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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 26 Feb 2015

Senator RHIANNON: Attorney-General, in commenting on the Aspen political donations to both Labor and Liberal Party branches, you stated that this information provided 'the cold light of truth'. They were your words. What is that truth? Is it that the Labor and Liberal parties have both been caught in the murky world of taking money from companies that benefit from receiving government contracts? Is the truth you refer to that all political parties should work together to bring in national bands or caps on donations from for-profit organisations? What is your truth, Attorney-General?

Senator Brandis: The question, 'What is truth?', is of course a deep philosophical issue. I thought when you asked the question you might have had in mind the story in the gospels of Pontius Pilate as he entered the temple and he asked the same question himself. I am not necessarily comparing you with Pontius Pilate, Senator Rhiannon. I have in the course of a long life, some of which I might say was spent teaching philosophy, often reflected upon the meaning of truth, but I have not arrived at a concluded view.

Senator Rhiannon: Attorney-General, you did use the expression. They were your words. Surely you can elaborate on what you meant? Or are you saying that you were giving answers to the estimates committee that you have not got back up to explain or detail?

Senator Brandis: No, I was reading from an AEC return, that is all. I think you have, if I may say with great respect, Senator Rhiannon, expanded a perfectly quotidian observation that I made about entries on an AEC return into a deep philosophical conundrum at a remarkably rapid speed.

Senator RHIANNON: Well, this is your opportunity to explain that. They are your words. 'The cold light of truth.' And you have not enlightened us. It is quite an easy thing to answer.

Senator BRANDIS: Alright, I will enlighten you, Senator Rhiannon. The cold light of truth is this: according to the Australian Electoral Commission's returns for various years, in the year 2013-14, in the year 2011-12 and in the year 2010-11, Aspen Medical made significant donations to the Australian Labor Party as well as other political parties. In the year 2006-07 it made a very substantial donation of $67,287.40 to the Canberra Labor Club Ltd and in 2004-05 it made a very substantial donation of $33,200 to the Canberra Labor Club Ltd. They were the truths, or perhaps we might say the facts, to which I was directing the committee's attention.

Senator RHIANNON: Would part of the truth be that in that period Aspen also picked up 24 government contracts plus the provision of immunisation to 22 government departments? So we have on the one hand a company that is giving money to political parties who, when in office, are then awarding contracts to that company? Is that part of the truth?

Senator Brandis: I know that you speak with some experience on this matter, Senator Rhiannon, being a member of the political party that is the recipient of the largest corporate donation in Australian history. Notwithstanding that, it is a lawful and common practice for companies to make donations to political parties as long as the disclosure laws are observed, as they have been in this case. It is also the case that Aspen was the recipient of many contracts under the previous Labor government and has been the beneficiary of contracts under the current government. I do not link the two. Senator Wong made an innuendo when you were not here and I merely decided to put all the facts on the table in order to refute the innuendo.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much, Attorney-General. I would like to take up some issues to do with the NGO cooperation program.

Senator FAWCETT: Can I just follow on from that point before we move on?

Senator RHIANNON: Certainly.

Senator FAWCETT: Is it also the fact that an innuendo has just been made about both major political parties and this company, when in actual fact this company has won contracts with state governments, with foreign governments and consistently with the federal government because it is innovative and it provides an effective services to deliver health outcomes for communities both overseas and here in Australia? And the innuendo that has just been made by Senator Rhiannon is completely unfounded on the basis of the performance and the outcomes achieved by this company, which has won awards for its delivery of services overseas. That is completely outside of Australia's political system or any of the inferences made by Senator Rhiannon.

Senator Brandis: Senator Fawcett, I am not an expert in this field, but I have no reason to doubt a word of what you say. I am, from my general knowledge, aware that Aspen Medical is a respected and very skilful company. That is no doubt why governments of both sides of politics have awarded them significant contracts. It certainly is a reason why the government of which I am a member awarded it the contract to provide the Ebola services that we were discussing earlier in the day.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with companies giving donations to political parties. It is the most commonplace thing in the world for that to happen, as long as disclosure rules are met, as they have been in this case. Any innuendo against the good reputation of Aspen Medical that has come from Senator Rhiannon is disgraceful. Any innuendo from Senator Wong is also disgraceful. Although, perhaps in Senator Wong's case it wasn't so much a case of innuendo as a question of hypocrisy in seeking to suggest that there was something irregular about the Liberal Party being the recipient of donations from this company while not acknowledging the fact that she, as a member of the Labor Party federal executive would be aware that the Australian Labor Party is also a recipient of donations from this company. We do not say that there is anything wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing unusual about it. There is no linkage whatsoever between that and the awarding of contracts under our government and I suspect under the Labor government as well. This is a very respectable and eminent Australian company.

Senator FAWCETT: Her fellow party member just praised the quality of their work.

