Foreign Aid and Volunteering

I'm holding a foreign aid forum in the Griffin Centre at 12.30pm today (details). In that spirit, here's a column I wrote recently for the local Chronicle newspaper.
Overseas Volunteering Benefits Canberra Too
The Chronicle

Some kids who grow up with parents in the military refer to themselves as ‘army brats’. As a child whose parents worked on AusAID projects, I like to think of myself as an ‘aid brat’. Living in Banda Aceh, in the north of Indonesia, I had the experience of being the only white kid in the class, appreciating the generosity of local villagers, and seeing the indignity of poverty. As your federal MP, they’re memories I regularly draw upon.

On 28 September, I had the chance to farewell the latest crop of Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development on behalf of Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. The AYADs are leaving to work for a year in a developing country. Headed for countries such as East Timor, Cambodia, and the Solomon Islands, they’ll be doing everything from teaching school children to building houses.

Having helped raise living standards abroad, our overseas volunteers will come home to enrich Australia. This tradition goes back to the pioneer of Australia’s international volunteering programs, Herb Feith, who worked in Indonesia in the 1950s. A Jewish refugee from Austria, Herb was the kind of person for whom volunteering was part of a life fully lived. In Indonesia, he rode a bicycle and ate simply.

Returning home, Herb wrote to the Australian Prime Minister and Indonesian President suggesting the establishment of an international volunteering program. In 1952, when the bilateral agreement was signed, Herb was just 22 years old. Later on, he was active in campaigns to abolish the White Australia Policy, and to encourage deeper engagement with Asia. I like to think that Herb is one of the reasons that my eldest son attends a primary school where he will learn Indonesian.

If you’d like to volunteer abroad, check out Whether you’re a tradesperson, an entrepreneur, or fresh out of school, there’s a volunteering opportunity that’s right for you.

When volunteers return, all of us in Canberra benefit from their new skills and ideas. One of the things I love about Canberra is our internationalism. Ours is a city where your local school’s Mandarin teacher may have worked in Shanghai, your local travel doctor may have practiced in Hanoi, and the worker who supports newly arrived refugees may have lived in Rangoon. International volunteering supports the maxim ‘Charity begins at home – but doesn’t end there.’

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.
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The Economics and Politics of Teacher Merit Pay

One of the things that many people don't realise about academic economics is how slowly the research pipeline moves. Since leaving the ANU in July 2010, virtually my only research activity has been to revise a few papers for publication, incorporating referee comments. Yet in 2011, I've had half a dozen papers appear in journals (partial list here), and there will be probably be a few more in 2012.

However, there is one new piece of research I've done, which comes out of a keynote talk I gave for an economics of education conference in Munich, organised by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessman. It gave me the chance to survey the burgeoning literature on the economics and politics of teacher merit pay.

I'll be giving a talk tonight at the Grattan Institute, drawing on the paper. In case you're interested, here's a copy. Feedback most welcome (particularly if it sparks off the content of the paper, rather than just the title).
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What I'm Reading

A few links that have caught my fancy lately.






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Speech to the Australian Orangutan Project

I spoke last night to the fundraising dinner of the Australian Orangutan Project.
Australian Orangutan Project ACT Annual Dinner
11 November 2011

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet tonight. I'd also like to recognise the real expert here tonight: primatologist Colin Groves. Thank you to Therese Lewis for the invitation to address this group.

It’s quite well known that great apes have an impressively sophisticated system of language.

Chimps, gorillas, and of course orangutans are all capable of communicating complex ideas to one another, and often to humans, through vocalisations and through body language.

For example, a gentle tap on another’s hand is a direction to stop. An invitation to play is expressed by a gentle bite, a somersault, a tug or the hair, or a raspberry.

Indeed, some of this behaviour doesn’t sound so different to Question Time.

When I received the very kind invitation from the Australian Orangutan Project to speak tonight, I thought I should read some more about the wonderful animals your organisation is working tirelessly to protect.

In doing so, I learnt that it’s not just ‘talking’ which makes orang-utans so special and so relatable.

Research findings don't just reveal how apes communicate  -  they also shed light on the origins of human speech millions of years ago.

