TRANSCRIPT: ABC Lateline, Thursday 29 October 2015




TONY JONES, PRESENTER: We approached the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop but she was unavailable for comment but for a different reaction to the cuts in foreign aid I was joined a short time ago from Cairns by Labor's Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek thanks for being there. 


JONES: Now, the Fred Hollows Foundation in Kenya lost $5 million, but Australian aid to Africa overall was cut by nearly $200 million. Would a Labor Government restore all of that?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we've already made an announcement that we would increase funding by $30 million a year to the Australian non-government cooperation program, which is the program that Fred Hollows was relying on for that $5 million. $5 million, obviously, makes a huge difference to an organisation like Fred Hollows. They're talking about 200,000 surgeries that they can't do because of this cut and we are determined to restore and increase - indeed, increase funding to the Australian non-government organisations that do such a great job in developing countries.

JONES: It sounds from what you're saying that you aren't committing to restoring the entire $200 million. Much of which was ramped up during a period when a Labor Government was seeking a seat on the UN Security Council. Are people right to be a bit cynical about that?

PLIBERSEK: Well, Tony I think it's impossible to restore in one go the $11 billion, over $11 billion that's been cut from the aid budget. To get to .5 per cent of our gross domestic product in aid funding, as we were on track to do when we were in government, would cost an extra 18 to $21 billion, depending on when we come back into government. It's impossible to do that in one go. The cuts have been so deep from this government that it will take us some time to fully restore the aid budget. But we know that this particular part of the aid budget, which has non-government organisations like Fred Hollows, like CARE Australia, Oxfam, Plan International, doing fantastic work, we get great value for money. We also see Australian citizens being able to donate to those organisations and then the co-funding of the government actually increases the effectiveness of the donations that individuals are making. It's a great way to really see value for money programs delivered across the globe, including in Africa.

JONES: One of the big problems you face is that even when Joe Hockey cut the largest chunk of that $7.6 billion in foreign aid out of his first Budget, opinion polls showed in a very unpopular Budget that was a popular measure. How do you turn around public perception about Australian Aid?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it's interesting, if you ask people how much they think we give in aid, they always overestimate how much Australia's giving in foreign aid. We in fact give a very modest amount. Our target, when we were in government, we almost got there, was .5 per cent of gross national income. We got - we doubled the aid budget when we were in government. We got almost to .5 per cent, but we're now back down at about .22. That means about 22 cents in every hundred dollars. If you asked people what they thought we were giving, you almost always get estimates of maybe 10 times that amount. So it's been popular, I guess, in an environment where people dramatically overestimate what we give. And they dramatically underestimate the value not just to the recipient countries but to Australia itself. If you look at a country, for example, like South Korea, where we were once an aid donor, it's now one of our major trading partners because a little bit of assistance when it was needed has helped build a very impressive economy in South Korea, where we've now got consumers buying Australian goods.

JONES:  Now, when the government cut African aid along with its other big aid cuts, it actually said it was doing that because it was refocusing on the Asia Pacific. Now, that's where you're heading in coming days. Are you going to be offering any guarantees to those Pacific nations about what a Labor Government would do in terms of increasing aid?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I can tell you, they said that they were going to focus on our region but we've seen $110 million cut from our region as well. And I was on a trip with the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop soon after those cuts were announced. Before it was made clear which countries would be hit by the cuts and she assured a number of Pacific leaders on that trip that their budgets, their aid budgets were safe. In fact, that's not been the case. Of course we think that it is important to focus on our region. We have a greater responsibility to people who are in the Pacific because they are near neighbours and because one of the huge challenges they face is the challenge of climate change, and Australians are some of the largest per capita emitters of carbon pollution in the world and our Pacific neighbours are really on the front line of climate change.

JONES: Could I just interrupt you there? On that point, how much damage did Peter Dutton's rather clumsy joke about the impact of global warming on pacific islands do to Australia's reputation?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it's one of the dumbest things I've ever seen an Australian public figure do. And these people are not - they're not worried about what will happen in future because of climate change. They are living it right now. They're seeing storm surges; they're seeing extreme weather events. They are actually making plans in some cases for whole populations to have to move from the countries that they call home, and the insensitivity of Peter Dutton's comment, it's frankly mind blowing and that's how Pacific leaders responded to it; they gave it all the treatment that it deserved.

JONES: Finally, the Amnesty International allegations, are you satisfied the Australian Government did not commit any criminal acts in its sovereign borders operations?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we have supported a Senate inquiry into these allegations. We do think obviously that the Australian Government has questions to answer about the - well, the legality of the actions that they've undertaken. I haven't had the chance to read the full report yet, so I will look forward to doing that, but the reason that we supported a Senate inquiry into suggestions that there had been improper behaviour is to shine a light on exactly what's been done and the legal status of what's been done.

JONES: Tanya Plibersek we’ll have to leave you there, thanks very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Tony.


SUBJECTS: Foreign aid; Amnesty report.