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Second reading speech: Overseas Aid (Millenium Development Goals) Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 26 Jun 2013

As the Greens spokesperson for international aid and development I am proud to introduce this Greens bill into the Senate to ensure that Australia pays its fair share towards alleviating global poverty.

Good aid, spent well has helped reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty by 200 million over the last 5 years. But there are still 1.2 billion people living on less than the equivalent of $2 per day. As a rich and caring country Australia has a moral duty to help bring that number of people down to zero.

The Overseas Aid (Millennium Development Goals) Bill will enshrine that moral duty into law by requiring the Australian Government to meet the aid targets it has already signed up to. It will improve the quality and effectiveness of Australian aid so that the Australian community can be assured that aid money is spent on ending poverty overseas and not to fill domestic budget gaps. It also establishes an independent aid watchdog to hold the Government to account for its aid spending decisions.

It is unfortunate that we can no longer take the major parties at their word when it comes to their commitment to international aid. At the 2010 federal election both Labor and the Coalition stood on election platforms promising to increase aid to 0.5% of Australia's gross national income by 2015-16.  As recently as November 2011 both Labor and the Coalition voted in support of a Greens motion in the Senate reaffirming this commitment.

Yet at the May 2012 budget the Labor Government postponed the 0.5% deadline for a year and in response the Coalition dropped its commitment to a timetable altogether. This was followed by the December 2012 decision to divert $375 million out of the overseas aid program to pay for onshore immigration detention - a gross misuse of aid money that flies in the face of the Government's own aid spending guidelines which it set out just one year ago.

In May the Labor Government postponed the deadline for a further year, which means its 0.5% target now won't be reached until 2017-18.

These are not just broken promises to the Australian voters. These are promises that Australia made to the international community, the United Nations, and to women, men and children, who are forced to do what they can to survive each day on less than the price of a cup of coffee.

And they come with a financial cost. The May 2013 budget cut real aid spending by $2.9 billion over the next 4 years, compared to what was promised just one year previously. That includes $1.9 billion cut by postponing the 0.5% target to 2017-18 and $1 billion diverted to onshore immigration detention.  That diversion has now been made a permanent feature of Labor's aid budget.

Just think about what $2.9 billion could do for people living in poverty and how much of a difference it could make.

The Government's 2011-2012 Annual Review of Aid Effectiveness found that Australian aid spending in that year had paid for life-saving assistance for more than 16 million people caught in disasters, clean water for 2.5 million people, immunisations for more than 2 million children, better sanitation for 1.6 million people, schools for more than 1 million children, and skilled birth attendants to deliver the babies of 230,000 women.  Thanks to the efforts of the End of Polio campaign, Australian aid is helping to eradicate polio once and for all.

The case for increasing foreign aid is clear: aid money, spent effectively, can make a difference to people's lives. With a bigger program we can help more people and put an end to scourge of extreme poverty within a generation.

Some will argue that the United Nations target to spend 0.7% of Australia's gross national income on foreign aid is unaffordable. I argue that it is easily affordable for a country such as Australia which has largely weathered the global financial crisis, has not suffered a recession for more than two decades and which is ranked second in the UN's Human Development Index, which compares global living standards.

Far poorer countries than Australia already give more in foreign aid than we do. Australia is currently ranked 12th out of 24 donor nations - we spend only 0.37% of GDP on foreign aid.

This puts us behind the UK, France and Ireland who have all recently experienced recession and are struggling economically. Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have all been meeting the 0.7% target for many years. This year the UK joined them for the first time - the culmination of a 44-year community-driven campaign.

It is disappointing that Australia lags well behind the Millennium Development Goal target which asked countries to devote 0.7% of GNI to overseas aid by 2015. The Greens would much prefer to see Australia joining other countries to meet this 0.7% target by 2015, but ongoing cuts and set-backs to the aid budget mean that our government is far from reaching this target. What the Australian Greens want to do with the bill is put forward a responsible and realistic timeline for up-scaling aid, year by year, that we think Labor and Coalition MPs will be able to support. A timeline the government of the day cannot justify shying away from.

The Greens bill ascribes a legally-binding timetable for Australia to reclaim our place in the world as a progressive nation that seeks to give everyone a fair go. It sets out annual minimum targets for aid spending that would ensure the Government reaches the UN target of 0.7% of gross national income to be spent on foreign aid by 2020-21.

However, it is not just the amount of money that is important but how it is spent and what it is spent on.

The Australian community rightly expect that foreign aid should be spent on alleviating poverty overseas. Australian Governments past and present have agreed to this by signing up to the Millennium Development Goals which set eight objectives for the world: to halve extreme poverty and hunger, to achieve universal education, to promote gender equality, to reduce child mortality, to improve maternal health, to combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases, to ensure environmental sustainability, and to build a global partnership for development.

These goals should be the key drivers of the Australian aid program, not promoting our national political and commercial interests. 

