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Milne and Rhiannon Press Conference: Overseas Aid

CHRISTINE MILNE: Thank you very much for coming along today. I’m very pleased that Senator Rhiannon and I have been joined by a number of young people who do believe that there are people in the world who are entitled to a fair go, and that is the recipients of Australia's overseas aid programs. Australia is a rich country, we are very well off in the scheme of things and we can afford to pay our way when it comes to overseas aid. There has been a disturbing trend in recent years for the Government to start diverting money from what people would think of as reasonable overseas aid programs to the defence programs or most recently to pay for the Government’s failed detention centre and processing of asylum seekers. We have now had the OECD come out and say that other countries deserve to have a fairly clear indication of where Australia's going to put its aid and there is a  genuine concern that in this year's budget we will see the Government cut again into the overseas aid program to pay for its failed detention policies.

So we’re here today to say that the Greens and the community are supportive of sticking with the commitments we made - so 0.7 per cent of our gross national income by 2020 going to overseas aid and the Millennium Development Goals and also to stick with the timetable we had before by 2015/16 to reach 0.5. To that end Senator Rhiannon has a bill that we intend to introduce to the Parliament because looking at the likelihood, if the polls are right, of an Abbott government and the erosion of overseas aid by this Government we need some certainty in place.

LEE RHIANNON: The Greens’ bill is what most Australians desire. It would set out the need for an Australian Government to lock in an increase in our aid and also surety that that aid works for the majority of people and the environment in low income countries. This bill is badly needed. As Senator Milne has set out we have seen recently where the Australian Government has really treated the aid budget as a ATM where they can dip into when they have a failed policy like the detention centres or they need a bit of money for defence spending. And that’s just not right, it’s not what Australian expect - when they hear the word aid, they believe that the right thing is being done and this is what this bill would help to ensure.

Some of the key aspects of the bill is that it would require yearly reporting by the Foreign Affairs Minister to Parliament. That report would need to set out what the aid budget, what the aid program has achieved, if it hasn’t achieved its goals, why not and what the Government plans to do about it. It also sets out a new office, a watchdog position, which would be the Office or a Commissioner of Aid Effectiveness and this is badly needed, we need it independent of Government. So all those aspects of the aid that now the OECD has also identified needs to be more frankly and openly shared with low income countries, they need to be provided, and we need to have measures about how that will be achieved. And then on top of that there is a key aspect of the funding that Christine has set out.

So this is work that the Greens have been taking forward, we have discussed extensively with those who work in this area as well as people from low income countries. And in many ways it mirrors work that’s been done in Britain, because in many countries Britain would be an interesting example because of their financial problems. They are locking in 0.7 per cent, you’re seeing conservative governments take that step and it’s now time that Australia did the right thing and it’s certainly the expectation of more Australians. This week, and many of those people are with us now, there are 8000 Australians surviving on less than two dollars a day for their food during this week. I’m one of them and I’ve certainly join them because I understand how that really does help display the strong commitment Australians have in this important area.

CHRISTINE MILNE: Thanks Lee. There are some other issues of the day I might just comment quickly on first. Joe Hockey has come out and said that under an Abbott government there would be an end to the era of entitlement, an end to the era of entitlement for everybody in the community except the big miners it would seem, except those who are the recipients of fossil fuel subsidies in the mining sector. So come on Mr Hockey and Prime Minister Gillard – if you are serious about equity in this country, if you’re serious about equality of opportunity why is it that the big miners are to be protected and yet people who are on Family Tax Benefit A are going to not get the money that was promised to them because the mining tax has failed. Well the solution is not to say to those people you are not entitled to that support anymore, the solution is to fix the mining tax. Everybody knows what the flaws are, what we have shown from the PBO costings, we can raise more than $26 billion by including gold in the mining tax and fixing the flaws, going to the 40 per cent rate by making sure that we plug the gap in terms of the royalty payments, getting rid of the accelerated depreciation, all those things can be done means we can go ahead with the programs that were rightly there to support people who need it most. Instead of that single parents are missing out, we now have family Tax Benefit A people who will be missing out, not to mention people Newstart and everybody agrees those people are living below the poverty line. So this is not a fair country if we can’t get the money from the people who can afford to pay and actually make it available to support the people who need it most. So if you’re worried about entitlement let’s go straight to the people who do have a sense of entitlement and that’s the big miners and those who are receiving those fossils of subsidies, namely the big miners and let’s get the money back for the community.

On another matter with Mr Abbott he has said again that he intends to take people out of the public service, reduce the public service by up to 20,000 people but he’s also going to take the public service out of Canberra and distribute it around the country. Well it’s about time he told the people of Canberra and the community how that would work in practical terms. The public service, how are you going to send the CSIRO for example to Karratha or somewhere else - what exactly is he talking about? This is one of those policies which he’s out and about talking in the regions about but he’s not here with the public service in Canberra telling people what it actually means for the effective operations of the public service into the future.

JOURNALIST: Can I also ask you Senator about the Government's decision to release families and children into the community on bridging visas that deny asylum seekers work rights that will keep them there for about five years. Do you have concerns that this will entrench disadvantage?

CHRISTINE MILNE: I’m devastated to hear that the Government’s cruel policy in relation to asylum seekers just gets worse by the minute. As we are seeing the way people are desperate, they’re in the community on bridging visas, they are not allowed to work, they are living in derelict circumstances and now we’re having the Government say it’s quite okay to put families into those positions. It is not okay, these are real people, these are mothers and fathers and children, and are you saying that you can just shove out in the community, no ability to work, no support, is this what it means ‘no advantage’? What it means is you’re putting vulnerable people into circumstances where families won’t be able to feed their children. I don’t think that is the kind of Australia that most people think we should be proud of. So I am really concerned about the Prime Minister making cruel decisions and I would like to ask Mr Abbott whether he intends to continue with such a program such that we see families so badly treated right under our noses and it is not going to be good enough in a decade's time for people in this Parliament to be standing up making apologies and saying they didn’t know that that is the circumstance that they were putting families in, well we do know and it has been agreed to by a Labor Government and supported by the Coalition and it’s wrong

JOURNALIST: The Coalition proposed a work or the dole scheme for those on such visas – would that change the situation at all?