It has been found that orangutans respond to being tickled with soft squeals – leading some researchers too suggest that this behaviour may be the ‘evolutionary root of human laughter’.

In Malay, orang means "person" and utan is derived from hutan, which means "forest”, so orangutan literally means "person of the forest”

We share a massive 97 per cent of our DNA with great apes.  Orangutans are highly intelligent and are able to reason through problems and use basic tools.

Orangutans have been observed making simple tools to scratch themselves. They also use leafy branches to shelter themselves from rain and sun, and sometimes even drape large leaves over themselves like a poncho.

They have also been observed using branches as tools during insect foraging, honey collection, and protection against stinging insects, and to “fish” for branches or fruit that is out of reach.

In Sumatra wild orangutans use tools to extract seeds from a hard shelled species of fruit. In captivity an orangutan was taught to chip a stone handaxe.

Orangutans can live for over 60 years, and that a baby orang-utan with spend at least the first 6  years of its life clinging to its mother while she searches for food – a challenge the parents here tonight may be able to sympathise with.

Such prolonged association between mother and offspring is rare among mammals. Probably only humans have a more intensive relationship with their mothers. Primatologists believe that orangutans have such long “childhoods” because there is so much that they need to learn before they can live alone successfully.

Young orangutans learn almost everything from their mothers, including: where to find food, what to eat and how to eat it (sometimes this involves using special tools), and how to build a proper sleeping nest. Also, mothers probably protect young orangutans from predators such as clouded leopards and pythons in Borneo, and tigers in Sumatra.

Reserachers from the University of St Andrews have found that orang-utans in were able to learn to exchange tokens to food, grasping the basic concept of trade. Two orangutans - Bim and Dok - who live in Leipzig Zoo, Germany, were especially good at helping each other.

Initially, they were given several sets of tokens, and learned the value of the different types.

An animal could exchange one type for bananas for itself, another type could be used to gain bananas for a partner, and a third had no value.

Initially, Dok, the female, was especially good at swapping tokens to get bananas for Bim, the male. Sometimes Bim would point at the tokens to encourage her.

But he was less interested in trading tokens that would win bananas for her. As she became less willing to help him out, Bim responded by trading more and more, until their efforts were more or less equal.

Apparently, this research marks the first evidence of "calculated reciprocity" in non-human primates.

But it seems the most amazing characteristics are apparent when orang-utans are living in their natural environments. Earlier this year, a team of anthropologists in the UK found that orangutans have the ability to learn socially, and to  and pass lessons down through generations — evidence that culture in humans and great apes has the same evolutionary roots.

We know that, with humans, certain behavioural innovations tend to get passed down from generation to generation through generation. This trans-generational teaching and learning is the basis for the cultural development of a society, and it used to be considered one of the key factors that differentiates us from other animals.

About a decade ago, however, biologists observing great apes started noticing variations in behaviour based on geographical differences. This suggests that the apes were passing down certain innovations, just as humans do, creating distinct sub-cultures within ape communities.

In parts of Borneo, for example, orangutans use handfuls of leaves as napkins to wipe their chins, while orangutans in parts of Sumatra use leaves as gloves, helping them handle spiny fruits and branches, or as seat cushions in spiny trees.

Traveling around the forest and obtaining food is the main activity that orang utans engage in during the daytime. Some time ago it was suggested that they memorise knowledge of their habitats – and use this knowledge for travel, like a map.

They travel by swinging and often use the back-and-forth oscillation of the tree until they can catch another tree.

Deciding and following a potential route through a multitude of trees is a very difficult task. This is especially true for males who are quite heavy – the choice of a wrong tree would result in a fall and serious injury.

So to be successful in their travels they need to take the right decisions about which trees to use and which ones to avoid, pointing to a clear ability to plan ahead.

Yet disturbingly, there are fewer than 50 000 Bornean orangutans left in the wild today, and less than 7000 Sumatran orangutans.

Felling of forests for crop development, as well as degradation stemming from fire and drought, means that the habitat of the orangutans is rapidly diminishing. Left unchecked, extinction in the wild is likely in the next 10 years for Sumatran Orangutans, and not longer after for Bornean Orangutans.

