House debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

6:46 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Vocational Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Several members on this side of the House are particularly keen to contribute to the debate on the Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013, so I will make only a few brief comments. The bill arose out of an announcement in September this year that the government would recommend to the Governor-General that the Australian Agency for International Development, AusAID, be integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is a matter of some significance to those of us on this side of the House. I will leave my remarks there and allow my colleagues to put our views.

6:47 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The opposition will not be opposing the Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013, but I do want to use the opportunity afforded by this second reading debate to make a few points. The government's abolition of AusAID means that certain pieces of legislation need to be updated to substitute references to DFAT for references to AusAID. This legislation is simply an effort to ensure that employees of the Australian Civilian Corps remain properly employed. This bill transfers their Commonwealth engagement from the abolished AusAID to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Australian Civilian Corps was a Labor initiative of the last parliament. We want to ensure that the Australian Civilian Corps operates under the certainty it needs, so we will not oppose this legislation. The ACC is a group of experienced civilian specialists who provide stabilisation and recovery assistance to fragile states and countries experiencing, or emerging from, conflict or natural disaster. The ACC was formed in 2011 and is designed to provide a flexible and timely Australian response that bridges the gap between humanitarian and emergency relief and long-term development programs. The ACC is well established, with more than 489 registered specialists as at October 2013 with extensive field experience and deep subject matter expertise across 14 specialty areas, such as electoral assistance, health, financial management, engineering and the law. Recently ACC specialists assisted with the 2013 PNG elections and with recovery efforts in Samoa following Cyclone Evan.

The ACC is a worthy and successful Labor initiative. While the opposition opposes the government's $4½ billion of cuts to Australia's foreign aid budget and has deep concerns about what this will mean for the loss of specialist experience in the delivery of foreign aid, these amendments are merely seeking to ensure the ACC is now operating under the direction of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. So, as I said, we will not be opposing the legislation.

But I do want to say a few words about why this legislation is necessary. The legislation would not have been necessary had the government not abolished AusAID. The integration of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was executed suddenly and very poorly. Staff are going into this Christmas period with no certainty about their future and we do not know just how much expertise in international development policy is going to be lost as a result of AusAID's abolition.

We have seen the reports about how next year's graduate program has been scrapped—after two or three dozen new graduates had been given employment offers. We heard in Senate estimates a fortnight ago that this could leave the government open to legal action. It also means that we lose a generation of the best and brightest—idealistic young women and men who had performed outstandingly academically and who had chosen a career in overseas development as a way of representing their country and contributing to the world. The way the merger has been carried out, coupled with the huge $4½ billion cuts to the aid program, raises serious questions about how Australia's international development program will continue to be delivered.

What will be the impact on the delivery of foreign aid when a specialist international development agency is subsumed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade? The government have been saying that the abolition of AusAID is because they want to see a better alignment between our aid programs and our trade programs and our diplomatic programs. I would be delighted if anyone could point to one example of where our aid programs and diplomatic programs and trade programs were in conflict. This is an absolutely spurious argument for the abolition of AusAID.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Just throwing money around to secure that Security Council seat.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I hear the member for Kooyong talking about the Security Council bid, which of course the current government initially opposed but is now happy to be part of. The Prime Minister has said that he does not want 'our diplomacy going in one direction and our aid program going in another direction'. Again I would say to the government that if they could point to a single instance where aid and diplomacy have been in conflict I would like to see it.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

What about that statue at the UN in New York—$150,000?

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the interjection so that it is on the record. I think the criticism is about establishing new missions in Africa, is that correct?

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Payment for the statue—over $150,000, in New York.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

No, the member opposite spoke about Africa.

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Do you accept an intervention?

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I do. I would like to hear what he has to say about Africa.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Can you please explain Australia's interest in paying $150,000 for a statue at the UN.

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Batman, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Justice) Share this | | Hansard source

Concerning the end of slavery.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Concerning the end of slavery.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The member opposite is critical of our relationship with Africa now.

Mr Frydenberg interjecting

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! You have had your intervention.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

As I said in October, our responsibility to our near neighbours is more acute and demanding than our responsibility to more distant friends, but our aid policy already reflected that. The aid versus diplomacy argument is a false dichotomy. Aid versus trade is an equally false dichotomy. Helping our neighbours develop strong economies means better markets for goods. Helping our neighbours improve their health systems means fewer health threats, like the development we have seen on our doorstep of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and indeed malaria. Increasing the number of children in our region going to school reduces the opportunity for indoctrination in place of education. The success of our neighbours is good for us. The danger of losing AusAID is of course the danger of losing dedicated staff with specialist expertise and contacts in developing countries.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

You've bloated the aid budget.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

You have cut the aid budget by $4½ billion, which will hurt the most vulnerable members in communities around our region and around the world. Today I want to reiterate the opposition's commitment to international development. As I said, this legislation is necessary only because the government has abolished AusAID, so it is important to reiterate our aims for international development. We have two goals for the quantum of our international development effort. The first is to increase our overseas development assistance to 0.5 per cent of GNI, and beyond that we believe in working towards a target of 0.7 per cent of GNI. Under the previous Labor government, Australia's contribution to overseas development assistance grew with every budget.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

No, sit down.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I am not asking you, I am asking the Deputy Speaker whether I am entitled to intervene.

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You can ask whether the shadow minister will accept the intervention.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Would she answer a question about the aid budget?

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

No. Sit down.

Mr Frydenberg interjecting

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is enough. The member for Kooyong is not assisting the debate.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

A $4½ billion cut and he wants to justify it in this place! What nonsense. Under the previous Labor government, our contribution to overseas development assistance grew with every budget. In 2006-07 we gave $2.9 billion through AusAID, and by 2013-14 that had grown to $5.66 billion. During our time in government we almost doubled overseas development assistance, and now we find that our proportion of aid to GNI is back to 2000-01 levels under this government. As I said at the end of October in a speech to the Australian Council for International Development, the government's decision to slash $4½ billion from Australia's aid budget, announced at a minute to midnight in the dying days of the election campaign, is a severe disappointment to millions of Australians who agree that we have an ethical responsibility to help. It is a betrayal of the poorest of the poor in our region and around the globe and we are committed to holding this government to account.

In Washington DC right now governments from around the world will be asked to make commitments to replenish the Global Fund, which fights HIV, tuberculosis and malaria in the developing world. Australia is already strongly engaged in the Global Fund. I met with Global Fund director Mark Dybul recently to hear of their work, and he expressed his gratitude for Australia's past efforts and the Global Fund's desire for an ongoing commitment from Australia. Since 2002 the fund has approved programs worth more than US$22.4 billion in 150 countries, has saved an estimated 8.7 million lives by providing antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV and provided tuberculosis treatment for 9.7 million people. The fund supports the strengthening of health systems, invests in training and aims to improve service delivery in hard to reach places and at-risk populations.

