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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4752


Senator RIDGEWAY (4:55 PM) —by leave—I want to make some brief remarks in relation to this report on the Australian government's overseas aid program, entitled Australian aid: investing in growth, stability and prosperity. The Australian Democrats welcome the government's focus on poverty reduction as the ongoing aim of our overseas aid program. We know that Australia's focus in this regard is consistent with our commitment in 2000 under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, especially our commitment to the UN to work with the international community to halve the number of people who suffer from hunger and extreme poverty by 2015. We also welcome the government's emphasis in this new policy document on engaging with civil society groups and, more particularly, with NGOs, even though there are qualifications in this regard. I will refer to them shortly.

Where the Australian Democrats have serious concerns is in relation to the obvious shift in this new policy approach to a reliance upon economic growth and good governance to drive development and reduce poverty. Economic growth alone is insufficient. You need a range of measures to overcome the circumstances of poverty. The examples cited by the government today of countries who have succeeded as a result in part of aid programs include China, Vietnam, and Korea. Some of them were opened to trade, others established strong protectionist measures to foster their fledgling industries that are now international powerhouses, but few have a human rights record that can stand up to international scrutiny. In other words, it is highly misleading and, indeed, simplistic to credit the principles of good governance and economic growth as the two measures that reduced poverty in these countries and helped to establish them as international economic successes.

On a first reading of this document this afternoon, I have not seen any mention of the integral role that human rights and the rule of law have to play in achieving real and sustainable development, the reduction of poverty and, more particularly, the reduction of suffering. This glaring oversight in policy terms is of great concern, especially in light of the situation facing the international community at the moment. In my view, Australia does have a responsibility, now more than ever, to affirm the principles of human rights and international law rather than to ignore them.

Another serious oversight in this document is the absence of Africa. Enormous poverty and development challenges face Africa, especially in the fight against HIV-AIDS. Whilst we understand the rationale and logic behind Australia focusing this budget on our immediate region—the Asia-Pacific region—we are also conscious of the decline in real terms of Australia's aid to Africa under the Howard government. The Australian Council for Overseas Aid, for example, estimates that it has fallen by 40 per cent over the last 10 years. The Australian Democrats would therefore encourage the government to rethink this element of its policy with a view to at least maintaining our aid level to Africa.

In short, the Democrats are concerned that this new policy is high on rhetoric but low on real measures to meet problems confronting our region and the world's poor. Aid should be 0.7 per cent of gross national product, as recommended by the United Nations. For over two decades the Democrats have been consistent in our approach to overseas aid. One of the central tenets of Democrat policy is the need for Australia to meet the target set by the UN in 1969 to provide 0.7 per cent of GNP for international aid programs. In light of this longstanding target, the Australian Democrats again call on the government to deliver a major increase in Australia's overseas aid commitments, not reductions. We acknowledge that, sadly, the 1997 Simons report, One clear objective, took a completely pragmatic approach to abandoning the UN 0.7 per cent target. This position was forced upon Simons as successive Australian governments have politically committed to meeting the target but, in practice, have justified their failure to meet the target on budgetary grounds. The line, as usual, is: as and when budgetary circumstances permit'. In my view, that has lost credibility. While it continues to be used, Australia continues to diminish its real GNP contribution to overseas development assistance.

In 1972 Australia was delivering 0.48 per cent of GNP in overseas development assistance. This percentage has been steadily declining over the past 30 years. In real dollar terms in 2002, Australia has only increased its overseas aid contribution by about $400 million over the past 30 years. During this period the Australian economy has been growing at an average annual rate of 3.2 per cent. In 1972 Australia's GNP was $270 billion; in 2002 it was approximately $695 billion. Today, Australia's aid budget is the lowest it has been in 30 years at only 0.25 per cent of GDP.

Australia should begin increasing our overseas aid commitment now in order that, through yearly incremental increases, the 0.7 per cent target is met by 2010. The nations of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Sweden have already met and exceeded the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent of GNP. Whilst Belgium, Switzerland, France, Finland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain and Germany have not reached this target, they remain well ahead of Australia in their progress. In short, it simply means that Australia's performance in regard to meeting our commitment to the UN target is not something that we as a nation can be proud of.

It seems to me that aid must be delivered to the poorest and is best delivered through non-government organisations rather than through bilateral agreements and other governmental forms of deliverance. The Australian Democrats welcome the commitment by the government today to channel our assistance directly to community organisations, non-government organisations and other civil society groups but note that this should be happening as a matter of course—not just when government systems are failing, as the new policy provides. Aid is a vehicle through poverty reduction for the easing of tensions, which can lead to regional tensions.