The Australian Government currently funds  programs addressing deforestation in South-East Asia, and assists developing countries with sustainable agriculture techniques.

It’s heartening to know that organisations such as the Australian Orangutan Project are doing so much for this worthy cause, though supporting orangutan conservation, rainforest protection and reintroduction of orphans in order to save the species from extinction.

The work of the Australian Orangutan Project also has a great many flow-on effects that both protect other Critically Endangered Species, like Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinos, while working with the as indigenous communities in the remaining rainforest in Borneo and Sumatra.

So I’d like to thank the Australian Orangutan Project for inviting me tonight – you’ve brought a fascinating creature to my attention, and you’ve alerted me to the real challenges that they face. Congratulations on your achievements to date and I wish you the very best with your continuing conservation efforts – your hard work and passion for this cause is inspiring.


  • “Orangutan culture develops like human culture” - Wired UK: Olivia Solon: 24 October 2011

  • “The ape dictionary: How our cousins use 40 gestures to communicate” - Daily Mail: David Derbyshire: 18th June 2010

  • “Orangutans most energy efficient primate” - ABC Science – Discovery News: 3 August 2010: Jennifer Viegas

  • “Human Laughter Echoes Chimp Chuckles” - Wired News: Lizzie Buchen : 6 June 2009

  • “Orangutans learn to trade favours” - BBC News Science: 24 December 2008





Thanks to Claire Daly for her assistance preparing the speech.
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Jolly Good Fellows

The 'new fellows' induction into the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia on Tuesday was a fascinating affair, conducted in the Harry Potter-esque surroundings of ANU's Great Hall. I particularly enjoyed the chance to re-connect with my former politics teacher Lisa Hill, who works on compulsory voting and Adam Smith.

And in an interesting coincidence, it turns out that because ASSA was formed in 1971, I'm the only current fellow who's younger than the Academy. (A fact that's sure to be overturned soon, but I'll enjoy it while it lasts.)
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Moving closer to equal pay

The Prime Minister announced today that the Government will provide $2 billion to deliver a pay rise to the social and community service sector. It's worth having a look at Julia Gillard's excellent speech announcing the equal pay commitment.


Federal Labor representatives for the ACT, Senator Kate Lundy, Gai Brodtmann and Dr Andrew Leigh, today welcomed the announcement that more than 3,000 ACT workers in the social and community sector are a step closer to achieving equal pay after the Gillard Government announced it will provide $2 billion to deliver an historic pay rise to workers in the sector.

“These workers, many of them women, are in critical jobs caring for people with disabilities, counselling families in crisis, running homeless shelters and working with victims of domestic or sexual assault,” Ms Brodtmann said.

“They make a difference every day and deserve to be properly rewarded for their efforts.

“This historic commitment from the Government will help 150,000 Australians, including 120,000 women, achieve the equal pay they deserve.”

The Gillard Government will submit a joint proposal with the Australian Services Union to Fair Work Australia which, if accepted, will help close the pay gap between men and women and fund the Government’s fair share of wage increases for workers in the social and community services sector.

Nearly two thirds of community sector workers have post-school qualification, compared to just over half of workers in other industries, yet the average full time wage is just over $46,000 per year, compared to the average wage of $58,000.

Senator Lundy said the Government’s announcement will help deliver an historic pay rise to workers in the community sector, including more than 3000 people in the Australian Capital Territory.

“Workers in the industry have long been undervalued because their work has traditionally been seen as being associated exclusively with women,” Senator Lundy said.

“In 2011, it is unacceptable that women in full-time work earn on average one fifth less than men. This means that over the course of a calendar year women work nearly seven weeks for free.

“The Gillard Government is committed to achieving a fair outcome for workers in this sector whose work has long been undervalued.”

Dr Andrew Leigh said workers in organisations like Canberra Rape Crisis Centre will benefit from the Government’s proposal.

“Community service workers such as those at Canberra Rape Crisis Centre are delivering critical services to vulnerable Australians who need it most,” Dr Leigh said.