I have already mentioned the fact that onshore immigration detention will rob the aid budget of $1 billion over the next 4 years. The government has also been accused of double-counting our climate aid. That is, reporting the same pool of climate aid as a contribution to both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) financing and as ODA, which contravenes UN requirements that climate finance be additional to ODA. The Australian government has also come under heavy criticism for so-called military aid, where ODA is channelled through the Australian Defence Forces with the purpose of winning hearts and minds in conflicts such as Afghanistan, rather than putting in place sustainable and appropriate projects developed in partnership with local communities to alleviate poverty.

The Bill sets up a new category of excluded official development assistance to ensure that such expenditure that does not serve to alleviate poverty is not counted towards the annual aid targets, including the 0.7 per cent by 2020-21 target.  Excluded official development assistance is defined in the bill as money provided by the Australian Government for climate finance, asylum seeker assistance in Australia or in another country that is a regional processing country under the Migration Act, or military assistance.

In addition to this legal protection, the Bill creates an independent aid watchdog - the Independent Commissioner on Aid Effectiveness - to police aid spending and ensure that the Government is adhering to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the law. It is essential that Australia's aid program is transparent and accountable to the Australian government and to recipient communities. In 2006 AusAID established an Office of Development Effectiveness but this office has been a disappointment. Sitting within AusAID, it is less able to offer a robust unbiased critique of AusAID programs and it does not report directly to parliament. It is lacking teeth compared to Britain's Independent Commission on Aid Impact.

The Independent Commissioner on Aid Effectiveness, as defined in this bill, would sit at arm's length from AusAID and act as an independent watchdog to ensure Australia's aid is spent effectively to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The Commissioner would be independent of AusAID.  It would report to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and its reports would be tabled in parliament.

The Independent Commissioner's role is essential to reassure the Australian community that aid money is being spent effectively to end poverty in developing countries.  The bill is essential to make sure that we stick to our commitments on aid spending.

Many people have written to me in support of this bill and a push for Australian to give its fair share in aid. I would like to share some of their concerns.

Mark from Epping in NSW asked how can we say we are a caring country when we spend so much money on ourselves and our military and mining but not support the many countries and communities who are much worse off than us and struggling to survive?

Andy from Corinda in Queensland said that giving aid to those that need is not something we can just stop whenever it's inconvenient, it's a policy we need to continually enforce to develop our world and strive for equal opportunities everywhere.

Pip from Hurstville in Sydney summed up many people's feelings about the revelations that aid spending was being used for offshore detention centres.  She wrote:

"I was shocked and disgusted when I found out that our 'overseas aid' budget is being diverted to keeping refugees in truly inhumane conditions in our offshore detention centres. Who needs these funds most? It's not big business or even middle-class families. It's the world's poorest and most vulnerable who will benefit the most from our assistance. Australia may pride itself as being the 'lucky country', but if we're too selfish to commit our wealth to ending extreme poverty and hunger, I don't think we've got a lot to be proud of."

When considering this bill I ask all Senators and Members to consider that we live in a region with some of the highest rates of poverty and child malnutrition in the world.

This sentiment from Elizabeth in South Australia captured simply the humanity and generosity that inspired me to introduce this Greens bill following the announcement in 2012 that Labor and the Coalition would walk away from a bipartisan commitment to increase overseas aid to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015, effectively a cut to the aid budget. She said:

"When we in Australia are so much wealthier than most other nations, the least we can do is maintain, if not increase, our overseas aid."

I would like to take this opportunity to table below some more of the hundreds of messages of support I have received from many caring Australians which illustrate the depth of public support for a generous overseas aid program.  I will table more supporting comments in further speeches as debate on the bill continues.

Edward from the Tweed said: "Australia has been blessed with all the good things on earth that we, as humans, need: clean air, water, sunshine, space and grace. Most of our citizens would applaud any party that was seen to share our good luck with the millions around the world who do not.

Signe from Liverpool in Sydney said:  "Great initiative.  Aid saves lives and having a dedicated office to examine and confirm aid is reaching those most in need is a positive step that we as one of the richest nations on earth should and can provide."

Ben from Adelaide said:  "Having an effective aid program with Australians out there working alongside people in host countries sounds like a much better strategy for peace and international goodwill than our current overseas military campaigns.  Right now only the insiders see any worth in what we are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Let us put that destructive and wasteful money into activities of strategic and sustainable development."

Taegan from Sydney said: "We are wealthy. Others are not. Increase overseas aid."

Joy from Morphett Vale said:  "We need to commit to ending extreme poverty and hunger."

Denise from Far North Queensland said:  "Aid should not end up in the pockets of western corporations or oppressive regimes, but in programs that actually help the poor in tangible ways."

Sarah from Perth said:  "Thanks for your work on Australia's aid obligations - both moral and legal!"

Heather from South Australia said:  "Australia could aim to bring the best maternity services to all of those countries where having and rearing children means risking women's lives."

