comes to allocating Australian aid.

In November 2010 the former Labor Government commissioned an independent review into the effectiveness of Australia’s aid program. This was the first independent review of Australia's aid program since 1996.

It was a comprehensive look at the management and quality of our aid, and an effort to give direction to our aid program. By the time of the review Labor had increased to total aid budget by almost two thirds at the same time consolidating the total number of aid programs managed by AusAID by around one third.

Following the review the then government focused our aid decisions on:

1. Poverty and need

2. Effectiveness and the capacity to make a real difference, and

3. Our national interest.

This focus in Government meant we aligned our aid program with our commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Within this, we focused our efforts on five strategic goals:

  • saving lives through improved access to water and sanitation, better maternal and child health, and combating disease
  • promoting opportunities for all through education, gender equality, and disability inclusive development
  • investing in sustainable economic growth through improved food security, private sector development, and reducing the negative impacts of climate change
  • improving governance to deliver better services and enhance security, justice and human rights
  • preparing for and responding to disasters and humanitarian crises.

Labor in Government further defined ten specific development objectives that seek to give effect to these strategic goals. This process meant that the entire effort of our aid program went into achieving outcomes committed to in the MDG process.

In Papua New Guinea, we provided medical supplies to more than 2000 hospitals, health centres and aid posts. We supported 20,000 victims of sexual and family violence. In PNG’s Western Province, we reduced, in just one year, the mortality rate for drug-resistant tuberculosis from 25 per cent to just 5 per cent.

In Timor-Leste we helped more than 30,000 farmers grow improved varieties of crops, and improved their yield in some cases by as much as 80 per cent. And we helped more than 77,000 people get access to safe water, and 67,000 people get access to basic sanitation.

Labor doubled Australia’s contribution to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, to an average of $70 million a year.

The Abbott Government has showed its true colours by winding back these commitments. It has narrowed the focus of Australia’s aid program. It has removed poverty reduction and sustainable development from the department’s statement of objectives.

Instead, its priority is now ‘aid for trade’. Promoting trade through aid is an important goal – but not at the expense of poverty reduction.

The creation of the Sustainable Development Goals is a further step on the path created by the MDG’s. They should define Australia’s aid priorities.

Within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals, Australia must focus on tangible outcomes for our region. We have to support inclusive and sustainable economic growth in the areas where we have particular responsibility and expertise.

  • That means a focus on disability-inclusive development, and the economic and social empowerment of women and girls.
  • Promoting greater transparency in the extractive industries so that being resource-rich in a developing country is a blessing, and not a curse.
  • Health and education as drivers of national development, as well as regional prosperity and stability.

And of course we will only be able to support inclusive and sustainable growth in our region if we are properly analysing and improving our own national approach.

That’s why it was so disappointing to see the Abbott Government abolish the National Sustainability Council, which examined exactly the kind of long-term questions of social and environmental sustainability that underpin the SDG process. 

Instead, the Abbott Government has politicised the Intergenerational Report, minimising the impact of climate change and even talking about the potential economic benefits. Even the main paid to promote it has labelled it ‘flawed’ and ‘incredibly short-sighted’.

The Australian Government has a responsibility to translate the Sustainable Development Goals into concrete gains for developing countries. That means not shirking the commitments we have already made under the MDGs.

Australia is the largest provider of development aid to the Pacific.  It is hard to see how the Abbott Governments $11.2 billion cut to our foreign aid budget will not affect living standards and achievement of the MDG’s in the Pacific.

In the next year alone, as Plan International has calculated, the latest cuts to foreign aid could mean:

  • 220,000 fewer girls will be enrolled in school, and;
  • 400,000 fewer girls will be immunised, and;
  • 3,153 fewer classrooms where girls can learn will be renovated or built, and;
  • 157,000 fewer girls will get better access to safe drinking water, and;
  • 750,000 fewer textbooks will be made available for girls.

The sustainable development goals also provide an opportunity for Australia to collaborate with our neighbours on aid delivery in the Pacific.

In 7 August 2009 in Cairns Pacific Leaders developed the Cairns Compact- a plan to deliver greater coordination in the delivery of aid throughout the Pacific.

This agreement came about as a result of concern that, despite continued high levels of development assistance over many years, the Pacific region was off-track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

The MDG’s and SDG’s should form the basis of collaboration on aid in the Pacific.

The traditional make up of aid in the Pacific is also changing.

China has become major aid donor in the Pacific region in recent years.

China’s net foreign aid has grown rapidly since 2004 reaching US $7.1 billion in 2013 and they are turning their attention to the Pacific where they can potentially have a big impact.

This provides opportunities for greater collaboration between Australia and nations such as China on aid delivery.

Labor in Government laid the foundation for this to occur when we signed the historic Australia-China Development Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding in April 2013. Together Australia and China are working on aid projects, the first being combatting drug resistant malaria in Papua New Guinea.

The first tripartite agreement between China, New Zealand and Cook Islands was also recently established to focus on water infrastructure.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for Australia to also work in cooperation with China to potentially make a huge difference for the people of the Pacific.

That means providing leadership at the national level by shaping our long-term policy planning around the goal of inclusive and sustainable growth. And that means providing leadership in our region and around the world by targeting our efforts to our areas of recognised expertise.

Australian’s are often unfortunately sceptical about their Government spending money on other nations.

Highlighting the lack of progress by Pacific nations in relation to the MDG’s can also assist in explaining the benefits of foreign aid and its importance to improvements in living standards, particularly in our region.

Overseas development aid is not seen as a politically important issue in Australia and we see this by how easy it was for the conservatives to cut $11 billion from the ODA budget in less than a year.

The small islands of the Pacific region are among the nations that will need the most help to achieve their sustainable development goals.

They are small in size, they have vulnerable economies and rely heavily on narrow resource bases, natural resources, and international trade. They lack the bargaining power that larger nations have.

They are on the front line of the battle against climate change and are constantly threatened by inundation and acidification issues.

As a wealthy nation in the region Australia has a responsibility to assist the Pacific region to achieve sustainable development goals and to work closely to ensure living standards improve into the future. 

While the pacific has not done so well on progress towards the MDG’s that we can now say that elements of that progress are falling behind the poorest nations of Africa in itself provides an opportunity. It provides an opportunity for people like you in this room to make the case for change. 

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