“If the Government’s submission is supported by FWA it will not just mean fair pay, it will mean tens of thousands of working people and their families will take home a bigger pay packet at the end of the day.”

Executive Officer of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Chrystina Stanford welcomed today’s announcement.

“The Canberra Rape Crisis Centre is overjoyed at the historic announcement today regarding equal pay,” Ms Stanford said.

“The women’s services sector has given so much to the community, and been the advocates for so many vulnerable groups in our community, yet up until today have worked tirelessly in poorly paid positions, meaning that a good quality of life has never been able to be attained,” Ms Stanford said.
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One person can...

Margaret Hender has asked me to publicise the 'One Person Can...' project. Details below
I'm emailing you to ask you to take a look at the website of the "One Person Can..." project, and to consider if you might find this project useful for encouraging householders in your electorate to take climate-friendly actions. It is a nation-wide project that is not affiliated with any political party or environment group. You can see the website at

The main aim of this project is giving a high degree of visibility to the various climate-friendly actions many householders are already taking. My premise is that many people feel rather helpless in relation to climate change, especially if they don't see the other people around them doing anything much to reduce carbon emissions. In practice, I think many householders are taking at least some steps to reduce their emissions. Perhaps they carefully switch off unnecessary lights or buy Green Power, for example, but these actions are not visible to other householders.

The core of the One Person Can website is a survey of 40 fairly common safe-climate actions. The survey results are sorted by state, by federal and state electorates, and by LGAs, with separate graphs showing the results for each area. For this project to have maximum effect, ideally every Australian household would be invited to take the survey and, perhaps more importantly, every household would get to see their local result graphed.
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Foreign Aid Forum

One of my passions in politics is getting foreign aid right. It's an exciting time to be thinking about our overseas development assistance, with the government ramping up our aid contribution to 0.5% of GNI, and Australia having recently made major contributions to vaccinations through Gavi and the recent announcement of $50 million to eliminate polio.

To talk through some of these issues, I'm holding a foreign aid forum in Civic next Tuesday lunchtime. I hope you can make it.

Details, details...
Fraser Foreign Aid Forum
Tuesday 15 November
Griffin Centre, Genge St
Canberra City

Please RSVP to {AT} or 6247 4396.
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MRRT Hearings

We had some rather spirited exchanges in this morning's economics committee hearings over the Minerals Resource Rent Tax.

For anyone interested in the details, here's Treasury's critique of the analysis conducted by BDO accountants for Fortescue, including discussion of its mathematical error.

Incidentally, BDO and Horwath (who did the costings for the Opposition's 2010 election campaign) are a merged firm.
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Climate Change Passes

(Cross-posted at the ALP blog - please leave any comments there.)

In December 2009, Christina Ora, a young person from the Solomon Islands stood up in front of the world at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and said:

‘I am 17 years old. For my entire life, countries have been negotiating a climate agreement. My future is in front of me. In the year that I was born, amid an atmosphere of hope, the world formed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to solve the climate crisis.’

The Australian government has been debating acting on carbon pollution since Graham Richardson brought a submission to Bob Hawke’s cabinet in 1989 to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. We have had 35 parliamentary reviews into climate change.

Today, Australia has finally put a price on carbon pollution. Because we emit more carbon pollution per person than any other nation in the world, we benefit from acting on climate change, and joining the many other countries that are using market-based mechanisms to tackle climate change.

By contrast, the Opposition reject market-based mechanisms. When you reject the market based mechanism you do not tap the ingenuity of the market. You lock yourself into an inflexible system. We should never forget that a price on carbon pollution is not just a disincentive to polluters but also an incentive to investors and entrepreneurs looking to invest in renewables.

A price on carbon pollution as an economic reform that sets our nation up for the challenges of the future. It is the stuff of which Labor governments are made. Labor governments brought down the tariff walls in Australia, Labor governments floated the dollar, Labor governments put in place Medicare and Labor governments implemented universal superannuation. For each of these reforms it has taken a Labor government to harness the prosperity of the future. None of these reforms were uncontroversial at the time of their enactment but all of them have increased our nation’s prosperity. So it will be with putting a price on carbon pollution.
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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.