With Australia's help, the Global Fund has done some amazing work in the Asia Pacific region. Around 21 per cent of the Global Fund's grants are directed to Asia and the Pacific. These grants have resulted in more than 500,000 people being on life-saving HIV treatment, 46 million insecticide treated bed nets being distributed and the treatment of 6.6 million cases of tuberculosis. There have been other results in Asia and the Pacific. Over the past ten years, Cambodia has documented important declines in TB prevalence, incidence and mortality. Preliminary surveys found a 43 per cent decline in the prevalence of TB cases between 2002 and 2011. This represents an average decline of 4.7 per cent per year. In Papua New Guinea, malaria prevention has also been strong, with 3.6 million insecticide treated nets distributed. In Timor Leste, over 3,500 people received HIV testing and counselling in 2011, and over 450,000 condoms were distributed to prevent the spread of HIV. In Indonesia, 23,000 people are currently receiving HIV treatment, and the Global Fund finances 50 per cent of the national HIV program.

Labor's last budget confirmed Australia's payment of $100 million this year. This is the largest single-year contribution ever made by Australia . Over the last term of the government, Labor contributed over $200million. Over the four years from 2013 to 2016, the Global Fund aims to save a further ten million lives and prevent up to 180 million new infections from the three diseases. This is work that Australia must make a contribution to. Australia has been called on to contribute $375 million to the Global Fund for the years 2014 to 2016. Remembering that in our last year of funding Australia contributed a historic high of $100 million, what has the government announced today? They have announced a cut to our funding for the Global Fund to around $67 million for the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. From $100 million this year to $200 million over the next three years. This is well short of the $375 million expected by the Global Fund and by the international community, by non-government organisations in Australia and, most importantly, by citizens around our region who are relying on Australia's contribution to the Global Fund.

The opposition will not oppose this legislation. But we bear in mind why this legislation is necessary. The government has abolished AusAID. They have made significant cuts to our aid program, and they are in the process of making significant changes to how our international development policy is delivered. Serious questions are raised, and we are yet to see adequate explanations from the government. Remember that the Global Fund has been successful in our region. It has been successful internationally. Yet we see the $375 million expected of Australia become instead $200 million, just over half of what was expected. We see the $100 million that we have contributed this year become a paltry $67 million next year. This is at a time when need around the world is as great as it has ever been. It is at a time when the Global Fund says that if we do not invest now we will pay forever because if we see backsliding now, if we see a reduction in effort today, on tuberculosis or malaria or HIV we will never catch up again. When it comes to the development of multidrug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, the threat is on our doorstep right now, and this cheapjack, cut-price effort with the Global Fund is something that we will pay for—and our neighbours will pay for—for generations to come.

7:04 pm

Photo of Teresa GambaroTeresa Gambaro (Brisbane, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On 18 September 2013, the Prime Minister announced that he would recommend to the Governor-General that the Australian Agency for International Development—AusAID—be integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and TradeDFAT. The abolition of AusAID as an executive agency on 1 November 2013 marked a very significant milestone for Australia's international engagement and a new era in diplomacy. DFAT is now responsible for development policy and the delivery of Australia's aid program. This major change will see the alignment of Australia's foreign, trade and development policies and programs. The integration of AusAID with DFAT will promote Australia's national interests by contributing to international economic growth and poverty reduction, and it will support Australia's foreign and trade policy.

The bill addresses the resultant machinery of government changes required to update certain legislation by substituting references to AusAID and specific positions in AusAID with references to DFAT and positions in DFAT. The Australian Civilian Corps Act 2011, and the regulations and legislative instruments made pursuant to that act, are examples of such legislation. The Australian Civilian Corps Act 2011 established the Australian Civilian Corps and set out the legal framework for the employment and management of Australian Civilian Corps employees. The Director-General of AusAID was responsible for the management of the Australian Civilian Corps and the Director-General of AusAID had a specific range of functions and powers under the act including, on behalf of the Commonwealth, all the rights, duties and powers in respect of the Australian Civilian Corps employees.

The bill amends the act in two main ways. First, it transfers the powers and functions of the Director-General of AusAID under the act to the Secretary of DFAT. Second, it substitutes other references to AusAID and the Director-General of AusAID with DFAT and the Secretary of DFAT, respectively. The bill also makes consequential amendments to the Australian Civilian Corps Regulations 2011, the Prime Minister’s Australian Civilian Corps Directions 2012 and the Director-General’s Australian Civilian Corps Directions 2011.

As I stated at the outset, the bill is a significant milestone in Australia's international engagement and marks a new era in diplomacy. DFAT is now responsible for development policy and the delivery of Australia's aid program. This major change will see the alignment of Australia's foreign trade and development policies and program. It is also necessary step in getting Australia's foreign aid program back on track after six years of Labor's waste and mismanagement. On 12 May 2011, the Daily Telegraph reported the leaked concerns of a Labor insider that Australian taxpayers would be footing an extra $2 billion in foreign aid bills because Labor was fearful of upsetting the then Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd. It was also reported at the time that the ballooning aid spending in various regions, including Africa and the Caribbean—where Mr Rudd was chasing votes for a seat on the 15-member UN Security Council—was causing alarm within the government. There were significant concerns that the government was signing tax treaties with small islands in the Caribbean, again in its chase for a coveted UN position. But it is absolutely typical of the chaos and the dysfunction of this last six years of the Labor government that Labor MPs so feared that asking Mr Rudd to trim his expanding budget would cause an internal fight that they had to go and find savings which hurt families.

At the time I raised concerns that the Labor government, under the ever-egotistical guidance of the former member for Griffith, was chasing votes in Africa at the expense of sending more aid dollars to places in our region such as Papua New Guinea. We have seen in recent years outbreaks of extreme-resistance TB—and even, in this day and age, cholera outbreaks—in our nearest neighbour. I specifically stated that the coalition was really concerned about the large amount of funding going to the Middle East and Africa and any resultant waste in supporting votes for the UN Security Council at the expense of supporting priority foreign aid needs in our region—the Pacific—whose countries have some of the highest HIV-AIDS rates in the world and the highest rates of infant mortality. Sure enough my own fears and the coalition's concerns were borne out months later, when it was revealed that the Labor Party's complicity in allowing one man to pursue his own legacy skewed the foreign aid budget to the tune of about $3 billion.

