The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP
Deputy Leader of the Opposition
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
ABC RN INTERVIEW WITH WALEED ALY
WEDNESDAY, 14 MAY 2014
SUBJECT/S: Tony Abbott’s Budget of Broken Promises and Twisted Priorities.
WALEED ALY: We rang the Minister for Foreign Affairs but their office did not return our calls today, so joining me instead is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development, Tanya Plibersek. Thank you very much for your time.
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Pleasure to be with you.
ALY: This is ultimately the extension of a story that the previous government started, isn’t it? When they started quarantining foreign aid for the treatment and processing of asylum seekers.
PLIBERSEK: Do you know what? We doubled the aid budget from 2.9 billion dollars to 5.7 billion dollars when we left government. We were on target to meet the 0.5% of gross national income target that, at that time was a bipartisan target. And it is a little infuriating to say that meeting the 0.5% target instead of in 2015, in 2017, because of the Global Financial Crisis is the same thing as what the Government has done, which is cut 16 billion dollars from the world’s poorest people. Now, you’ve spoken about this Budget, which cuts 7.6 billion dollars, that takes these four years into account. But if you look at the spending that we had projected out to 2020, spending that, as late as December last year and the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, the Government also supported, this is a 16 billion dollar cut. So, 7.6 billion dollars, you’re perfectly right to say is the largest single cut in this Budget. But the effect as you look out beyond this budget is a much greater effect on the world’s poorest people. Now, just to put this into perspective, 7.6 billion dollars would teach 25 million people to read and write, it’d provide 1.5 billion dollars – 1.5 billion doses of life saving malaria treatments, it’d treat 10 million people with HIV/AIDS with anti-infection viral treatments or train more than 3 million new midwives in developing countries. So this is, on an unprecedented scale, a broken promise.
ALY: And if I may be so cynical, not a voter among any of those people you mentioned which I suspect is why foreign aid remains an easy target. In the case of your side’s response on foreign aid, or policy on foreign aid, I wasn’t referring so much to the delaying of meeting the target, so much as the quarantining of foreign aid to be diverted to a totally separate policy area which was the processing and settlement of asylum seekers, and it got called foreign aid.
PLIBERSEK: And it’s also worth pointing out that we helped 6 million Afghan kids, including 2 million girls, go to school. We cut malaria in Vanuatu by more than 80% and in the Solomon Islands by 50%. We helped build two thousand schools across Indonesia. I mean, it really is kind of, very cheap policy analysis to say “a pox on both your houses” because we didn’t spend every dollar the way you would’ve liked us to spend it.
ALY: No, no, it’s not about spending every dollar the way I like, it’s about taking something that wasn’t called foreign aid and hadn’t been called foreign aid for a long time and then calling it that.
PLIBERSEK: Actually that’s not right. It did meet the international definition of overseas development assistance and –
ALY: Right, but it was money that we were spending anyway not under the foreign aid budget, wasn’t it?
PLIBERSEK: It was – it amazes me that you have before you a 7.9 billion dollar cut in aid and you want to have an argument about what the last Government did because some of the money went to look after asylum seekers in other countries. If we’d given money to Indonesia to look after asylum seekers in Indonesia, that would be a bad spend of money in your view?
ALY: No, I didn’t say that. I just think that – what I’m trying to draw out here, is the overall direction in policy in this country –
PLIBERSEK: The overall direction is that we doubled aid funding and this Government, in this Budget last night, has cut 7.9 billion dollars, enough money to teach 25 million people to read and write.
ALY: When you say “cut”, what you really mean is slow the growth, so that it’s a cut for the future, it’s not a cut in what we’re spending currently, is it?
PLIBERSEK: So, there will be real cuts to countries that were expecting to get extra money for aid, there will be some countries that will lose funding altogether. Africa, for example, is a country – Africa is a continent where we have previously given aid dollars, in the previous round of cuts we cut more than 90 million dollars from Sub-Saharan Africa and it looks like in this Budget, we will end aid altogether to Africa. I mean, it is extraordinary to think that there will be countries that used to receive development assistance from Australia that will no longer receive development assistance from Australia.
ALY: I’m sure you’re familiar with the argument about foreign aid that there are people here that would need a lot of the money that we are spending overseas, particularly say, Indigenous Australians, whose life expectancy is seventeen years less than the rest of the country-
PLIBERSEK: Absolutely, and they’re hit in this Budget, too. This is the extraordinary thing about this argument. The United Kingdom, which has a much worse budget position than Australia, has kept to not just to the 0.5% target of gross national target, but they’ve gone beyond that to 0.7%, congratulations to them. They didn’t use a hard budget to attack the world’s poorest people. The other argument that you hear, is not just that Budget times are tough but that we need that money here in Australia to look after poor Australians. I agree that we need to look after poor Australians here in Australia. The choice is a false choice. This Budget on top of these enormous aid cuts, also cuts money for pensioners, it also cuts New Start and Youth Allowance for kids, it also cuts money to ordinary families, it also makes people pay 7 dollars every time they go to the doctor and an extra 5 dollars when they get medicine. I mean, the idea that if we cut the aid budget, poor Australians will be better off, is absolutely disproved by this Budget. Incidentally, you mentioned Indigenous Australians, they cop a 500 million dollar cut in Indigenous programs alone, and of course they will suffer disproportionately from the health cuts, from the education cuts, from the pension cuts, from the cuts to housing assistance, from all of the other cuts in this Budget.
ALY: Tanya Plibersek, why do think it is that cuts to foreign aid carries no political consequence?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m not- There’s two things in that question, the first is, we have to make moral and ethical decisions that are separate from whether there are political consequences. So I think that the first question is, is this the right moral and ethical decision? And the answer is plainly not. Is it a right, strategic decision? Because stronger countries in our region, better trading partners, more stable nations are all good for Australia. So, it’s wrong morally and ethically, it’s wrong strategically, but you ask a question about political popularity and I think that this is really the job of every Australian who cares about the world around them, to say that there is a consequence to this politically, that it is not acceptable to cut 7.9 billion dollars in this Budget from the world’s poorest people.
ALY: Well, I suppose I’m asking whether or not you think those Australians exist in an electorally meaningful way?
PLIBERSEK: I certainly think they exist, I mean, I haven’t considered whether they exist in an electorally meaningful way, but they certainly exist because I’m being contacted by many, many of them. You look at the sort of outpouring that we’ve had for these girls that have been kidnapped in Nigeria and it is devastating, terrifying for the girls, terrifying for their parents. The idea at the same time that we would be cutting support to girls just like them to give them a safe way to go to school is extraordinary, and I don’t believe that the average Australian can say “I care about these girls because I’ve seen them on television and the terrible things happening to them, but I don’t care about the other 65 million girls around the world who don’t have access to education” I don’t think that’s true. So, I haven’t made a political analysis of it, I’ve made an ethical, moral and strategic analysis about whether it’s the right thing, and the answer is no. It’s up to other people, including aid organisations who’ve been very critical of this, to make sure that there’s a political consequence.
ALY: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for your time. You’ll be pleased to know I’m getting text messages from people who were loving the fact that you told me off, so there you go.
PLIBERSEK: [laughs] I didn’t mean to tell you off! [inaudible]
ALY: I quite enjoyed being told off, actually, on air, it’s good, good fun. Thank you.
PLIBERSEK: Alright, thank you.