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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4837


Senator NETTLE (1:14 PM) —I rise to take note of the ministerial and policy statement Australian aid: investing in growth, stability and prosperity tabled yesterday in the Senate. This document clearly shows that the Australian aid program is focused on ensuring Australian business investment, growth, stability and prosperity rather than on making any attempt to reduce global poverty. Australia sits at a miserable 14th out of 22 countries on the OECD donor table, giving only 0.25 per cent of GDP towards our aid program—well short of the 0.7 per cent recommended by the United Nations. This is indeed a sad state of affairs. But when the quality of our aid program is also considered the picture becomes much worse.

The stated goal of AusAID is to alleviate poverty, but there are many programs which DFAT actively promotes that do not even attempt to address this alleged core goal. The Minister for Foreign Affairs talks fondly of the report he commissioned in 1996, known as the Simons report. Published in 1997, this report called for wide ranging changes to Australia's aid program. Its chief recommendations were completely ignored by Mr Downer and the government. The Simons report pointed out the paradox that exists in Australia's aid program: on the one hand, claiming to alleviate poverty while, on the other hand, prioritising the advancement of Australia's national interest. This translates, like much of this government's work, into `lining the pockets of the rich whilst taking from the pockets of the poor'. The Simons report clearly stated that `tying aid'—the process whereby only Australian companies are able to access foreign aid contracts— `undermines the effectiveness of aid by focusing on inputs rather than outcomes'. The coalition government is more interested in securing Australia's economic dominance in the region and using aid programs to bully governments and communities.

Assertions in this report that trade liberalisation is lifting millions of people out of poverty are clearly ludicrous. The United Nations released a report last year that showed 80 per cent of populations in least developed countries are living on less than $2 a day, nearly 800 million people are not getting enough food and 500 million are chronically malnourished, more than 840 million adults are illiterate and 1.2 billion people are living without access to safe drinking water.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs points to Korea as an example of this turnaround. Korea has turned the economic corner because it used strong protective measures in its domestic industry. The steel industry, for instance, began in 1973—or somewhere around that time—with enormous subsidies that enabled the industry to stabilise before arriving on the free market. Now Korea has no tariffs on its steel industry, and it is one of the largest producers in the world. This is in direct contrast to how the WTO, Mr Downer and his free trade cohorts would like to paint the picture.

The free trade approach promotes comparative advantage as one of its key conditions. This policy actively promotes reliance on one or two products. For instance, in Zambia it is copper and in Brazil it is coffee. Thus, when these products are at a low price on the world market, these economies are extremely vulnerable. The emphasis on the WTO, free trade and associated conditionalities have left heavily indebted poor countries extremely vulnerable. Countries should be free to set their own paths to development, but Australia is pushing its ideological belief in a free trade agenda onto our aid countries.

In this document, Mr Downer promotes three strategies: growth, openness and good governance. It would appear that AusAID has paid very little attention to these principles. The aid budget has shrunk continuously since the 1970s in comparison to GDP. AusAID is shifting away from accountability measures by increasingly moving towards private companies administering Australia's foreign aid budget. Commercial-in-confidence is the common refrain when any member of the public attempts to question details about a program conducted by one of these `development corporations'. Trade liberalisation and the corporatisation of aid is focused on pushing Australia's interests above the interests of aid recipients. It seems strange that a government which is fixated with its own sovereignty has so little regard for the sovereignty of its official development assistance partners.

Australia's main area of aid is the Pacific and Papua New Guinea. To suggest that our aid has assisted in their situation at the moment is appropriate, but to suggest that it has been positive is highly controversial. AusAID appears to cloak itself in secrecy, bullying and siphoning off money to private companies. PNG and the Pacific countries, it could be argued, have paid a little too much notice to how their aid partner operates. Australia can take responsibility for the reliance of these countries on our aid money. By sourcing our contracts to Australian companies only, we have not passed on valuable skills and services that could easily have been handed on.

AusAID has an increasing willingness to give Australian taxpayers' money to big business. Over 75 per cent of Australia's aid budget is delivered through private companies, serving their commercial interests and maximising their profits while they deliver `aid' programs. One of the top three recipients is GRM, a wholly owned subsidiary of Australian Consolidated Press and owned by none other than Kerry Packer. How does Mr Downer justify giving over $100 million to the richest man in this country, in addressing the core objective of alleviating poverty? It is also interesting to note that a further use of $116 million of Australia's aid money went straight to DIMIA for the implementation of the Pacific solution.

If Australia really wants to be effective in its attempts to alleviate poverty, it should implement the recommendations from the key report that the coalition itself requested. The Simons 1997 report stated unequivocally that Australia should untie its aid. We recommend that this should be done immediately. The United Kingdom recognised this untying of aid to be only real way to alleviate poverty and it did so in 1996. We also need to move away from private contracting and give more emphasis to developing strong relationships with NGOs that already have considerable connections with the real victims of poverty and that are working to address these without the commercial concerns associated with private companies.

In the area of aid and debt, the Australian Greens recommend that Australia increase its level of funding in the official overseas assistance package to at least 0.7 per cent of GDP, in line with international targets and UN recommended levels. We need also to increase funding for community driven projects in PNG and the Pacific. Affected communities must be involved in project designs and implementation. We need to make Australia's aid program more effective by addressing people's basic needs—real needs such as health and education in the region. This means increasing funding for water and sanitation programs that enhance the democratic participation in the governance of water.

Australia needs to move away and cease placing its commercial and political interests at the forefront of its overseas aid program. This means untying 100 per cent of our bilateral aid while promoting aid procurement policies that strengthen and take advantage of local skills in PNG and the Pacific islands. We need to ensure that the sole purpose of aid delivery is poverty reduction through socially and environmentally sustainable programs. This means presenting communities in PNG and the Pacific with real choices about their aid projects. Australia needs to give guarantees that, in the case of aid project failures, it can ensure the provision of services, and it needs to place ecologically sustainable development at the forefront of these aid projects.

The right to self-determination must be upheld at all stages of project design and implementation. We can start this by ceasing to use Australia's aid to fund any Pacific solution program and by abandoning this refugee dumping solution. We need to focus Australia's aid projects on cost-effective, appropriate and innovative solutions that will not increase dependence on foreign expertise, funds or technical advantage. Instead, local skills must be utilised and developed to reduce the reliance on donors. This means increasing the democratic involvement of recipients in aid programs. Rather than commercial-in-confidence being prioritised in private sector agreements, contracts must be made public and must be genuinely open to participation by community and civil society groups.

In our aid program we need to respect customary land tenure and to support this. Renewable energy sources and solutions in the region can also be addressed and supported through our aid program. This means respecting and supporting indigenous languages in PNG and the Pacific, promoting gender equality and dropping 100 per cent of the debt owed to Australia by PNG and Pacific nations. We recognise that the failure of governments in many of our development partner countries is a legacy of colonial rule and that all measures should be attempted to engage traditional means of organisation in AusAID programs. The Australian Greens will continue to campaign for these necessary changes to Australia's overseas aid program.