On 19 October 2012 Australia secured what has been rightly described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fill a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. The coalition welcomed this outcome, and we paid tribute particularly to the very hard work of all the diplomatic officials and staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for making the opportunity a reality. The coalition also paid proper respect to and acknowledged the efforts of the former member for Griffith for setting such an aspirational goal. You would think that the uniqueness of the opportunity would have meant that the former Labor government had a well-developed plan and a well-developed strategy. But, regrettably, the briefing notes obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and prepared by DFAT for the incoming Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, revealed that this was not the case.

Minister Carr became Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on 13 March 2012. The briefing notes for Minister Carr as the incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade do include a specific reference to the UN Security Council campaign. In particular I note that, on page 18 of one of those briefing notes, DFAT referred to the commencement of the development of a strategy including objectives, priorities and resourcing. That is right—the commencement of the development of a strategy. You could be forgiven for wondering why there was not a strategy in place already when Minister Carr came in. Page 19 of the same briefing note makes reference to commencing development of a strategy for how Australia would use its membership and how we would resource our membership.

These statements support the view that the whole UN Security Council campaign was not well planned, not strategic in its development and very much done at the very last minute. This may well have been due to the fact that it was predicated on buying votes, as was demonstrated by the skewing of the foreign aid budget, which I and others highlighted to this House on many occasions. It is concerning from the information revealed in the briefing notes that even at a late stage—that is, at the time of the briefing which Minister Carr as the incoming Foreign Minister received in March last year—DFAT still did not know what the government's strategy was and how it would use its membership. This is not such a great example of how Australia could use its once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

At some point just get to the legislation—feel free.

Photo of Teresa GambaroTeresa Gambaro (Brisbane, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I see that the member interjects—and he should interject. This kind of poorly-thought-out policy chaos characterised the six years that the former Labor government—

Mr Husic interjecting

I note that the member interjects. This is about integrating AusAID into DFAT, and I am just going through the AusAID history here. The Labor government were in power, and they do not like these facts. They do not like talking about this. It hurts, doesn't it? When they were in power, their very loose grasp of any notion of responsibility in the management of—

Mr Husic interjecting

This is about taxpayer dollars: managing taxpayer dollars and managing and administering the foreign aid budget in a more effective way. While much has been said about the secret costs of the UN Security Council bid beyond the $25 million that the former Labor government very loosely admitted to—

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of order on the issue of relevance, Deputy Speaker: I would invite the government speaker to speak at some point to the legislation before the House.

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order.

Photo of Teresa GambaroTeresa Gambaro (Brisbane, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They do not want to hear this. They do not want to hear it, because it hurts. What is clear from the analysis of the budget, ministerial and portfolio budget statements going back to 2007-08 is that an incredible level of changed expenditure on foreign aid occurred—$2.9 billion, in fact—and that the change was happening, coincidently, around the time of the United Nations Security Council bid.

As with any kind of expenditure, Australian taxpayers have a right to know whether they are getting value for money. A critical question for Australian taxpayers was: how were Australia's foreign aid objectives and priorities being advanced? For example, how were the aid priorities being advanced by a statue, costing $150,000, to commemorate anti slavery in the Caribbean and Africa, to be built in the UN Plaza in New York?

The coalition was concerned that the foreign aid budget should be spent at the coalface and the coalface is where people need it the most. Between 2008 and 2010 the sum of $270,000 was provided for reviewing agriculture and fisheries management in Eritrea. I wonder how the Australian seafood industry felt about that one after former Minister Burke's announcement that he was going to lock away more of Australia's fishing grounds.

Mr Husic interjecting

The member opposite keeps interjecting because he does not like to hear this. Also, $65 million was spent on a giant telescope project in Chile's desert.

When we look at that $3 billion—and I will talk about foreign aid spending in Africa, the Caribbean, South-East Asia and the Pacific—we see that an enormous amount of money was skewed. Between 2007 and 2008, there was also a 251 per cent increase in spending in Africa, from $111 million to $354 million. There were also other areas where the aid budget was skewed. There was a large growth in foreign aid expenditure far exceeding AusAID's capacity to administer the money and that was where the difficulties arose.

An alarming feature of AusAID's workplace culture during the six years when Labor was in government was intimidation. The department was racked with cases of intimidation and bullying. During estimates earlier this year the coalition was able to expose that AusAID's Comcare premiums had increased by a staggering 855 per cent in the last six years.

Mr Husic interjecting

I know why the member for Chifley interjects. These are very disturbing figures and the way in which AusAID was administered is absolutely disturbing. In Senate estimates in June this year it was revealed that 80 per cent of the bullying and harassment cases within AusAID were made against senior management. AusAID did not have a culture of care. It was extremely difficult for staff to be productive when management was breaching the very standards that they are meant to uphold. And that sort of culture permeated from the top down.

It has long been said that Australia's foreign aid priorities should be in our own region. It is the part of the world where we can have the most influence and where we have the opportunity to deliver the most effective outcomes in the delivery of foreign aid to our neighbours.

The Abbott government announced Australia's commitment to fight HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, with funding of $200 million over three years to support The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The national prevalence of HIV-AIDS in Australia is lower than in many comparable nations; however, it is estimated that around five million people in our region are living with HIV-AIDS. It is the leading cause of death globally for women and girls aged between 15 and 44. Australia has spent $l billion combatting HIV-AIDS in our region over the last decade. The global fund is the largest multilateral funder of health programs in developing countries. It invests around a third of its funds, around $US6.8 billion, in the Indo-Pacific region where it has delivered HIV treatment to over 700,000 people, treated seven million cases of tuberculosis and distributed 51 million bed nets. A particular focus of Australia's cooperation with the global fund is the elimination of drug-resistant strains of malaria in the Mekong subregions and tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea.

In July 2014, Australia will host the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne. Around 18,000 delegates from almost 200 countries are expected to attend this biennial conference, which is the premier gathering for policymakers, those working in the field of HIV and people living with HIV.

The coalition will ensure that Australia's aid program is effective and delivers real outcomes. This bill is a necessary step in achieving those goals and I commend the bill to the House.

7:19 pm

Photo of Gai BrodtmannGai Brodtmann (Canberra, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I have to be frank: I was listening to the member for Brisbane's contribution with my mouth open. I have the greatest respect for her but, in listening to her speech, I thought the deep suspicion of multilateralism and the deep political interpretation of what is happening here was absolutely outrageous. Those opposite say that this machinery-of-government change is designed to better align our diplomatic, assistance and trade functions by bringing them all under one roof, under DFAT, by abolishing an agency and integrating it into DFAT.

