June 15, 2021

My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Australia's official development assistance program is how we help the poorest people in the world climb out of destitution and despair. The coronavirus pandemic makes official development assistance more important than ever. Many countries in our region have poorly resourced health systems which have struggled to cope with the pandemic, and the plight of people in developing countries is getting worse as the pandemic continues to unfold.

When I spoke on last year's appropriation bill in November, the World Bank was estimating that COVID would push an extra 88 million to 115 million people around the world into extreme poverty. In the seven months since then, the World Bank has revised this estimate up to 124 million people who have fallen into extreme poverty in 2020 alone. Since last November there have been major COVID outbreaks in our region; Indonesia, India and Papua New Guinea have been hit hard. Yet, in those seven months as COVID has worsened in the Indo-Pacific, the Morrison government increased official development assistance by only $37 million in the 2021-22 budget. That additional $37.1 million in support for India is welcome, but it represents an increase of just 0.2 per cent in the aid budget over the forward estimates. It's a tiny amount when we remember that this Liberal government has already cut a massive $11.8 billion from Australia's aid budget since 2013, and it is positively miniscule in the context of a budget with policy decisions costing nearly $100 billion.

In the 2020-21 budget the government did provide new funding of $304.7 million to help Pacific countries recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and $500 million to support access to COVID-19 vaccines in the Pacific and South-East Asia.

Labor welcomes these measures, but they are a drop in the ocean following the government's $11.8 billion of cuts to foreign aid. The axe which the Liberals have taken to the aid budget includes large cuts to health programs in developing countries—a remarkably short-sighted approach in light of the pandemic.

Australia's official development assistance for health programs will be $229 million lower in 2020-21 than it was in 2014-15—a reduction of 28 per cent. Let me repeat that: this government, in the midst of a global COVID pandemic, has cut the level of health ODA by $229 million since 2014-15. These cuts have fallen hard on countries in the Indo-Pacific. Since 2014-15 the Morrison government has cut bilateral aid for health programs by 39 per cent for Laos, 64 per cent for Cambodia, 80 per cent for Bangladesh, 82 per cent for Vietnam and 87.5 per cent for Indonesia. These are massive cuts for some of our most important regional partners and are incredibly short-sighted. When Australia walks away from our partners, who does the Prime Minister think will help fill these gaps? Our region is more contested than ever. How is the Prime Minister delivering on our interests and supporting our shared pandemic recoveries if he leaves vacuums for others to fill?

The main vehicle the international community has established to tackle the pandemic in developing countries is the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, overseen by the WHO. The ACT Accelerator, which includes the Gavi Covax Facility, is rolling out tests, vaccines and treatments to low-income countries around the world. The Morrison government has contributed $143 million to these efforts. By comparison, the United States has contributed US$5.2 billion, Germany has contributed US$2.6 billion and the UK and Canada have contributed US$1.1 billion each. On a per capita basis these countries have contributed between 3½ and seven times as much as the Australian government has to the Covax Facility and the ACT Accelerator. The government of Norway, with a population a fifth the size of Australia, has contributed nearly five times as much as the Morrison government. Australians donate hundreds of millions of dollars every year to charities for international development and humanitarian work, but individuals, churches and NGOs can't do it all. The government's inadequate response risks damaging Australia's national interests and our international standing. My question to the minister is: why has the government responded to the biggest development crisis in a generation by providing inadequate temporary measures rather than an ongoing sustainable boost to Australia's aid budget?