I rise today to highlight one of the cruel cuts being delivered by the Abbott government, and that is the savage cut to Australia’s foreign aid. So far, the government has cut Australia’s aid program in the 2013 midyear update, in the 2014 budget and again in the 2014 midyear update. The latest cut, of $3.7 billion, announced in the 2014 midyear update and confirmed in the 2015 budget, represents one-fifth of the overall cuts in this year’s budget. This brings the total cuts to foreign aid to $11.3 billion. It is as if this government is using the aid budget as its own personal ATM, withdrawing money at the expense of the world’s poorest people. Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Bishop, now presides over the weakest aid program in Australia’s history. It is a great shame that the government would cut from an aid program that has been so successful. Last year alone, Australian aid helped provide access to safe drinking water for 2.9 million more people, enabled 1.4 million more children to enrol in school and enabled the presence of a skilled birth attendant at nearly 900,000 additional births.
There are two very good reasons why Australia should have a strong foreign aid program. The first reason is that it is in Australia’s national interest. Aid funding underpins Australia’s national security by providing stability in our region. Poverty displaces people from their homes, leading them to seek refuge in other countries, it facilitates the spread of deadly diseases and sometimes it causes armed conflict and terrorism. All of these problems, while not originating in Australia, may present security threats, or at least significant policy challenges, to us all. The second reason for providing foreign aid is that it is the right thing to do. Just as you would help out a friend or a neighbour, not for any personal gain but out of the goodness of your heart, the same principle applies to other countries. It is a tenet of fundamental human decency that we help out others in need, people who are suffering and doing it tough. That is why Australians dig deep every time there is a natural disaster like a typhoon in the Philippines or an earthquake in Nepal.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of global extreme poverty and think that the problem is too big to tackle, but this is not true, and to know it is not true we need only look at the progress that is already being made towards solving the problem. Thanks to global efforts to eradicate poverty, the number of people in the world living in extreme poverty has literally halved since 1990. The result of this is that, each and every day, 18,000 fewer children under the age of five are dying than in 1990. That is the equivalent of 34 Boeing 747s full of infant children every day, or the entire population of Sydney over the course of a year, being saved because of the global effort to combat extreme poverty. That fact alone easily shows that the relatively small contribution we make is worth it. But we know that more needs to be done, and Australia should be strengthening its aid program, not taking a backward step. One in eight of the world’s people suffers from under-nutrition; 2.5 billion people lack access to safe sanitation; in spite of an increase in school enrolments, 57 million primary school aged children are still not in school; and, each year, 6.3 million children die before the age of five. Across our own region, the Asia-Pacific, 740 million people live in extreme poverty. This represents 60 per cent of the world’s hungry and undernourished people.
Labor in government committed to a target of reaching 0.5 per cent of our gross national income dedicated to our aid program. That is 50c in every $100, and we would have reached this target in 2017-18—and it was a bipartisan target, but under this government that bipartisan approach has been abandoned. This cut will bring our aid funding to just 22c in every $100 by as early as next year, the lowest level in the history of Australia’s foreign aid program. As if that is not bad enough, aid funding will fall to 17c in every $100 within the next decade.
By contrast, the UN Millennium Project estimated that 70c in every $100 needs to be committed to start on a pathway to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and end extreme poverty. Australia is not even a third of the way towards this target and it is cutting, rather than increasing, its commitment. As a result of this government’s cruel cuts, aid agencies have already been forced to cut the following programs: child protection projects in India and Senegal; gender based violence, clean water, health and education programs in Timor-Leste; an HIV project in India; a vocational education project in Cambodia; a community resilience project in North Gaza; an education project in South Sudan; and a youth project in Uganda. World Vision estimates that, because of the Abbott government’s cuts, 1.3 million people will miss out on essential services. The latest cut reduces Australia’s aid contribution to Africa by a whopping 70 per cent, including a $93 million cut to programs in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the programs that is ending because of this cut would have delivered water, sanitation and vaccines to 750,000 people. Three quarters of a million people will not receive clean water, basic sanitation and vaccines because of just one of the projects this government has cut.
In a desperate attempt to cover up the government’s cuts, the Minister for Foreign Affairs is trying to pad out the budget. Ms Bishop is the first foreign minister in more than 20 years who has refused to release a foreign aid blue book as part of the budget. The blue book is a ministerial statement that sets out comprehensive financial information about the foreign aid budget, including country and regional allocations, information about priorities and reports on progress and results.
Instead of the blue book Ms Bishop has modelled her ministerial statement on the United States’ ‘green book’. The green book broadens the forms of assistance given to other countries by including military and police deployments to humanitarian disasters and UN peacekeeping operations. This is the first time Australia has included these sorts of costs in its foreign-aid budget. That is because their inclusion does not meet the OECD’s standards for reporting on foreign-aid expenditure.
Instead of being up-front with Australians about aid spending, Ms Bishop has given them a catalogue of spin. Ms Bishop’s spin—and her eye rolling in the parliament—demonstrates she is clearly embarrassed about her government’s record on foreign aid, and well she should be. No amount of spin will hide the fact that the Abbott government has delivered the most savage cuts in history to Australia’s aid program.
The government has claimed that Australia’s foreign-aid spending is unsustainable. I remind those opposite that Australia came through the global financial crisis much better off than most developed countries. There are donor countries with much worse budget deficits than Australia that are still on track to meet the UN Millennium Project’s target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income in foreign aid.
If the United Kingdom with its government net debt of 80 per cent of GDP is able to meet the target, now, then what excuse does Australia have—with net debt at around 15 per cent of GDP—for falling so far short? Surely, as one of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous countries, Australia has the means to pay its fair share of foreign aid. In responding to the suggestion that the UK should be looking to its own economic problems before the rest of the world’s, Prime Minister David Cameron responded:
We accept the moral case for keeping our promises to the world’s poorest—even when we face challenges at home. When people are dying, we don’t believe in finding excuses. We believe in trying to do something about it.
In my contributions to this place since the election of the Abbott government, I have pointed out time and again that they continually target the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the community. The cuts to foreign aid are no exception. They are cruel and unnecessary and will impact on some of the world’s poorest people. They impact on literally millions of people who lack access to nutrition, vaccination, schooling, sanitation and clean drinking water. I am not exaggerating when I point out that people will die as a result of these cuts.
When Labor was in government it committed to a strong target for foreign-aid spending, a target that was once bipartisan. For the sake of humanity, decency and compassion I urge the government to start increasing—not cutting—foreign aid.