We actually found out the truth as to why this abolition is happening; it is driven purely by political vindictiveness. As I said, I have the greatest respect for the member for Brisbane, but that is what has been highlighted in comments made by both the member for Kooyong and the member for Brisbane.

Just for the record, our UN Security Council bid has been seen as being so successful, particularly by countries in the region, that they are actually seeking our advice on how they can go about bidding in the future. They see it as so stunning that they are seeking our advice. And here we see complete disdain and political vindictiveness for what was a stunning achievement and for which DFAT should be applauded. It highlights the disdain for the Public Service, public servants, my constituents and Canberra.

The Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013 relates to a specific function of AusAID—not the rant that we heard before—the Australian Civilian Corps. The Australian Civilian Corps is a group of experienced civilian specialists who provide stabilisation and recovery assistance to fragile states and countries experiencing or emerging from conflict or natural disaster.

The corps was established by the previous government and it is a legacy of which Labor is incredibly proud. Of course, we want to ensure it operates under an appropriate legal framework and so we support this amending legislation. However, while not denying the bill a second reading it is important that the House notes the context in which it has come about.

On 18 September, the very day he was sworn in, the Prime Minister announced that he would recommend to the Governor-General that the Australian Agency for International Development, AusAID, be abolished and its functions integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or DFAT. This announcement came as a total shock to AusAID, DFAT and Canberrans; to the international development sector in Australia; and to our partner organisations overseas. In his rather brief second reading speech, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer said:

This machinery of government change means that certain legislation will need to be updated to substitute references to AusAID and specific positions in AusAID with references to DFAT and positions in DFAT.

'Machinery of government' is a misleading phrase. In fact, it might have you believe that there is no human involvement whatsoever. In fact, the opposite is true. Machinery-of-government changes are entirely about people. They are about people's lives, people's jobs, people's livelihoods and people's security. They change the shape of the Public Service, which is often the primary interface between a government and its people.

In my first speech in this place I repeated this saying, often credited to George Orwell: 'We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.' It is a tribute to those public servants called soldiers. But we also sleep soundly in our beds because invisible heroes ensure our national interests are protected abroad. Others protect our borders. Some make sure our cities and towns are safe. Others make sure our food is clean and keep our lights on. Some help the sick, the aged, the disadvantaged and the disabled. Others ensure our children's toys are safe and our story is kept alive.

The public servants affected by this machinery-of-government change represent Australia internationally. They develop and implement Australia's foreign, trade and development policies, they negotiate international agreements, they support Australians traveling overseas and they provide assistance to those who need it most—the impoverished, victims of warfare and dispute, residents of disaster stricken regions.

When an athlete represents Australia overseas in their chosen sport, we often say it is their ultimate achievement; the pinnacle of their career; their greatest honour. I believe we should say the same of our public servants. The employees of AusAID and DFAT deserve our utmost respect, and I do not believe that appropriate respect has been shown to them by the Abbott government to date—and we just saw it from the member for Brisbane. Many AusAID and DFAT employees are my constituents and, since the Prime Minister's 18 September announcement, they have been in contact with me regularly to express their concerns about how this process has been handled. The issues they have raised with me have been many and varied; however, a key theme among them is the lack of transparency in the process of abolishing AusAID and integrating its functions into DFAT. AusAID and DFAT employees would like to know: what, if any, external professional change-management advice is being provided to support this process; why there are no women on the steering committee appointed to oversee this process; how many jobs are going to be lost in this process, when and from what areas; if a position or function is deemed to be duplicated, what will be the process for determining which staff member will maintain that position or responsibility for that function; will any AusAID or DFAT staff be moved to a different location and, if so, to where and when?

I wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs on 8 November asking for answers to these questions but am yet to receive a response. Perhaps the government consider these details to be only a minor aspect of their machinery-of-government changes and that is why they are not providing answers. They may be 'minor details' for the government, but for the staff affected by these changes these details are fundamental to their job security.

Many constituents who have contacted me have expressed their disappointment at the 24 October all-staff meeting held at DFAT. Staff had hoped this meeting would provide answers to their questions and staff with a level of clarity; however, this did not occur. The sentiment of those who contacted me after this meeting was that it had left them with more questions than answers. Their most urgent question, of course, is about job security: how many jobs are going to be lost in the integration, when and from what areas?

It is clear that there is a duplication of some functions across AusAID and DFAT—for example, corporate services, human resources and IT. What is not clear is how this duplication will be managed. AusAID staff have expressed to me their fears that, when there is a duplicated function or responsibility, the role will automatically be given to the DFAT staff member and the AusAID staff member's position will be redundant. At this stage, these fears are based on anecdote and speculation alone, but, given the government has not provided any advice to the contrary and has not released any information about how duplications will be managed, there is little wonder AusAID employees are jumping to their own conclusions.

We heard recently in Senate estimates that the department is currently putting in place an interim staffing structure and that the final staffing structure will be in place by the middle of next year. Are we to believe, therefore, that staff will not learn if their jobs are secure until the middle of next year? If this is the case, it certainly is not good enough. How are staff supposed to function with such a cloud hanging over their heads and their jobs? How are they supposed to make any kind of serious financial decision under such uncertainty, like buying or renovating a house, planning a holiday or enrolling kids in school? What will the ramification of this uncertainty be for the economy of Canberra, where most of the AusAID and DFAT staff are based? What will be the impact on local engaged staff, like the ones I work with in India?

While discussing job losses, it is important that we do not consider the abolition of AusAID in isolation. The announcement of the abolition of AusAID followed closely the announcements that the Abbott government would increase the Public Service efficiency dividend by 0.25 per cent and cut 12,000 Public Service jobs in addition to the efficiency dividend, and that the new Abbott government would cut Australia's overseas aid budget by an enormous $4.5 billion.

There can be absolutely no doubt that there will be job losses in this department resulting from this series of Abbott government announcements, yet the staff of the department have not been told as much—they have just been kept in the dark. They deserve to know how many jobs will be lost, in what areas and by what means. We know that the attrition rate in both AusAID and DFAT has historically been below the Public Service average. In fact, in the last financial year it was less than 4.6 per cent, so there is no question that these losses can be met by natural attrition alone.

We also know that voluntary redundancies have already been offered, although we do not know how many and in what areas. We do not know if there will be forced redundancies and, if so, how many and in what areas, although at the recent Senate estimates the department was unable to rule out forced redundancies. We also do not know what this government is doing to ensure that we do not lose the vital specialist experience in the delivery of foreign aid that currently exists within AusAID. I am sure that the 132 non-ongoing staff at DFAT and the 81 non-ongoing staff at AusAID also want to know what will happen to their positions—but we do not know that yet either. Frankly, 76 days after the abolition of AusAID was announced, there is still far too much that we do not know. I am asking the government to come clean and provide AusAID and DFAT employees with the certainty they deserve.

