November 11, 2020

My question is to the Minister for International Development and the Pacific and it relates to the aid program. Overseas development assistance is a key part of Australia's foreign policy. It's the way we support economic, social and human development. It's the way we help the poorest people in the world to climb out of destitution and despair. In a region where millions of people still live in extreme poverty it is also in Australia's national interest to strengthen our commitment to development. Development means greater prosperity, security and stability in our region.

The coronavirus pandemic makes the aid program more important than ever. Many countries in our region have poorly resourced health systems that have struggled to cope with the pandemic. Many countries in our region have also been hit hard by the economic fallout from COVID-19, particularly our Pacific neighbours who rely heavily on tourism. The World Bank has estimated that COVID-19 will push an extra 88 to 115 million people around the world into extreme poverty in 2020 alone. Extreme poverty means surviving on less than US$1 a day.

The pandemic has reversed 20 years of progress in global poverty reduction. That throws into stark relief the fact that this Liberal government has cut $11.8 billion from Australia's aid budget since it came to office in 2013—$11.8 billion in cuts. Those cuts have hurt some of the poorest people in the world and they've been contrary to Australia's national interests. The cuts have fallen heavily on countries in South-East Asia. The government has cut bilateral aid to Indonesia from $551.9 in 2014-15 to $255.7 million in 2021, a cut of 54 per cent. It has cut bilateral ODA for Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam by 44 per cent since 2014-15.

I do acknowledge that the budget provided $304.7 million over two years to help Pacific countries to recover from the impacts of COVID-19. I also acknowledge the minister's announcement after the budget of $500 million over three years to support access to COVID-19 vaccines in the Pacific and South-East Asia. Labor welcomes these measures. These are good measures, but the truth is they are a drop in the ocean following the government's $11.8 billion in cuts. The extra $805 million for development assistance represents only one per cent of the budget's $71.3 billion in new payment measures—one per cent. The ministers have said this funding will be a temporary increase, rather than an ongoing increase, to the aid budget.

An important issue for the development program is the need to evaluate whether aid investments are achieving the desired outcome and represent value for money. Minister Payne and Minister Hawke have used the pandemic as cover to dismantle the aid performance framework. They've systemically removed key elements of the performance framework for ensuring that our $4 billion aid program is performing effectively. They have abolished the office of development effectiveness, the agency introduced by Alexander Downer to conduct rigorous and independent evaluations of aid projects. They have scrapped the performance of Australian aid report, the independently verified annual report card on the aid program which was introduced by Julie Bishop. They are no longer are publishing annual aid program performance reports, which report whether Australia, as a major country in regional aid programs, are meeting their performance benchmarks. They have even abandoned Julie Bishop's strategic target of ensuring 80 per cent of the Australia's aid investments address the gender equality issues—a curious decision by Minister Payne given since she is also the Minister for Women.

They government has not met the gender target in any year since it was set back in 2014. Instead of stepping up the focus on gender issues, these ministers responded by dropping the target. One can wonder whether that was the motivation to drop the target, the systematic underperformance and inability to hit the gender target. This dismantling of the performance framework has been carried out secretively with no public announcements and no consultation with stakeholders, all under the cloak of reshaping the ODA program in response to COVID-19.

These changes represent a massive erosion of accountability and transparency.

Having cut the aid program by $11.8 billion, these ministers are now scrapping the key mechanisms which have ensured our aid dollars are spent effectively. Taxpayers can no longer be confident that the $4 billion aid program represents value for money and delivers real outcomes. My questions to the minister are: when will this government provide an ongoing boost to the aid budget? Why has the minister dismantled the entire aid performance framework? Why has the Pacific Step-up resulted in a step-down everywhere else?