Speech to the Australian Council for International Development

The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP

Deputy Leader of the Opposition

Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development

Speech to the Australian Council for International Development

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Acknowledgments and introduction

I would like to acknowledge:

-         The traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal people

-         The Honourable Dr Meredith Burgmann, the President of ACFID

-         Marc Purcell, the Executive Director of ACFID

The fight against global poverty is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st Century.

It’s a fight in which Australia has a strategic, economic, and moral stake.

My party has always believed in the fair go, and not just for our citizens, but for our neighbours too.

We believe that a society as wealthy as ours has an obligation to advance the development of the poorest people, communities, and nations, and assist them to a better life.

I’d like to start by acknowledging the work of everyone in this room.

I’d also like to acknowledge the key role ACFID plays, including through your code of conduct, in ensuring Australia’s aid sector is world leading in its accountability, transparency and effectiveness.

Everyone here would like to be able to flick a switch to eradicate extreme poverty, illiteracy, health inequalities, child mortality, gender inequality, food insecurity and environmental problems.

But there isn’t a switch to flick; there’s only complex, painstaking, patient work – and I know many of you have been at it for years.

However frustrating the pace of change is, your successes are there. The last fifteen years has seen significant progress made in reaching a

number of the Millennium Development Goals.

Six million fewer children died in 2012 than in 1990, and the developing world is on track to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015.

Australia’s contribution has been good.

We’ve helped 6 million Afghan children (including 2 million girls) go to school. We’ve helped cut malaria cases by 80% in Vanuatu and more than 50% in the Solomon Islands; we’ve helped construct 2000 schools across Indonesia.

Of course meeting other Millennium Development Goals remains challenging and some regions are struggling more than others.

I know the sector is now discussing where international development policy should go after 2015, and this is a discussion I look forward to having with you.

Today I wanted to set out a few markers for both myself and the new Labor Opposition when it comes to international development policy.

Two tests in international development policy

For Labor, the fundamental goal of Australia’s aid policy should be to overcome poverty and to save and improve lives.

Of course, I’m new to this portfolio, but it seems to me there are two baseline questions – how much do we give? and how successful is that giving?

Are we as a nation paying our fair share?

And just as important, is our aid effort effective?

They are the questions I’ll judge our own efforts by, and they are standards of accountability to which I will hold the Government.

We need to ensure a well-funded sector

The ALP has two goals for the quantum of our international development effort.

The first is to increase our official development assistance spend to 0.5% of gross national income.

Beyond, we believe in working towards a target of 0.7% GNI.

I understand that there are people here today who were concerned when our 0.5% target slipped from 2015 to 2017 because of the GFC.

But, under our government, Australia’s contribution to official development assistance grew with every Budget. In 2006-07 the Australian Government invested $2.9 billion and by 2013-14 that had grown to $5.7 billion.

Labor remains committed to meeting the 0.5% target and will hold firm on working towards the longer term target of 0.7%.

I know many in this room will feel 0.5% of GNI, or even 0.7% are modest targets, but it looks as though under the Abbott government we won’t even get there.

The Coalition’s decision to slash $4.5 billion from Australia’s aid budget, announced at one minute to midnight in the dying days of the election campaign, is a severe disappointment to millions of Australians who agree that we have an ethical responsibility to help, and it’s a betrayal of the poorest of the poor in our region and around the globe.

Speaking in May 2011, Joe Hockey claimed Australian families would be “riled” to know that Labor had been planning to increase the aid budget.

Why, he was asked.

Well, Joe Hockey claimed, at a time when Australia had such a significant debt and deficit problem, we simply couldn’t afford this.

I think the first few weeks of the Abbott Government has revealed the fraud at the heart of this rhetoric.

Just last week, the Treasurer borrowed nearly $9 billion to give to the Reserve Bank, which it seems may not have been needed.

In just over a month in office, the Government has doubled the debt ceiling so it can borrow more money.

But they’ve announced they will take $4.5 billion from the world’s poor on the false pretence that Australia cannot afford it.

To put this into perspective, $4.5 billion is greater than what was budgeted by our Labor Government in 2013-14 for the entire AusAID country and global program.