One aspect of the integration that I have been particularly disappointed and concerned about was the decision to cancel the 2014 AusAID graduate program. Anyone who has been involved in APS graduate programs or who has known anyone who has applied for these programs knows that they are incredibly competitive. The process is designed to ensure that the successful candidates are the best possible candidates to become future leaders of our Public Service, our foreign service and our foreign aid service. This year, 35 of these future leaders were delighted when they beat thousands of other applicants to secure a position in the AusAID graduate program. They turned down other job offers. They moved from interstate and, in some cases, from overseas—and their partners came with them—to set themselves up in Canberra to begin their career with AusAID. However, last month each of the 35 received a letter letting them know there was no longer a position for them: 'Thanks, but no thanks. Thanks for participating in a six-month recruitment process, thanks for giving up other job opportunities and relocating to Canberra, but you don't have a job after all.' This is a lost opportunity, I think, to engage 35 of our best and brightest Australians in public policy in Australia, to have these 35 bright young Australians working for our national interest. I cannot image how disappointed they must be—although I do have a pretty good understanding—and I am certain that this decision reflects incredibly poorly on this government.

It is difficult to interpret the current situation as anything other than a significant tipping point in Australia's foreign aid program. Not only have we seen a $4.5 billion cut to our aid budget—the biggest we have ever seen—but the agency that has been responsible for successfully delivering Australia's aid program for nearly 30 years has been abolished. This government now faces the enormous challenge of maintaining the high standard of our aid program; preserving the expertise that we have within our aid program in the form of experienced, dedicated staff; and successfully integrating two diverse entities while implementing massive job cuts. The Abbott government has created an enormous challenge for itself, and I cannot help but think this is not exactly the best start to government.

I have the utmost respect for the staff at both AusAID and DFAT. I have had the great privilege of working at both places. Prior to my election to parliament some of the highlights of my career included representing Australia in India, when I was working for DFAT, and working on Australia's post-conflict development program in East Timor when I was working at AusAID. I know that the public servants who work at AusAID and DFAT are intelligent, hardworking and dedicated. In fact, they are some of the hardest-working and smartest people I have ever met. They are not people who are easily fazed; they do not make mountains out of mole hills. They have contacted me with their concerns because their concerns are legitimate.

For departmental employees the implications of the abolition of AusAID are immense. I strongly urge the government to provide these employees with some certainty as a matter of urgency; I urge the government to be more transparent in its machinery-of-government changes; and, most importantly, I urge the government to remember that machinery-of-government changes affect hardworking, dedicated people who have chosen to spend their lives working for a better Australia and a better world. These are people who deserve our respect.

7:34 pm

Photo of Kelly O'DwyerKelly O'Dwyer (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013. I believe that in this chamber, across both sides, are people with a genuine commitment to and understanding of the importance of foreign aid. Listening to the maiden speeches here has made me reflect on the maiden speech that I delivered in this place almost four years ago, in which I talked about the importance of foreign aid. I said that Australia, as a strong and prosperous nation, has a responsibility to provide foreign aid, particularly in our region, for those who are less fortunate than us. I also said it is in our national interest to provide foreign aid to have in our region stable, prosperous nations that are economically secure. But aid is only one element that helps lift people out of poverty and change lives. We know, of course, that economic transformation is the key thing that transforms lives and provides strong and prosperous communities. We know that trade liberalisation and open markets have been critical to lifting more than 400 million people in China out of poverty over the last two decades.

The bill before us tonight does a couple of things. Firstly, and critically, it integrates AusAID into DFAT. It also transforms the powers and functions of the Director-General of AusAID under the act to the Secretary of DFAT and it substitutes other references to AusAID and the Director-General of AusAID with DFAT and the Secretary of DFAT respectively. Finally, it makes a number of consequential amendments to the Australian Civilian Corps Regulations 2011, the Prime Minister's Australian Civilian Corps Directions 2012 and the Director-General's Australian Civilian Corps Directions 2011. Before I go into more detail about this I want to state that it was only in July 2010 that AusAID became an independent executive agency. This is a fundamental point, because it is only recently that it has been an independent statutory authority.

What we have said, consistently, before and after the election, is that we want to make sure that Australia's aid is both effective and efficient, that it delivers for people on the ground and that it is aligned to our foreign trade and development goals. We want to make sure that we are spending our aid dollar not on bigger bureaucracies but instead on not only helping lift people directly out of poverty but also being able to provide the appropriate medical care and infrastructure to people in communities that desperately need them, to also help them engage and strengthen their economic independence.

We have a strong and proud tradition in Australia when it comes to foreign aid. We are some of the most generous people in the world, per capita, when it comes to being aid donors, and there is nothing in this legislation that will change that fact. We will continue to deliver aid worth around $5 billion every year, and this will mean that Australia is likely to be the eighth largest donor in the world—and that is knowing that we are, of course, one of the 12 or 13 largest economies. I think that this is a record we can be proud of.

We have seen an example very recently of how our aid has been used very effectively on the ground in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. The foreign affairs minister approved a $10 million package of humanitarian assistance. It was assistance that saw the urgent deployment of an Australian medical assistance team, at a cost of around $1 million; $3 million deployed through Australian non-government organisations; $4 million given to the United Nations flash appeal, and $1 million given for additional food items and also non-food items such as mosquito nets, water containers, tarpaulins and the like; and finally $1 million given to the Red Cross to assist in their disaster response efforts. So I think that in Australia we have a strong commitment to foreign aid and, despite what those opposite have said in trying to create a fear campaign around our commitment to foreign aid, we are very much committed to foreign aid and very much committed to our region in particular and to improving the economic circumstances for people within our region.

I want to make some comments regarding the bureaucracy of AusAID, because I think it is important to note that those opposite saw a very serious growth in the size of the bureaucracy, and one of my colleagues has done some work on this. Teresa Gambaro, who is a parliamentary secretary in our government, said in April of this year that AusAID now spends almost seven per cent of Australia's foreign aid budget on administration, a figure well above the 2010 OECD-DAC average for administration costs of 5.2 per cent. It is imperative that any increase in our foreign aid finds its way to those for whom the aid is intended. We do not want to see our aid chewed up in administration costs.

