Australia needs to step up on world stage - Speech, House of Representatives


This bill enjoys bipartisan support. It involves providing replenishment funds to six multilateral development organisations. But it comes at a time when aid has been savagely cut to the lowest level since records began. Since the government came to office in 2013, it has cut nearly $12 billion from Australia's aid program. That means aid as a share of national income is lower now than it was under Liberal prime ministers Menzies, Holt, Gordon, McMahon, Fraser and Howard. Those governments recognised the importance of overseas aid, not just in alleviating poverty but also in building trade in our region, and also in ensuring that our region is safer.

We used to be a donor that sat in about the middle of the OECD pack, but our generosity has now fallen to the point where we are one of the least generous countries in the OECD. Direct aid to Pakistan has been halved from $39 to $19 million. Aid to Cambodia has dropped from $56 million to $43 million. As former World Vision chief Tim Costello has said, the diversion of aid from countries like Pakistan to fund the 'Pacific step-up' has meant that Australia's international interests are jeopardised. As he said:

Aid is soft power and even defence and security people in Australia are starting to speak up and say we've cut aid too much.

Aid is now at the lowest level that it has ever been in Australia's history, according to records we have going back. This is a direct threat to Australia's national interest.

In real terms, the coalition has cut aid in every one of its budgets since coming to office. In nominal terms, aid was $5 billion and going upwards when Labor left office. Now it's $4 billion and going downwards as a share of national income. This is a travesty. It impacts on Australia's ability to do good in the world. It impacts on Australia's ability to ensure that our values are propagated. When we cut aid to some of the most vulnerable countries, we leave them exposed to the challenges of child malnutrition, infectious diseases and climate change. We leave them exposed to significant risks from violent extremism. Australian aid saves lives. When we cut the aid budget, people lose their lives. It's as simple as that. Tim Costello has estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives as a result of Australia's aid cuts. As a child, I lived in Indonesia for three years and in Malaysia for a year. I've seen firsthand the impact that Australian aid had in those communities. My predecessor, Bob McMullan, said that the most rewarding thing that he did during his two decades in politics was to serve as parliamentary secretary under the Rudd government and oversee the disability-inclusive development program in Indonesia.

There are now thousands of Indonesian schools that are wheelchair accessible as a result of Australia's aid programs. Where a child in a wheelchair might not otherwise have been able to attend school, they now do so as a result of Australia's aid program.

The strong number of Labor members in the House right now is, I believe, a testimony to the strong support for aid on this side of the House—the pride that Labor has in the aid program, reflected by the willingness of Labor members to be here and speak and recognise the importance of aid. You can see this in the speaking list. The coalition ran out after a speaker or two, but Labor speakers are committed to being here, to speaking about the importance of aid. We understand that foreign aid is vital to Australia's values in the community.

Australian aid needs to ensure that we do in the world what we are best at—not just helping out countries in our region but also working in areas such as Mining for Development. I recognise the Gillard government's establishment of the Mining for Development program, putting in place Australia's expertise in ensuring that the resource curse is turned into a resource blessing. There is also dryland farming, where Australia has a role in providing assistance not just to countries in our region but also to countries in Africa, ensuring that their farmers learn from the way Australia has managed to boost our agricultural sector in regions like the wheat belt in Western Australia. Those learnings from mining and agriculture can be powerfully conveyed to other countries, ensuring that their prosperity grows, that those countries provide greater prosperity to their citizens, ensuring that they're able to bring people out of poverty.

Australian aid has also been characterised by our success in fragile states. Australia has been successful in the Solomons, where the intervention managed to stabilise a vulnerable country. Our intervention in East Timor marks the best of post-crisis policing and stands in significant contrast to other interventions, in parts of the Middle East. There's much that can be taken from our work in fragile states—much that we can do to help stabilise in a post-crisis environment. Australia does this well. Australia's ability to use a ready smile and gentle community policing has helped to save lives in these vulnerable fragile states.

So we ought to look, in our aid program, not just to our region—and of course we support the Pacific Step-up, but we also need to look to our expertise in mining, in dryland farming and in fragile states. And the Pacific Step-up cannot work without a commitment to climate change. When people like the Minister for Home Affairs are making jokes about water lapping around ankles in Pacific atolls, it is impossible for Australia to operate with sufficient credibility in the Pacific region. So long as emissions are rising in Australia and there is no commitment to tackling climate change, Australia cannot fully engage with the Pacific. For the Pacific, climate change isn't someone else's issue; it is a genuine existential threat. As long as Australia fails to act on climate change, as long as we're a country that is unable to cut emissions, as long as we're a country that oversees rising emissions, our engagement with the Pacific will always be second best.