Senator RHIANNON: Attorney-General, considering that this discussion started off about truth, my question just put out what the donations and the contracts were. What are the innuendos and what are the inferences that you are suggesting were there.? Because there was no innuendo or inference in what I said. I presented the information, which is information that is on the record, and you yourself have quoted it.

Senator Brandis: I thought you were engaged in an innuendo by the manner in which you phrased your question.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. The Australian NGO cooperation program—

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, can we deal with that this afternoon?

Senator RHIANNON: I was told to bring it into this session and I have found my experience in estimates this week that when one is bumped to the end of the program one usually does not get their questions asked. I understand that it is totally relevant to ask it in this session.

CHAIR: Not under my chairmanship, Senator Rhiannon.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Can I just raise the point that the reason for the situation that Senator Rhiannon describes is because the Greens and the Labor Party prior to the last change of the Senate, when they had a clear majority, changed the rules of Senate estimates committees to allow any questioning to continue for so long as any questioner had a question. I would suggest, Chair—and you do not need my help—that Senator Rhiannon be asked to deal with her matter at the right place.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, I can certainly guarantee you that you will be given adequate time to do that at the appropriate time. Stay with Australian aid if you could.

Senator RHIANNON: The performance of Australian aid 2013-14 report on page 12 spells out that private contractors get more and more of the aid budget than NGOs. There is a pie chart in there. It shows 21 per cent versus 15 per cent. Is this a change from previous years?

Mr McDonald : I will ask Mr Dawson to answer that.

Mr Dawson : It may be a slight change. I do not have the previous year's figures with me. But it is a consistent pattern year on year that the three largest implementing partners for the Australian aid program usually are, firstly multilateral organisation, secondly private commercial contractors and thirdly non-government organisations. Between those three groups they usually account for approximately 75 per cent or thereabouts of delivery year by year. But of course there are different programs conducted in different years. Some programs start and some programs end. So the figures will fluctuate year-on-year.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice for the previous three years, please?

Mr Dawson : We will do our best, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: In order to operate within the new budgetary limitations, does DFAT have to break contracts it has signed with NGO service providers?

Mr McDonald : The budget allocations for 2015-16 are undergoing consideration.

Senator RHIANNON: So you are saying that you cannot answer that question now. What about previously? Have you had to break contracts?

Mr McDonald : What you are referring to, I think, is whether we have sufficient capacity within the budget to accommodate reductions without the need to break contract. I will ask Mr Wood to talk about what our commitments are at this point.

Mr Wood : There is no reduction in this year's budget. We have at this stage around 77 to 80 per cent of this year's program either expensed or committed. As Mr McDonald said, allocations for the next financial year are under consideration by government.

Senator RHIANNON: When you make those considerations for future budget plans, do you take into account legal implications if agreements had to be broken because of further budgetary implications?

Mr McDonald : The allocations of the budget are made by government, and, as we said, they are under consideration at this time.

Senator RHIANNON: So they are under consideration?

Mr McDonald : They apply to the 2015-16 financial year. As in the past, all the allocations associated with the aid program for the next financial year are announced as part of the budget.

Senator RHIANNON: Can I take from that answer that you are considering the legal implications of terminating agreements with respect to the budget?

Mr Varghese : We would always give consideration to any legal obligations that we have. When the minister goes through the process of making a decision for the 2015-16 budget, which is what she has to do, she would do that as well. We do not take legal commitments lightly and our practice is always to fulfil them to the best extent that we can.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Following the announcement in December 2014 of further reductions in the aid program for 2015-16 to 2017-18, what are the criteria which DFAT is using to determine which elements of the aid program should be maintained and which elements would experience larger reductions? I am after what elements of the aid program. How are you making those decisions?

Mr Varghese : These are decisions that the foreign minister will make. She will go through a process which will include examining how cuts will be handled against the policy framework that she articulated back in June of last year. That sets out the new aid paradigms. She will take into account a range of other consideration.

Senator RHIANNON: So you will give the foreign minister advice when she makes those decisions?

Mr Varghese : We engage in a discussion with the foreign minister about the aid budget on a continuous basis.

Senator RHIANNON: So you are giving advice to the foreign minister. You will be giving advice, therefore, on how to implement these cuts.

Mr Varghese : In the course of making a decision, we would engage in a discussion with the minister, which would include the principles that will apply, the implications of any particular decisions and how they would be implemented. There are a whole range of factors that would go into a final decision on how those cuts will be implemented.

Senator RHIANNON: You said that there are a whole range of factors. That then comes to my question: what is the criteria DFAT is using to decide which element of the aid budget should be maintained? Surely you can share that with us. That is information that you are giving advice on. You have explained that. So what are those criteria? What are those factors? You said that there are factors.