That is not a reflection on the worth of those who work in our aid community in Australia and overseas. This is not some slight, as the member opposite said in her previous speech. It is simply a recognition that we need to make sure, as a government, that every single taxpayer dollar is used effectively and efficiently. We take our responsibility in that regard incredibly seriously—so much so that, not only before the last election but before the election before that, it was our policy to have a review into aid effectiveness, and we were delighted when the then, Labor, government did in fact conduct that review. What concerned us, though, was that they did not adopt all of the recommendations of that review. They did not, for instance, adopt the recommendation that before you can increase aid you need to make sure that you are strengthening performance measures and have rigorous benchmarking, which of course means that you are using aid effectively. We have said that that is a recommendation that we will adopt and it is very important to put that in place.

We have recommitted and said on many occasions, and I will say again, that we will commit to the goal of increasing foreign aid to 0.5 per cent of gross national income. But we will also make sure that there is a primary focus on the effectiveness of how we spend our aid dollar—that there is quality to that spend and an overall economic impact in that spend. We also want to leverage partnerships: one of the points of integrating AusAID within DFAT is that we can leverage up the relationships with private institutions and private funds that are being spent in our region so that we are getting the biggest bang for our buck and it is being used responsibly and effectively.

I commend this bill to the House because I believe that it is our responsibility to make sure we have a strong and robust foreign aid program and that we continue to develop our region and integrate our trade and foreign affairs and aid programs together so that our aid program is more comprehensive and effective and therefore delivering better outcomes on the ground. I commend the bill to the House and thank the House for the opportunity to speak this evening.

7:44 pm

Photo of Melissa ParkeMelissa Parke (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

As my colleague the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has pointed out, this legislation, the Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013, is essentially part of the administrative machinery designed to allow Australia's international development agency, AusAID, to be subsumed within the structure of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is a bill of no great complexity, but one that nevertheless enables a profound change.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition has spoken about the aspects of the bill that deliver consequential amendments in relation to the Australian Civilian Corps—a Labor government initiative—and I support those remarks. I do want to make some observations in relation to the larger change being affected with respect to AusAID, some key aspects of which are also dealt with in this bill. As with the eloquent remarks just now from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the member for Canberra, I also want to take this opportunity to say some things about the work of AusAID the agency and about AusAID the people and the culture—points which I believe should be made on the occasion of its dissolution as a stand-alone agency.

The name 'AusAID' dates from 1995 but the agency itself came into being as the Office of the Australian Development Assistance Agency in December 1973, and I regret that we are not this month in a position to celebrate the agency's 40th birthday. But above all else I believe that it is important we recognise that there is a distinct Australian international development cause and project and that it is simply not possible for that cause and project to be wholly directed by, or even wholly consonant with, the legitimate but separate interests and purposes of Australian diplomacy and Australian trade.

The suggestion that through the work of AusAID Australia's international development assistance has somehow not been delivered in keeping with our national interest is wrong. The suggestion that Australian aid has not been focused appropriately in our region is wrong. Any suggestion that Australian aid has not been delivered with world-leading efficiency and effectiveness is wrong. Australia's development assistance has always been pursued in keeping with the national interest, primarily because making a real difference to the lives of people suffering from poverty and disadvantage, violent conflict and disease is an extension of our national character and of our national ethos. That is who we are. That is what we do.

It was some 64 years ago that Prime Minister Ben Chifley said:

We have a great objective—the light on the hill—which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.

The idea, therefore, that there is some stronger alignment that can be achieved, in the abstract, between Australia's aid program and our national interest is in my view a complete furphy.

Our international development assistance has been provided, first and foremost, to save lives and reduce poverty. In so doing it improves health and education outcomes, it builds economic capacity, it underwrites regional peace and security and it forges deep and lasting personal and cultural connections between Australia and the people of other nations, especially those in our region. Let there be no doubt that well-targeted and delivered foreign aid makes a life-saving and nation-changing difference. Through the provision of development assistance, six million fewer children died in 2012 than in 1990. Through the provision of development assistance the international community is on track to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015.

As I have said before, the contrast between Labor and the coalition when it comes to foreign aid is clear: it is clear in the numbers, in the language, in the values and, most importantly, in the outcomes. Under the Howard government aid funding was low and unpredictable, averaging 0.25 per cent of GNI. The provision of aid was less well targeted in terms of addressing the sharpest needs and there was no appetite for reform.

Under the former Labor government, Australia's contribution to international development grew every year, increasing by 80 per cent since 2007, and reaching 0.37 per cent of GNI in 2013-14. It would have continued to grow a further 60 per cent to reach 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2017-18. On the coalition's current path we now face a backwards slide to 0.3 per cent of GNI over the next four years, which includes the cutting of $700 million—or one in every $8 of aid—in this financial year alone. The coalition's shift in emphasis towards a kind of 'aid for trade' approach risks undermining the current targeted focus on education, health, water and sanitation, gender equality, infrastructure and governance.

Of course Labor supports appropriate private sector development and recognises the huge potential to reach development goals in partnership with the private sector—as demonstrated in the business engagement strategy released by the former foreign minister Bob Carr last year. Our Mining for Development Initiative is helping to leverage sustainable development outcomes from resource extraction in many African countries. There are genuine synergies between Australia and many countries of Africa when it comes to mining and agriculture, and it is appropriate that Australian expertise and skills be targeted to areas where we can make a real difference, for instance, in agricultural research, dry-land farming, transboundary water management and mining governance, as well as in areas where the MDGs are lagging, such as in water and sanitation, and maternal and child health.

Assisting the development of a continent of nearly one billion people is not only the right thing to do but clearly in our own economic, strategic, security and national interests. Yet the government has signalled the likely withdrawal of support from a number of regions, potentially including much of Africa, and has not indicated whether it supports Australian membership of the African Development Bank, a measure recommended by the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness.

The action that this bill in part enables—namely, the cessation of AusAID's independent existence—goes hand-in-hand with the government's massive cut to Australia's foreign aid and gives effect to the government's view that international development is a low priority. I would like to quote from a piece published at the end of October by Robin Davies, currently the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre and a person who worked for AusAID from 1993 to 2012. He writes:

Now the borders around AusAID are being comprehensively breached and dismantled, probably beyond any possibility of easy reconstruction. While this is in the end just a ‘machinery of government’ change, it is inevitably experienced as an affront, a personal loss, to the people who have invested their working lives, or their hopes for a working life, in the organisation. The affront might have been lessened if there were a perception that this unheralded merger were not in reality a hostile takeover, if DFAT as agent were thought to be acting only in line with the objectives of the government as principal, and if the objectives of the merger had been convincingly stated. But, as it is, there is a sense that one organisation is being consumed by another whose objectives might not exactly coincide with those of the government. The government wants a focused, high-quality aid program that strengthens Australia’s bilateral relationships. It can’t be easy for anybody inside AusAID to see how its disintegration could serve that end.

