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Lee Rhiannon in the Senate speaking about aid funding cuts

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Lee Rhiannon 14 Mar 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (15:30): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Bob Carr) to a question without notice asked by the Leader of the Australian Greens (Senator Milne) today relating to overseas aid.

We heard some worrying responses from Senator Carr to a very clear question put by Senator Christine Milne about Australia's foreign aid program. It has certainly added fuel to growing concerns that Labor and the coalition parties are seeing the aid budget as easy fodder when it comes to looking for cuts. A very clear question was put about the all-important 0.7 per cent of GNI going to our foreign aid program, and, while the minister said that, yes, they supported 0.7 per cent, what is the point in saying that when you refuse to give a year by which we are aiming to achieve that? That was deeply troubling.

It is also surprising, considering that today—and Senator Carr is well aware of it—there are more than 1,000 young people here working very hard to bring a message to all parliamentarians in this place about the importance of foreign aid and the importance of increasing the aid budget. I do very warmly congratulate the Movement to End Poverty and the Oaktree Foundation for the fantastic work that they have been doing in here, the road trips that they have engaged in and the work that they have done with communities across Australia in bringing awareness about this important issue. It is disturbing how slow we are in moving towards a 0.7 per cent target for our overseas aid program—or even a 0.5 per cent target.

It is just worth reminding ourselves of how slow it is, and that is certainly what I picked up today in talking to many of those Oaktree ambassadors and why they are so passionate about it, because the target was actually set in 1970 by the United Nations. It took 30 years before Australia signed on to the 0.7 per cent target. That was under former Prime Minister John Howard. And meanwhile we have dragged the chain, and right now you could come to the conclusion that things are going backwards, whereas we have seen other countries—many of them with serious economic problems, and certainly economic problems that Australia is not facing—who are stepping up to the plate: Ireland and Britain, for example, are committing to how they will get to the 0.7 per cent, and already Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have met that target, several years ago. So Australia is really down in the bottom third of the OECD countries on this all-important issue.

At the 2010 election, both Labor and the coalition had a commitment to increase aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015. But now what we see is a retreat from that commitment. In November 2011 all senators in this place signed on to and voted for a motion put by me about committing to 0.5 per cent by 2015 and how important that is to alleviating poverty and assisting people in low-income countries. It is so important. We got that through in November 2011—but, again, have been backtracking since then. Now the coalition has removed the timetable from its commitment altogether, which is very worrying. Labor has pushed out its commitment to increase aid to 0.5 per cent by one year. So, again, it brings us a reminder that surely, with all of these people here working so hard, we should be doing the right thing.

Another part of the question that Senator Milne put to Senator Bob Carr concerns the issue of Australia's programs with regard to climate change action overseas. There has been a real muddying of the waters here, with the government apparently doing the right thing with some programs but actually robbing money from the aid budget to fund climate change programs. These climate change programs are needed, but it should have been quarantined from the foreign aid budget. It needs to be fully transparent and very open about what programs are being funded; they should have been quarantined from the foreign aid budget. The government needs to be fully transparent and very open about what programs are being funded and where they are being funded from.

There is a very important organisation called the alliance of small island developing states—AOSIS, as it is known. It is a non-government organisation of low-lying atolls and coastal countries. They are working hard on the global warming issue. Yes, Australia should be giving them support. We clearly have a responsibility there. But it should not be coming out of our aid budget, and this is something that Christine Milne has taken up very strongly. She has said how they should be separating out climate finance faster and long-term from the aid budget because what Australia has done is to put the aid budget and climate finance together, and so Australian people are told constantly that we are doing the right thing with climate funding plus the increase in the aid budget. But actually, if you separate them out, you will see that we are not. So we have a real problem there and this needs to be addressed. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.

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