Speech to Parliament: Standing up for Overseas Aid

In December last year I was fortunate to visit Vanuatu with the foreign minister and visit in the capital the Vanuatu Women's Centre. We spoke to a young Ni-Vanuatu girl who is benefitting from Australian aid dollars. She was the victim of domestic violence.

She is benefiting from a scholarship under an Australian technical college. This is an example of Australian aid dollars delivering first-hand good results in our region and dealing with two of the biggest issues facing the Pacific: domestic violence and a lack of job opportunities. Programs such as this are uncertain under this government because $7.6 billion has been ripped out of the overseas development aid budget. The goal of our nation reaching 0.5 per cent of GNI in overseas development aid has been completely abandoned.

What is the view of our neighbours in the Pacific on this government's approach to overseas development aid? It is perfectly highlighted in public by the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, who recently said:

Australia has always been our friend but the change in their government last year has resulted in problems.

That is the view of the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands—one of our closest neighbours. It was followed by the President of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, saying this week, with respect to this government's abandonment of overseas development aid in respect of combating climate change in our region:

Prime Minister Abbott's comments on Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are a further indication that Australia is isolating itself on this issue.

That is the view of some of our closest and nearest neighbours when it comes to this government's approach to overseas development aid. Isolating Australia is exactly what this government is doing by abandoning the 0.5 GNI goal and cutting $7.6 billion from the overseas development aid budget.

Recently two well-respected aid advocates visited Australia. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who is from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, spoke in Australia about the importance of aid. He said that, with additional investment in aid, we could dramatically shift the development trajectory of the world's poorest countries and we could do it by focusing on just four goals: immunisation, malaria, HIV/AIDS and education, especially for young girls. He also observed that it is inexplicable for a country like Australia to be cutting aid, because ultimately it is in our best interest to support the development of a fairer, more prosperous and more stable world.

I was also fortunate to recently meet with the Rt Hon. Stephen O'Brien, a Conservative member of the UK House of Commons and global malaria advocate for the Roll Back Malaria Partnership. Mr O'Brien spoke quite passionately and proudly of the UK government's achievement in lifting overseas aid to 0.7 per cent of GNI. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called the massive increase in British foreign aid his proudest achievement in government. David Cameron said, 'We accept the moral case for keeping our promises to the world's poorest, even when we face challenges at home.'

The UK economy was battered by the global financial crisis. Unemployment was double that in Australia. Growth was lower than that in Australia. The UK in December 2013 had a net debt of 75 per cent of GDP. Australia has a net debt of 14 per cent of GDP, almost one-fifth of that of the UK. Yet this government is crying poor when it comes to overseas development aid and reaching the goal that most other nations are aspiring to, of lifting our overseas development aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI.

The unfortunate thing about this whole issue is that it appears that this minister has allowed close to $16 billion to walk out of her portfolio without a word. What did the minister say in cabinet deliberations when the ERC were attempting to cut so much money from her budget? Did the minister stand up for overseas development aid and Australia's relationships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region? Did the minister say no when the Treasurer came a-knocking and said, 'We're going to cut 500 jobs from DFAT?' What was the minister's response? How will the minister explain the Australian government's decision to break its promise to the world's poorest countries by cutting real spending on aid? How does the minister expect to be judged by the international community?

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