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Question without Notice: Sen Rhiannon to Carr on overseas aid spent on Nauru/PNG refugee detention

Hansard from Senate 23 August 2012

Asylum Seekers

Senator RHIANNON

(New South Wales) (14:21): I direct my question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr. Is the minister aware that, during the Howard government's Pacific solution, former Labor shadow minister for international development assistance Bob McMullan heavily criticised the then government for spending $27 million in aid money on detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island? Does the minister agree that spending aid money on offshore processing is inappropriate and distorts the aid budget away from the key objectives of poverty alleviation and achieving the Millennium Development Goals?

Senator BOB CARR

(New South Wales-Minister for Foreign Affairs) (14:21): The guide for the government on the appropriate use of aid money is the OECD. The OECD work on this lays down guidelines about what areas of expenditure assisting asylum seekers would be appropriately funded from an aid budget, and the government will adhere to the OECD guidelines. It could well be that there are areas of support for asylum seekers where, according to the international tests, that is considered appropriate and other areas where it would not be appropriate. We will be absolutely transparent about this and, as the government's plans develop, I look forward to sharing with the Senate any expenditure of Australian aid money on any aspects related to the government's solution.

Bear in mind that the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers vindicates the government's approach to the whole aspect of seeking offshore processing that is humane, in that it provides a disincentive to the work of people smugglers, and that is efficient in wrecking the business model for people smugglers and providing a disincentive for people to risk their lives on the high seas. That expert panel report in fact vindicates the government's approach, including the Malaysian arrangement, and is the basis of the government also proceeding to expedite the establishment of processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru. The Prime Minister said this and addressed these concerns when she spoke on Tuesday, 14 August. I might mention that reconnaissance teams have completed visits to Nauru and Manus Island. As recently as last week, they provided advice on logistics and other administrative and organisational issues. Senior officials- (Time expired)

Senator RHIANNON

(New South Wales) (14:23): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Under the OECD guidelines, Minister, what aspects of the work on the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island can be undertaken? Are they construction, staffing or implementation? Could you provide information on how that money can be spent; and, if the money is spent on the detention centres, will you publicly reveal the figures at the time the money is committed rather than waiting until the 2013-14 budget? 

Senator BOB CARR

(New South Wales-Minister for Foreign Affairs) (14:24): These are legitimate questions, and I can give the senator an assurance that I will share with her and the rest of the Senate the government contribution from the aid budget to anything related to this package of measures to achieve a more satisfactory resolution of the whole issue of people-smuggling and asylum-seeking-of irregular maritime arrivals. We will be guided by the OECD guidelines. We are consulting the OECD at the present time

I would just underline the fact that work on this is still proceeding. The consultations by our task forces with the government of Nauru have a way to run. Senior officials are undertaking discussions this week with Foreign Minister Keke on the details of a memorandum of understanding. Officials will be working as quickly as possible to conclude negotiations and agree- (Time expired)

(15:33): I move:

Asylum Seekers

Senator RHIANNON

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Bob Carr) to questions without notice I asked today relating to asylum seekers.

The response from the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the question that I put about whether aid money will be used in any way for the detention centres that are earmarked for Manus Island and Nauru certainly left open that possibility. The way his response was phrased, talking about the tangential use of the money, I did find concerning. The foreign aid budget is a very important part of our budget, and it is clearly earmarked to relieve world poverty and also very specifically to address the Millennium Development Goals. This is an area where there is so much work to be done.

I believe that the majority of Australians understand that money will be used by the government in partnership with governments in low-income countries, various international finance institutions and multilateral development agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, the Food and Agricultural Organization, and many other bodies. I believe the public would expect that the money is being used directly by Australia or with such bodies to assist people. Sometimes aid projects may have a bit of a question mark over them, but that is what is set out. The foreign aid budget is about assisting people and the environment in low-income countries, and that is how that money should be spent.

To divert that money to build the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island is, I think, a betrayal of the trust of the Australian people and their understanding of how government processes work. Yes, the government has been successful because it was able to work it out with the coalition and come forward with this very damaging legislation about refugees, but to now misuse money in the aid budget really furthers the damaging aspects of the legislation that was passed a couple of weeks ago.

Papua New Guinea itself is one of the countries with the highest rates of AIDS and malaria and where violence against women is extreme. Just on the past two mornings in this place we have had breakfast with people working in the aid area who are doing fine work, and what constantly comes up when you talk to them is the need for there to be greater allocation of money from the budget of a country like Australia to meeting our obligations.

It was back in the 1990s, when former Prime Minister John Howard was in office, that he gave the commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, which were clearly linked to Australia reaching 0.7 per cent of GDP to be allocated to its aid budget.

That still, to this day, has not been achieved. We saw that the Australian government in the most recent budget further backed off from increasing the aid allocation, so it will increase at a much slower rate than we expected. The 0.5 per cent allocation expected by 2015 now has blown out by a number of years.

That money is so important to address health, education and water sanitation issues for people, particularly in developing countries in our own region. It is also important for greater female participation to assist these countries to improve their democratic processes. We are losing some of the budget-so important for those programs-to detention centres that are just so damaging to the people who attempt to escape very oppressive, difficult lives. They have a right to come to this country. Now, they are going to be forced to go to detention centres and so we are misusing our aid budget. I found the response from the minister very troubling. Question agreed to.

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