Mr Varghese : The overall framework in regards to government decisions here is the aid policy framework that the minister set out in a major speech on, I think, June last year. I am sure that that will continue to frame her thinking about how to handle cuts.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you provide details of when the successful applicant for the product development partnership announced by the minister in June 2014 will be announced?

Mr McDonald : I think that it will be announced next month.

Senator RHIANNON: In March?

Mr McDonald : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Will the details of other medical research spending that is committed thought 2014-15 be announced then as well?

Mr McDonald : In terms of the net expenditure on medical research, that would be aggregated at the end of the financial year, as we do for the total program. So medical research will be part of that. The minister announced, I think, last year $30 million for research. That was her speech with the release of the policy. But I will confirm that for you and ensure that that is correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Will the current level of $30 million per year for research spending in 2015-16 to 2017-18 be maintained?

Mr Varghese : That goes to foreshadowing decisions that the minister will need to take about the 2015-16 budget and those decisions have not been taken.

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to move on to some of the issues to do with women and girls with regard to the aid program.

Mr Varghese : I am sorry to interrupt, but I wonder if I could just make one quick point in relation to a question that Senator Singh asked about reception arrangements and gratitude expressed to aid workers. I just wanted to point out a statement that the foreign minister issued on 6 January at the time when our first patient was successfully treated in Sierra Leone. She did make this comment, if you could permit me to read it. It is only three sentences. She said:

I also thank and welcome home the first Australian health workers who have returned to Australia after their deployment. In line with national, state and territory guidelines, the health of returning workers will be closely monitored to ensure their well-being, and that of the broader Australian public. Our best wishes are with the Australian health professionals currently working at the Hastings Airfield clinic.

That is our clinic in Sierra Leone. Thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: The performance of Australian aid 2013-14 shows that the target of having 80 per cent of programs effectively addressing gender equality has been missed. Only 74 per cent of programs reached the criteria. What measures do you have in place in order to reach the target in the coming year?

Mr McDonald : If I could start off on that one. As you know, the foreign minister is very committed to gender equity and female empowerment. The three pillars of that are focused around getting more women into leadership positions, the economic empowerment of women and tackling domestic violence. The target that is provided in the report is deliberately a stretched target. It does two things. The previous percentage was 74 per cent and it has stretched up to 80 per cent. But not only does it address women and female empowerment, gender being included in 80 per cent of our investments, it also talks about how effective that is. So it has a double requirement on that target that we have not had before. The second thing is that those targets came out in the middle of June this year. So what this first report does is set a baseline for us to move forward to achieve that target. We are very focused in the department across the board on this particular priority. As you would know, in the policy itself one of the six key priorities is this. So it is a stretched target. It will force us to focus very clearly on this effort, and we want to see that improve as we go forward.

Senator RHIANNON: You use the term 'stretched target', which does start to sound like public relations speak—it sounds good when you just say it. When you consider that be previous target was actually 79 per cent and it has gone backwards, the stretched target is going backwards.

Mr McDonald : The target is 80 per cent. It is not 74 per cent. What is different in this target is that it is not the same target. The previous target talked about including it in investments. This target talks about including it, but also it talks about whether it is effective. So it is not just what you say you are going to do; it is also whether it is effective in terms of what you do. When I say that it is stretched, it is a target that requires lots of focus and effort. And that is deliberate because it is a key priority.

Mr Dawson : If I could also assist in this. The Performance of Australian aid 2013-14 report measures the performance during the 2013-14 financial year. So this is backwards looking. We have measured the performance of all of our aid investments, in terms of promoting gender equality, for a number of years. So this is nothing new, and the performance has always bumped around in the mid-to high 70s. That is clearly not good enough. We know that this is an area that we need to improve on. The target that the governments has is to get that performance ratio to 80 per cent. The first year that we will be measuring performance against that target is in the 2014-15 financial year. So it is not correct to say that the government has missed the target.

Senator RHIANNON: But, Mr McDonald, am I correct in understanding you to say that you cannot compare 2012-13 to 2013-14?

Mr McDonald : No, I did not say that. I said that the new target is deliberately set at a high benchmark—which is 80 per cent—and includes not only having that in our investments but also looking at how effective it is and whether it is actually doing what it should be doing.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering the consolidation of the aid program by shifting it away from smaller community development projects to largely infrastructure oriented projects, will you be looking at the differences between large infrastructure projects and the small community projects in terms of their impact on gender equality? Wouldn't that be relevant to try to get to 80 per cent?

Mr Dawson : The consolidation target is not a target to shift away from small community development projects to larger infrastructure projects. It is a target to do with the overall number of aid investments which we manage within the aid program. The consolidation target is there to really force a consolidation of the number of investments, because the evidence is clear that when you try to do too many things, you do not do them well. So the aim is to try to reduce the number of individual investments and to therefore get better quality from the investments that are carried out.

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