Australia needs a stronger aid program. We need to engage with the region through providing the assistance to our region that befits a country of our standing. So often we hear from those opposite the notion that Australia ought to simply step back, that we can't do anything to solve the world's problems. As Ross Garnaut once put it, it's the philosophy that Australia is 'a pissant country', that Australia cannot play a role in tackling world poverty, climate change and natural disasters.

But Australia is not a pissant country.

Australia sits comfortably within the G20. We were, at one time, the 12th largest economy in the world. We've now slipped a number of places under the coalition; growth has slipped under their watch. But we are still a country that can play a significant role in climate change, in poverty alleviation and in dealing with instability in the world. It was under Labor that Australia took a seat on the United Nations Security Council. It was under Labor that Australia saw the G20 become the pre-eminent body to respond to the global financial crisis. And it was under Labor that that we secured the G20 meetings in Brisbane. Labor recognises that Australia has a powerful role to play on the world stage, and at this time in history it is so disappointing to see the coalition taking a little-Australia approach, seeing Australia having no role to tackle these huge challenges.

Manning Clark spoke about two groups in Australian public life: the enlargers and the straiteners. We've seen the straiteners take over under the coalition. The Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have been governments of the straiteners—governments who are unable to see Australia's proud role in the past, unable to recognise that global engagement hasn't just been a story of Evatt and Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, Rudd and Gillard, proud as those records have been. They have failed to recognise that it was Robert Menzies who ensured that Australia's aid program to Indonesia involved a volunteers program, set up by people like Jamie Mackie and Herb Feith, which saw Australia use our soft power in the region. They've failed to recognise that there is a coalition legacy of overseas development assistance—a coalition legacy that recognises the value of providing aid to countries that need it, a coalition legacy that recognises that Australia is at our best when we have inclusive values domestically and when we assist others in the world.

There is a lack of vision from the coalition at a time when the world is looking for global leadership. How much more could Australia be doing at a time when the United States is distracted by internal political conflict, impeachment hearings into the President, and a President who takes a more restrictive view of America's role abroad? How much more could Australia be doing at a time when Britain is distracted by Brexit and there is an opportunity for Australia to step up on the world stage—not just a Pacific step-up, but a global step-up? That would require Australia to have a serious aid program. It would require Australia to have an overseas development assistance program which befits the size of our nation, which befits the notion of Australia as a proud country with much to do on the global stage.

The role that Australian aid has had in the Asia-Pacific region has changed lives. I still have friendships with my Indonesian schoolmates, which were forged in part because of my parents working on overseas aid programs and recognising the value of dealing with crises in Indonesia. In the wake of the tsunami that hit Indonesia some years ago, my father worked in rebuilding programs in Aceh at a time when Australia's aid program played a significant role. Yes, we should be there for disaster alleviation, but we should also be there for institution-building; we should also be there for providing vaccinations and building schools. As the coalition has pulled these resources out, Australia has failed to do our bit in alleviating global poverty, as with climate change, as with dealing with violent extremism. We can't solve the problem alone, but we are a significant middle power, and we can act in concert with other middle powers in order to help achieve a positive result.

Labor has a history of doing this, in establishing the APEC leaders meetings. We did this through putting in place the Cairns Group of agricultural free-trading nations that helped bring a successful close to the last world trade agreement. It has been a long time between world trade agreements and a long time since we had an Australian government that was willing to act on multilateralism. Instead, we have a coalition government committed only to bilateral deals—sometimes deals that produce positive results, and we'll support them when they are there.

But the big gains from trade come from multilateral trade liberalisation. That's where we get poverty alleviation. That's where we get the massive benefits to communities. Aid and trade, working together, can bring millions out of poverty. But, under the coalition, Australia's stepped back from that key role on the world stage. We've stepped back from our historic mission to make a safer world—a world in which trade is able to save lives and a world in which aid is able to save lives.

I conclude where I started: we welcome this bill, but there is much more to be done, and much more that could be done, if we had a government committed to reducing poverty in our region.


Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.