With the change that this bill facilitates, the government is dissolving an agency and structure whose programs, operations and outcomes were in May this year praised by an independent OECD peer review as efficient, transparent and effective; an agency that was recommended as a model for other countries to follow, especially in the areas of disability-inclusive development, the provision of aid to fragile states, and organisational reform. f course, along with the dissolution of the agency goes $4.5 billion in critical funding for lifesaving programs to help some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people.

It was a great and humbling privilege to hold the position as Minister for International Development, albeit very briefly, and to be the minister responsible for AusAID. In that role, I saw firsthand the life-changing assistance that AusAID provides. In Timor-Leste, which shares the unfortunate distinction with Burundi of having the worst child malnutrition rates in the world, AusAID and ACIAR, through the Seeds of Life project, have worked with the government of Timor-Leste to provide 33,500 Timorese farmers with higher yielding seed varieties, already enabling them to grow more and better quality food and to sell some of the seeds. While visiting the Solomon Islands for the 10th anniversary of RAMSI, I announced funding for 8,000 sight-restoring operations to be performed in the Pacific over the next three years through organisations like the Pacific Eye Institute and the Fred Hollows Foundation. Last year the Australian aid program vaccinated more than 2.7 million children, enrolled one million additional children in school, constructed or maintained more than 4,400 kilometres of road, provided access to safe water for an additional 2.2 million people and assisted more than 300,000 additional births to be attended by a skilled birth attendant, in addition to providing lifesaving assistance to 11.8 million people in conflict or crisis situations.

Under Labor, Australia entered into long-term partnerships with trusted Australian NGOs and we broke new ground in recognising aid programs are most effective when people with disability are included. Australia's Ambassador for Disability-Inclusive Development—the first in the world—will play a key role in advocating for increased resources and attention to disability-inclusive development. I sincerely hope this ambassadorial position will not also be dismantled. We also recognised gender inequality is a key obstacle to overcoming poverty. We had a 10-year plan to work together with women in the region to catalyse the generational change needed to boost women's equality and rights in the Pacific. Under Labor's aid program, 86 per cent of country-specific aid in 2013-14 was targeted to the Asia-Pacific, because we should rightly be paying most attention to partnerships in our own region—a part of the world with a high concentration of fragile and underdeveloped states.

I want to pay tribute to the work AusAID staff here in Canberra and on post around the world performed as a stand-alone agency for nearly 40 years and to the expertise, energy and commitment of all the many staff members who have contributed to AusAID's critical achievements. When as minister I first addressed the AusAID staff here in Canberra, and on post around the world through the marvels of modern technology, I said:

Development assistance is one of the most important aspects of Australia's national policy. And I believe many Australians understand and value our aid program. Yet I'd also say that the range and the variety of assistance provided; the severity and complexity of the disadvantage alleviated; and the profound difference that is made to the lives of millions of people, in millions of ways is perhaps not fully appreciated. I would like to ensure that it is appreciated to a greater degree.

Australians naturally want to know that their taxpayers' dollars being spent through the aid program are making a real difference on the ground; a lasting difference; a transformative difference; and that those resources are not being wasted.

That is an entirely reasonable expectation and AusAID is delivering on that expectation, as found by the OECD peer review in May this year …

…   …   …

All of us in this room and this Agency know from experience the incredible difference that development assistance can make—that it saves lives; changes nations; and builds cooperation between societies, and that, dollar-for-dollar, well-targeted foreign aid contributes to stability and security at least as well as any government initiative, and I intend to make it part of my role to communicate that as much as possible to the Australian community.

I would also like to ensure that Australians understand that the need for development assistance is particularly acute in our part of the world. Of Australia's 24 closest neighbours, 22 of them are developing countries. Our interests and our prospects are deeply interwoven with the prospects of all the countries and all the people with whom we share this part of the planet and we have a responsibility to advocate for the development needs in our region, not only in relation to health, education and governance, but also in relation to infrastructure, gender-equality, disability-inclusion, human rights and climate change.

This imperative is made keener by the multilateral leadership opportunities before us in the next few years.

Australia has just assumed the presidency of the G20 and we have already taken our place on the Security Council. These are positions of great significance and influence and they bring with them great responsibility. We owe it to ourselves and to our region to take these opportunities and to make a difference.

We are moving into a critical period in terms of the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and to the formation of a strong post-MDG approach that will need to resolve and harmonise the twin streams of poverty reduction and sustainable development. Australia has always been a leader and contributor when it comes to the most pressing and difficult global and multilateral challenges and it is widely recognised that as a nation we go above and beyond in making those contributions and showing that leadership. Unfortunately this government's approach, inside its first hundred days, is to retreat into self-interest and passivity; to undermine the world-leading achievements of Australia's foreign aid work in the service of our national character, ethos, and interest; and to pinch pennies from the poor. I am really sorry that that is the case.

I know that the spirit of AusAID lives on, not least in the many good people who will continue to give their all in providing Australian aid. I am confident that the vast majority of Australians share Labor's position that helping our fellow men and women escape from suffering and deprivation is a stand-alone imperative, deserving of a stand-alone agency armed in its good work with a contribution of 0.5 per cent of our strong and stable GNI, increasing ultimately to the 0.7 per cent target that Australia under the Howard government signed up to in the 2000 UN Millennium Declaration. This effort is core to our national ethos. The creation of safety, peace, wellbeing and self-sufficiency, especially in our region, is central to the Australian project.

7:59 pm

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As previous speakers have indicated, this measure is essentially one of government management, transferring the Australian Civilian Corps—a Labor initiative with about 480 registered specialists—to a new organisation. So far as that element goes, the opposition is supportive of it. We are constantly encountering the realities of foreign aid. Today, a number of us attended the Disability Inclusive Development Forum in this parliament. The ADDC is a body which looks at getting together a collective voice for awareness-raising and lobbying on disability-inclusive programs in developing countries and ensuring disability is integrated into mainstream Australian foreign aid and development activities, among other things. It was pleasing to hear the parliamentary secretary, Senator Mason, announce that the government will integrate into the foreign aid program over the next few years an emphasis on disabled people. The reality is that one billion people live with disability worldwide and 80 per cent of people with disability live in developing countries. Over 20 per cent of the world's poorest people in developing countries are also people with a disability. That was pleasing; however, the broader context of what the government is doing on foreign aid is not very pleasing.

