Julie Bishop can put aid back on track

Opinion article written on the 05 Jul 2012

In her first major speech on Australian aid since Labor broke its promise to the world’s poor in last month’s Budget, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop tonight has the opportunity to put pressure on the government to put the aid program back on track and make a real change to the lives of millions of people.

She is set to deliver a speech on Australian aid, with a particular focus on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. 

These regions, together with her commitment to women and gender equality, have occupied much of her attention during her time as Shadow Foreign Minister.

To be delivered at the ANU Development Policy Centre, it will be her first major speech on the aid program since the Government delayed its commitment to increase aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI by the 2015-16 Budget.

Around one third of the Government’s surplus was paid for by breaking a promise made at the last two elections to increase aid spending to only 50 cents in every $100 of our national income by 2015-16.

The impact of the government’s one year delay to the aid budget increase was significant.  It means fewer people will have access to clean water, sanitation, education and healthcare.

Apart from the days immediately following the Budget, little media attention has been focused on the impact of the delay. The foreign affairs spotlight has been shining almost exclusively on Greece’s economy and the sectarian violence in Syria.

Now, that important promise to the world’s poorest stands as hollow words in the Labor Party platform.

But it is also written in the Liberal Party’s election policy, The Coalition’s plan for real action on Foreign Affairs.

The most valuable aspect of the Government’s promise to increase aid to 0.5 per cent by 2015 was that it was a promise made also by the Abbott Coalition.  Aid was temporarily above the political fray.

The Government was in the driver’s seat but they were implementing a bi-partisan policy that, if Labor loses the next election, would be carried forward by the Coalition. This was incredibly valuable in an era of Australian politics, where everything is contested.

It was disappointing that the Coalition did not seek to hold the Government to its aid promise in the days following the Budget. 

Worse than that, the Coalition has quietly walked away from any timeline for achieving the target at all. But this politicisation of aid can end tonight. The aid sector, and the more than two million Australians who support our work, will be looking to Ms Bishop to show leadership in putting Australia’s aid program back on track.

Ms Bishop will focus a lot of her attention on the effectiveness of the aid program in her speech tonight, and rightfully so.

Aid has helped to eradicate polio in the Pacific and decreased the overall number of mothers dying during childbirth by 40 per cent. 

But providing predictable funding is the key to the effectiveness of aid. It provides certainty to the staff implementing the programs at AusAID and its partner organisations that rely on the funds for some of their operations, and allows the recipients of the aid to plan ahead.

The recent review of the effectiveness of the aid program found this to be true and recommended a four-year cabinet-endorsed funding and policy strategy be developed to provide greater clarity and certainty. 

In last month’s Budget, the Government released the Comprehensive Aid Policy Framework to 2015-16. The Framework is welcomed and should go a long way towards making the aid program as effective as it can be. But, as with all four-year plans in Australia, it runs across multiple Parliaments and in order to run its full course, needs to be endorsed by both major parties.

Just last week at a Make Poverty History event, Ms Bishop spoke passionately about how impressed she was with the aid program’s impact.

She now has an opportunity to pull aid back from the day-to-day political fray, and re-establish a consensus by backing the Government’s new timeline of reaching 0.5 per cent GNI by 2016-17.

Andrew Hewett, Executive Director of Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial first appeared in The Canberra Times on 20 June 2012