The Australian Democrats welcome the emphasis in this new policy approach on the need to focus on humanitarian assistance that directly targets the poor and reduces their vulnerability by targeting essential services like health and education. We also recognise that this approach is critical if Australia is to honour commitments made under the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015, which include halving global poverty by 2015, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality by two-thirds, reversing the spread of HIV-AIDS, and being able to integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and reverse the loss of environmental resources. But to achieve these goals the United Nations and the World Bank estimate that we need to increase global aid by $70 billion per year until 2015. This of course will require Australia's contribution to that target to increase proportionately—but we are clearly failing in this regard and, indeed, as I mentioned earlier, we are going backwards.

What commitment will Australia make to additional resources to achieve the millennium goals? In light of our commitments to those goals, the Democrats also question whether the government has the right policy focus. The goals would require greater emphasis on poverty reduction programs rather than on good governance. On the issue of good governance, and having raised this question of the balance between a policy focused on poverty reduction and the pursuit of good governance, the Democrats recognise the need for Australia to engage governments on good governance and furthering the goal of civil society.

We have serious reservations about the sincerity of this commitment, given our recent practice of placing asylum seekers in neighbouring Pacific countries like Nauru and PNG in order to deal with our own immigration concerns. For example, how can we expect our Pacific island neighbours to improve their record on good governance when, in the case of Nauru, we increased our aid budget by 195 per cent in the last year and effectively bribed this country to take asylum seekers off our hands? How is this practice promoting human rights, the principle of good governance or affirming the sincerity of our country's commitment to capacity building and poverty reduction in our own region? We run the risk of being accused of `taking a hectoring approach' or `behaving like a colonial power' that has one set of rules for itself and another for its neighbours—precisely what Minister Downer said that he wants to avoid. If Australia's ultimate goal is to be a responsible aid donor, we need to ensure that the recipient country upholds international standards for human rights protections and the rule of law in its definition of `good governance'. It is not enough to just focus on programs that deliver stronger police forces if the recipient country does not enshrine fundamental human rights protections and safeguards in its legal and judicial system.

I think the recent experience of East Timor one year on from independence is a perfect case in point. We have a new nation that is urgently trying to focus on building an effective legal and judicial system after decades of foreign occupation and, more recently, gross violations of human rights. Billions of dollars are needed to rebuild East Timor's devastated infrastructure, but I believe there must also be a determined effort to put in place the kinds of legal and human rights protections that East Timor badly needs. The international community has an obligation to help, and I acknowledge that Australia has been particularly active and responsive in this regard. In particular, we have given considerable practical and professional assistance to put in place a fully functioning and independent judiciary to curb corruption, establish East Timorese confidence in civil institutions and attract foreign investment.

But, on the other hand, I think we do have a responsibility to support the calls from the East Timorese people to establish an international tribunal for East Timor to bring the perpetrators of serious crimes against humanity in East Timor to justice. Only last month we saw the acquittal of six members of Indonesia's security forces on charges arising from the massacre of three East Timorese priests and scores of civilians in 1999, as a result of a decision by the Indonesian ad hoc human rights court. This was a decision that received condemnation from the East Timorese people, along with the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. If Australia is serious about its commitment to promoting and upholding the principles of good governance and the rule of law in our region through our overseas aid program, it must also be prepared to do so in our foreign affairs policy. There has to be consistency in approach across all portfolio areas if we hope to lead by example in the Asia-Pacific region.

In concluding, I want to note that the Democrats reserve the right to elaborate further on our initial remarks in response to this policy document. We have had only a matter of a couple of hours to skim the document, and I realise that a more considered response is required, as well as discussions with organisations and individuals who have expertise in the portfolio area. But I am concerned that the report does little to reassure the Australian Democrats or, for that matter, the Australian people that the government is serious about us carrying our own fair share of responsibility in relation to nations that are not as affluent as our own.

We are concerned that there is no consistency in approach across the range of portfolios, particularly in relation to our immigration policy and how it works in conjunction with our overseas aid policy in the Pacific. We are also concerned about Australia's ability to contribute our fair share to the achievement of the UN millenium goals. We can only hope that we do not decide to abandon these goals, as we did in relation to the UN aid target that was set in 1969.

Senator NETTLE (New South Wales) (5.08 p.m.)—by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.