CHRISTINE MILNE: What needs to change is the way that we treat people seeking asylum. It is not illegal to seek asylum and we need to be looking at the circumstances that they are leaving. Take Sri Lanka for example, the Government and the Coalition are all too fast to support the Rajapaksa regime, to pour money into the Rajapaksa navy, and how they deal with trying to stop asylum seekers leaving Sri Lanka, but nobody wants to face up to the fact that Amnesty International, that human rights groups are saying that torture is going on, that persecution is going on in Sri Lanka as we stand here now, and that we should be abandoning CHOGM for a start because we ought not to be legitimising that. So coming up with other programs that adversely impact people seeking asylum is just continuing this cruelty. Let’s actually live up to our human rights obligations and support people who are genuine refugees in order to enable them to live the lives they want to live and make the contribution they want to make to our community.

JOURNALIST: Is this worse than temporary protection visas?

CHRISTINE MILNE: Look temporary protection visas are shocking and we’ve just had an expose on the SIEV X for example where 353 people drowned and a large number of those were women and children and they were on that boat because of the Howard Government’s temporary protection visas not allowing people to get family reunion and therefore women and children thinking they had no option but to get on boats. Now we’ve got a situation where families are being put out into the community with no capacity to support themselves and essentially thrown onto the streets. I think that is completely unacceptable and I’m not going to go into how cruel, how more cruel, what is extreme cruelty, it is all wrong. This whole policy is reaching a point where we need to have a real community revolt against the way both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are treating vulnerable people.

JOURNALIST: There have been a number of changes to Family Tax Benefit A for instance and a number of other announced cuts over the last week or two – have you had any correspondence with the Gillard Government in regards to this and have they spoken about any other possible cuts they’re making ahead of the budget?

CHRISTINE MILNE: No, we’ve had nothing in writing from the Government or discussions with the Government about what they propose in the budget. They have been doing what all governments do and that is flying some flags it in the media to see how people think about things. Well clearly the Greens have said we will not support cuts to universities, we are opposed to taking money out of any part of the education system. We need to support people from early childhood right through to university and we won’t support those cuts. As for the changes they’re proposing to the Family Tax Benefit A, the first we heard of that is in the media today, and we’re joined ACOSS in saying we have real concerns about the fact that these are really targeted payments and they are for the people who are most in need. And so why is it that you would protect the mining bosses, the big miners of Australia and not support the most vulnerable and needy in our community. And that is the question which Prime Minister Gillard and Tony Abbott need to answer.

JOURNALIST: What makes you think there will be further cuts or reallocation to overseas aid next week?

CHRISTINE MILNE: Well I’m very concerned that the Government moved last year to take so many millions out of the aid budget and redirect it to their detention system effectively and I have no evidence to support the fact that they are going to do it again in the budget in even greater measure, but it is very clear they are looking for savings, their cruel detention system is costing more than they anticipated and given that they were prepared to do it once you can anticipate they will probably try to do it again with the support of the Coalition, but I don’t know Lee if you have anything further to add?

LEE RHIANNON: Well there’s certainly an enormous concern within the sector that there could be cuts and that’s why people have been working very hard and I certainly congratulate Oaktree and all those people who have organised the event of Live Below the Line and the week prior to the Budget is a reminder that we don’t need cuts, what we need is an increase in the aid budget.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask whether you’re concerned about a further deferment of 0.5 per cent target?

LEE RHIANNON: Well certainly that’s one of those things that’s been suggested that could happen. At the moment we have not had anything confirmed but when you look at the track record of the Government and of the Coalition on this issue, and it’s worth remembering in November 2011 they actually voted with the Greens with a solid position of committing to 0.5 per cent by 2015 and since then the Government has pushed it back, now the Coalition no longer is putting any timeline on that at all so the rumours continue and it is a worry and it’s why we’re stepping up our voice and the Greens have come forward with our bill.

JOURNALIST: There’s no chance that your bill could be successful though as the Government and Opposition are not going to support it.

LEE RHIANNON: We recognise that at the moment but there is changing climate and again I reiterate 8000 people across Australia living below the poverty line, this is one of the most active online campaigns in terms of Make Poverty History. We have a conservative government in Britain that has taken a step 0.7 per cent and has made that commitment, so life is about change and this is an area that needs to change.

CHRISTINE MILNE: And the Gillard Government is fully aware of the polls, they are fully aware that an Abbott Government is on the path in Australia. If they had a real concern about locking in a contribution to overseas aid according to the policy platforms of all parties then the Gillard Government would work with the Greens to lock this into legislation before the election.

JOURNALIST:  Senator Milne just on a different subject, can I ask you what is your understanding of Simon Sheikh’s length of his membership of the Labor party, what your understanding of that is?

CHRISTINE MILNE: Oh for goodness sake, Simon Sheikh is a terrific candidate for the Greens in the ACT. I am hoping that Simon can dislodge the Liberal senate position in the ACT and bring the dynamism and excitement that he has into the Senate. In terms of being a member of the Labor party previously he’s made no secret of that and has said that he tried it, it changed his mind and I welcome that and I’d welcome many other dynamic young Australians who may have joined the Labor party once to now join the Greens.

 

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