That is in contrast to a government which in 2014 would have hit $5.7 billion in foreign aid, an increase of $500 million over the previous year—or 9½ per cent over 2012-13, giving us the highest percentage of GNI as foreign aid in 25 years—when the OECD pattern was a four per cent reduction. The contrast with this government now is indeed very stark. Over past periods of Liberal administration, it never reached more 0.3 per cent of GNI and was normally around 0.25 per cent. In reality by the end of the Labor administration, it had reached 0.37 per cent and was on target by 2017-18 to reach five per cent of GNI. We see the coalition, however, ripping out $4.5 billion out of the international aid budget. I heard the member for Higgins and her rhetoric about bureaucracy and effectiveness—code words to excuse this massive reduction in our foreign aid program. She said they were not a slight on the public servants involved; it is just an attack upon them. She quoted from some OECD study that administrative costs in Australia consume about seven per cent, compared to 5.5 per cent in other OECD countries without any explanation of the possible reasons—whether it is a question of distance in our part of the world, for example. It was just a bland attack on the reality.

I believe very strongly in our foreign aid program. If we look at one country, Indonesia, which is the largest Islamic country in the world. It is a country that is combatting extremist elements and terrorism; a nation which, along with Bangladesh and Turkey, stands out as the best example of the marriage of democracy and Islam in the world. It sets a pattern for the Middle East and North Africa, and Indonesia is seeking to ensure that pattern is understood in those regions. It is a country we depend upon for countering smuggling. If we look at Australia's program in Indonesia, we are connecting 600,000 people to safe water and more than 300,000 to basic sanitation. We also ensured that an additional 34,000 births were assisted by a skilled birth attendant. We increased the number of syringes distributed through health services and civil society organisations from 650,000 to 1.3 million in 2012. We are supporting open-source software to produce realistic natural-hazard scenarios and new earthquake hazard maps for seven provinces. These are very real contributions to Indonesia, and they are appreciated.

How do I know they are appreciated? I had the opportunity, along with the member for Berowra and four others from this parliament, to visit some of our projects in Indonesia. We visited the Hibah water project in Dekok Kluangan village of the Bangkalan district in east Java. There we faced the reality of what this country is trying to do in a nation where only 12 per cent of rural households have water connected and less one third of the urban population has a water connection. Some 56,000 people in that region of east Java now have pipe water connections to their houses. We formed local government partnerships with that region. Similarly, the delegation went to a madrasah in Separah village, again in east Java. This is one of over 500 madrasahs built under the Australian-Indonesian basic education program and one of 144 in east Java. The delegation witnessed the huge and positive support for this country through what we are doing there. We also saw we were providing engineering support, school furniture and supplementary reading materials, as well as training in school management for the principal and the school committee. The benefits of foreign aid cannot be bought.

Before returning to parliament, I visited Samoa and Tonga, whose diaspora is significant in my electorate. I again saw the reality of foreign aid. I saw why this government should not be penny pinching in this sector with massive reductions in foreign aid. I saw programs such as an attempt to combat obesity in Tonga, where Netball Australia is encouraging women to take up sport very effectively. I met our volunteers who were integrated into government departments. In one case, they were learning to consider environmental matters in planning decisions, especially coastline protection. I came across another public servant working in a government department to make sure there was transparency in the government. I witnessed the reality of this country constructing a school in Tonga, and once again found jubilation and friendship towards Australia among the school population. Those schools were in a dreadful state of disrepair. Kids are now returning to school who had been outside the system because of the state of their school. We provided a childcare centre in that school. I also witnessed the construction of police stations in Tonga, ensuring that people reporting crimes did not have to face people being charged. We saw the effect on the morale of the police force, which now has proper hiring procedures.

More particularly, as mentioned by Sophie Plumridge at the meeting today about integrating disability into foreign aid, I went to SENESE in Samoa. An Australian expatriate went to Samoa as a volunteer, married a Samoan and, assisted by this country, now runs an NGO with 70-odd employees. What do they do? They can repair hearing aids on-site. They can construct glasses, and they do not have to pay thousands of dollars to have them made in Australia. They are training people with new machines that are an advance on braille. They are producing booklets. They are making sure that teachers in the school system understand the problems of sight and hearing impairments. They are making sure that children are integrated into the system. They are helping Samoa, which has just signed the international covenant on disability, and making sure it measures up.

In Samoa I saw coastline-strengthening procedures that are being put in place because of climate change. I visited AFP officers who are working on transnational crime and with respect to our boat patrols. These are very real measures. A government of common sense would think for more than five seconds about strenuously reducing our foreign aid budget.

As the previous speaker stressed, we live in a region where there is significant deprivation and there are many difficulties in meeting Millennium Development Goals. In this region of such need there will be a large knock-on effect from the government's reduction in foreign aid. I am very proud of the previous government. For all of the criticism that some of the assistance that went towards refugees was counted as foreign aid, the government was manifestly moving in the right direction, moving to where it should be in the world. In contrast with this government, their soul brother on many fronts, David Cameron, has made forthright decisions in the last few years in support of a strong foreign aid program.

We criticise this government for massive reductions in foreign aid. The reality is that there is one psychiatrist for every two million people in low-income countries compared to 170 psychiatrists for every two million people in rich countries. In 70 low- and middle-income countries the availability of selected generic medicines was 42 per cent in the public sector and 64 per cent in the private sector. A lack of medicines in the public sector forces patients to purchase them privately at prices that are on average 610 per cent more than their international reference price. In 2011, half of all the deaths of children under five occurred in just five impoverished countries. People at the bottom suffer disproportionately. More unequal countries show higher levels of obesity. Gender inequality can also relate to obesity. Women in Qatar and Saudi Arabia have obesity rates of 45 per cent and 44 per cent respectively, according to New Internationalist.

Whilst the purpose of the measure in the legislation before us is to rearrange the employment situation of volunteers, who have performed very well, in the broader context it is excused by attacks on the Public Service, by rhetoric about bureaucracy and by claims that the government is going to make sure aid is delivered more effectively. In reality, it is an attack upon the needs of significant parts of the world. It endangers our relationships, already fraught by this government's actions with Indonesia. It puts us up as a poor global citizen when we were so recently elected to the Security Council.

There are very concrete, positive outcomes in foreign aid that are recognised by all who follow this policy sector. This government's penny-pinching will be to the detriment of this country. It might pander to certain parts of the electorate. In the short term it might appeal to that sense of nationalism that characterises aspects of this debate. But is in stark contrast to what was happening under the previous government.

Photo of Natasha GriggsNatasha Griggs (Solomon, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I took the view that the deferred division should not be proceeded with until the member who was speaking at 8 pm had completed his speech, so I did not interrupt the member. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for a later hour.