But that’s only half of what the new Treasurer gifted to the Reserve Bank.

Our international development policy should be high quality

As I said earlier, it’s not just the amount of our international development assistance that’s important, it’s the quality.

That’s why Labor undertook a significant review into aid effectiveness to ensure Australia’s international development policy was actually working to help people overcome poverty.

We were determined to ensure our aid program was not just better resourced, but of a higher quality too; that more was spent on front line services like health and education.

It’s why we made enhancing transparency and accountability key planks to ensure effectiveness.

And it’s why we were determined to strengthen Australian Government partnerships with accountable and proven NGOs like those represented in this room.

Poor quality aid is not just a waste of public money and ineffective in reducing poverty, but can and will undermine public support for our aid program and public willingness to make personal donations to NGOs.

That’s why today is such a critical day for international development policy in Australia.

This is AusAID’s last day as a standalone agency.

From tomorrow, Australia’s aid program will be delivered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Firstly, I would like to publicly thank all of AusAID’s staff – past and present.

AusAID has been staffed by dedicated Australians who, like everyone here, have sought to make the world a better place through the eradication of extreme poverty.

This merger has been sudden, traumatic, and leaves unanswered questions.

Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop talk of the need to align Australia’s aid policy with our diplomacy.

The Prime Minister has even said he “doesn't want our diplomacy going in one direction and our aid program going in another direction.”

I’d like them to point to one instance when aid and diplomacy have been in conflict.

Of course we consider issues such as our responsibility to our near neighbours being more acute and demanding than our responsibility to more distant friends, but our aid policy already reflects this.

Aid versus diplomacy is a false dichotomy.

Helping our neighbours develop strong economies means better markets for our goods; helping our neighbours improve their health systems means fewer health threats (like the development of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis) on our doorstep; increasing the number of children in our region going to school reduces the opportunity for indoctrination in place of education.

The success of our neighbours is good for us. “Countries like Thailand and South Korea which were once aid recipients are now among Australia’s 10 largest trading partners.”1

The danger of losing AusAID is, of course, the danger of losing dedicated staff with specialist expertise and contacts in developing countries, but it’s also the danger of a loss of focus and quality in our aid program.

The Review of Aid Effectiveness set out important future directions and I fear a number of recommendations will not be delivered.

These recommendations include a higher share of total Government aid spend to be directed through NGOs.

Our internationally commended approach in disability-inclusive development, (which has led, for example, to schools built in Indonesia with ramps and accessible bathrooms) is under threat.

The centrality of gender equality to our approach to aid is also under threat.

Kofi Annan said:

“There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition, promote health -- including the prevention of HIV/AIDS -- and increase the chances of education for the next generation.”

In recent years our aid program has recognised and responded to gender equity as a precondition for both human rights and economic development.

We’ve helped increase the number of girls going to school, we’ve helped women leave behind extreme poverty with microfinance, we’ve increased the number of women who give birth safely, we’ve supported efforts to reduce domestic violence and sexual assault, we’ve supported increased political representation of women, and included women in decision making and peace building exercises.

On coming to government we first abolished the Harradine amendment which prohibited Australian aid money going to organisations which delivered family planning services. Most recently we doubled aid funding for family planning services.

Let me say this very clearly – I will fight any effort by Tony Abbott to strip aid from family planning services in developing countries.

It is good for mothers and their babies for women to have the ability to have their first child later, and for mothers to have the ability to space their family. It is vital for mothers and babies to increase attended births and offer proper post natal care.

I also acknowledge the critical role your organisations play in advocating for those living in poverty in our region and across the globe.  I see this as part of your core business.

Labor will do everything we can to protect and strengthen your voices on international development matters, and more broadly.

Australia is at a crossroads when it comes to international development policy.

I believe Australians are generous people who see they have a responsibility to the world.

They want assurances, though, that their tax dollars and any personal donations they make are well and wisely spent, and making a real difference.

I believe Australian aid has been meeting that test, and we must make sure it continues to do so.

I know you share that commitment and I’ll look forward to working with you to ensure that happens.

ENDS

31 OCTOBER 2013

CANBERRA


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