Fiona from Perth said:  "I definitely support an independent office to ensure that Australian aid goes to those who need it and to ensure that it is not frittered away on administration or sidelined by grasping governments here or in other countries.

Joan from Westlakes in South Australia said:  "Australia should be a leader in Overseas Aid so we can stand up and be proud."

Willy from near Brisbane said:  "Thanks for standing up for our overseas aid budget when the major parties fail the compassion test."

Janet from Adelaide said: "Overseas aid is vital to the existence of people from poorer countries.  Wake up Australia."

Gosta from the ACT said:  "I have been involved with Plan International for 45 years and visited projects in Ecuador, Colombia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Burkina Faso.  Every visit has made me convinced that our aid gives children a chance to grow up healthier, better educated and with a more positive outlook towards the world and its future; this is very worthwhile. That Australia is far from filling the UN goal of 0.7 per cent of its budget makes me quite sad."

Bob from the Sunshine Coat said:  "Australia needs a strong commitment to the Pacific Island neighbours."

Ted from Adelaide said: "The 0.7 per cent target has been talked about for a long time.  It is disappointing that growth in our overseas aid is not really seeking to meet this target.   It is time to review this situation - especially as the government is so proud that our economy is doing so well."

Siobhan in Melbourne said:  "I would much prefer that CEO's and parliamentarians perks were capped than stop aid to poor countries."

Richard from Evans Head in northern NSW said: "I support your goal for Australian Aid.  Overseas aid is critical to our future as a nation and is a moral imperative for a rich country like ours."

Craig in Blackwood near Adelaide said:  "Cut fuel subsidies to mining companies. Increase the tax on superannuation for the wealthiest. Just don't disadvantage those who are already the most vulnerable and needy. There are, literally, lives at stake."

Patricia from the Sunshine Coast said:  "Increasing overseas aid in a transparent way, improves global equity and may address some of the pressures which force people to become refugees."

Elizabeth from Sydney said:  "Will we show our true strength of character and maturity as a nation and help those with less? Those without clean water and without food, and those who are living in tragic conditions of war or disease? Or will we be immature and keep everything for ourselves, without concern for the plight of our fellow humans?  The choice is ours, and the world will remember Australia and Australians by the choice we make."

Jim from Henley Beach near Adelaide said: "Our two major political parties find easy targets to reduce funding when they try to win points off each other."

Claire from Melbourne said:  "Climate change exacerbates existing problems such as poverty, lack of food security and political instability.  Australia has a moral and ethical obligation to provide aid to countries with some of the most vulnerable people in the world."

Anna from Toowoomba said:  "We are blessed to live in Australia, often simply through the luck of being born here.  The wealth we have should be shared and is not ours alone."

Piers from Falls Creek said: "Despite the rhetoric from politicians, I consider Australia is well able to sustain this level of Aid. The UK has just lifted its Aid level to 0.7%.  Australia is far better off than UK."

Mark from near Adelaide said: "I support increasing Australian government aid to overseas countries to help alleviate the suffering of millions of people who lack good food, water, housing, education, health, working conditions and other things that we Australian take for granted."

Lynn from Perth said: "Cutting foreign aid reflects poorly on our maturity as a nation. Using part of the foreign aid budget to fund our approach to the management of asylum seekers is reprehensible.  I call on the Australian Government to increase the foreign aid budget, not reduce it. This cause should be beyond party politics."

Sue from near Adelaide said: "Australian people want an end to world poverty.  We don't want to be a nation that turns its back on suffering whether it's human suffering through hunger, or animal suffering.  We want a compassionate nation, and are willing to forgo some of our own "frills" to bring about more justice. This is why I would welcome an independent Office of Aid Effectiveness."

Anna from St Kilda said:  "Cut Australia's aid budget and you undermine the good work that has been done to date. Cut foreign aid and you forfeit our international humanitarian obligations. Cut foreign aid and you send a message to the world that Australia's priorities lack humanity. Cut foreign aid and you dismantle the concept of a sustainable global community."

And finally a comment from Mark, north of Perth, who was excited by the opportunity to have his voice heard in Parliament and hoped there were enough politicians of any persuasion to support the Greens bill. He said:  "Why should we increase Australian Aid and make it more effective?  Because the Australian government, on behalf of the people of Australia, committed to the Millennium Development Goals.  Because keeping promises is an important value, not just for Australia but for the millions of people affected by extreme poverty around the world.  Because Australia should lead by example.  We have the means more than any other country right now.  If we act to reduce overseas aid in times of great prosperity, we have failed to set an example.  Because extreme poverty is the kind of poverty that is human misery, starvation, hopelessness, drought, disease and is inescapable.  Because overseas aid is part of a solution that empowers people in extreme  poverty to help themselves.  Because we are human, because we care and know in our hearts that extreme poverty is an unnatural state of existence and it is wrong."

I commend this bill to the Senate.

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