Pacific Aid Too Important for the Axe

Port Villa is the tropical capital of Vanuatu with amphitheatre hills overlooking a sprawling harbour. On a recent visit I got an insight into the lives of our Pacific friends.

In a modest cottage on the outskirts of the capital is the Vanuatu Women’s Centre.

There on a sticky afternoon a brave young girl told me of her battle with domestic violence.

She had left an abusive relationship with her kids and was rebuilding her life with the support of the remarkable staff of the centre.

She had established her own businesses after receiving vocational training through an Australian technical college and was optimistic about her future.

This is one of the many Australian aid success stories, tackling problems at the heart of Melanesian society - domestic violence and a lack of job opportunities.

(Video: My motion in Parliament on March 17, 2014 calling on the Foreign Minister to overturn her decision to cut $61.4 million in Australian aid to our Pacific neighbours.)

Domestic violence is a problem that Australia shares with the Pacific. Governments need to do more to eliminate this horrid crime.

That’s why I am concerned about the Abbott Government’s cuts to foreign aid and their effects on social progress in the Pacific.

I was in the Pacific with a delegation led by our nation’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek also attended.

In the Solomon Islands, Nauru and Vanuatu, Julie Bishop promised the leaders of our Pacific neighbours that there would be no cuts to the overseas development aid that Australia was providing to their respective countries.

Australia is the largest development aid provider to these small island nations in our neighbourhood and our support is vital to their continued economic and social development.

In the Solomon Islands we observed training in combatting domestic violence against women being delivered to enthusiastic new recruits to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

This training is part of a Government program largely funded by Australian aid.

Last month the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced $4.5 billion in cuts over four years to Australia’s foreign aid budget.

While some detail about the cuts has been released; $75.4 million from humanitarian, emergency and refugees programs, including $8.5 million from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and $4.2 million from UNICEF, questions still remain regarding where the rest of the $4.5 billion in cuts will fall.

The Foreign Minister must end the uncertainty for our friends in the Pacific.  Will Julie Bishop’s commitment to our neighbouring leaders and their citizens made last December be met? 

I call on our nation’s Foreign Minister to release the details of the cuts to individual programs and bodies funded by Australian development aid.

Many of the bodies running important programs throughout the Pacific are understandably sceptical about Julie Bishop’s pledge that no development aid will be cut.

On two occasions in 2013 the Australian Government provided emergency food and water supplies to people living on the northern atolls of the Marshall Islands.  Severe drought has literally dried up these communities.

Climate change is not a looming threat for many island states in the Pacific, it is a present danger. 

Australia has withdrawn its support for a Commonwealth climate fund, which is an important multi-lateral initiative to help developing countries cope with climate emergencies. Further proof our nation’s government has abandoned meaningful financial support for international climate initiatives.

How can these tiny island economies protect their limited infrastructure or secure their food and water supplies if a wealthy nation such as Australia ignores their pleas for help in dealing with a changing climate?

The Abbott Government’s increasingly fractious relationship with Indonesia and their ham-fisted approach to the relationship with China have become symbols of incompetence in foreign relations.  But these disagreements if handled properly in the future can be overcome.

The wrong approach to relations with our Pacific partners in development aid and climate change in the next three years could do fundamental damage beyond the horizon of a generation.

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