House debates

Thursday, 12 February 2015


International Development Assistance

10:42 am

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak about my recent visit to Cambodia as part of a joint Australia-United States delegation organised by CARE US and CARE Australia. It was to see, first-hand, the meaningful impact Australian foreign-aid programs are having on the lives of Cambodians. Today, however, I find myself unable to talk about the great things our aid funding is achieving in Cambodia without lamenting the extraordinary and astonishing cuts this government has made to our foreign aid budget.

Under the former Labor government, expenditure in both dollar amounts and as a percentage of gross national income continued to grow. Under this government, Australia will spend a measly 22c in every $100 of our gross national income on foreign aid. This is the lowest proportion since the Whitlam government. I cannot help but agree with World Vision chief Tim Costello, who has branded these aid cuts as 'immoral'. I agree with him that they do not reflect our values as a nation.

I have now seen first-hand the emancipating effect our foreign aid has as well as the desperate need to do more in this area. Our foreign aid is helping millions of the world's poor to actively create better lives for themselves and their families through education, micro-loans, disease prevention and many other innovative programs.

I was particularly pleased to see the impact Australian aid has on the lives of women and children in these countries. I saw firsthand in Cambodia that women and children are much more likely to be in need of the programs our foreign aid money funds. My visit had a particular emphasis on programs that aim to promote equal opportunities for all children, which means supporting and promoting young women and girls, particularly in the areas of maternal child health and violence against women.

The emphasis on female participation in society is one of the most important factors in international development. It is generally acknowledged that the easiest way to lift the metaphorical flaw in developing societies is to promote the empowerment of women in these communities. In Cambodia, our aid money goes to empowering women through educational and financial literacy programs. They are also being educated about sexual, reproductive and maternal health as well as HIV-AIDS prevention. Giving women financial liberation and control over their productive systems is essential to female empowerment and a society's prosperity.

Foreign aid helps in other areas too. Thanks to Australia's foreign aid money, polio has been wiped out from the Pacific. Over 1.5 million children have been immunised against polio and measles in Papua New Guinea alone. We should be clear: Australian aid works. However, this government has cut the foreign aid budget by over $11 billion, which is equivalent to 30 per cent of the previous budget. A cut of this magnitude has crippling effects. It would have crippling effects on any department's ability to provide services. The government's $11 billion cut to foreign aid could mean that 1.4 million children could be born without a birth attendant; 2.2 million children may not get to enrol in a school; 3.7 children may not be vaccinated; 4.7 million people may not get access to safe drinking water; and 21.9 million people in emergency situations could go unassisted.

Last night, the Minister for Foreign Affairs released a report into the assessment of Australia's foreign aid entitled Performance of Australian Aid, 2013-14 and asserted:

I have set an ambitious target of 80 per cent of programs to effectively address gender equality issues and have strengthened the criteria for gender assessments. A new strategy to combat challenges in this area will be implemented this year to achieve this outcome.

Throughout the report, however, there is no mention of the number of girls who will no longer be able to receive an education as a result of this government's cut to the foreign aid budget. Similarly, there is no mention of the number of young girls who will go without vaccines. Women and young girls will undoubtedly be the biggest losers when it comes to this government's foreign aid cuts. It is one thing to put out a shiny new pamphlet highlighting the work that we are doing for women and girls in the fight for gender equality today, but the question we are left with is: what will be the situation that faces them tomorrow?

Cuts to foreign aid of over a billion dollars a year is equivalent to removing our aid programs in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia overnight. Imagine the damage this would do in these countries. Also imagine the damage it would do to our relationships with partner nations who work with us to deliver programs in these areas. Cambodia is an example of how sustainable and meaningful aid programs can be emancipatory for citizens. We have increased our foreign aid to Cambodia over recent years—and it shows. We have seen the strides forward that are possible, especially in the case of the empowerment of women and children.

I am proud of the exceptional work that our dedicated volunteers and aid workers are doing on the ground. They do it not because it pays well or because it leads to a lucrative career or to public accolade; they do it because of their shared humanity and sense of duty. It frightens me to think of what could happen to the communities of people that I met if these aid workers are forced to pack up and go home. I know in many other countries in our region and throughout the world that that is exactly what these foreign aid cuts have done. I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Women to consult with the experts and to heed the warning. (Time expired)

Debate interrupted; adjournment proposed and negatived.