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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 122

Senator FARRELL (7:02 PM) —I rise today to speak on the issue of world poverty. A recent campaign by Micah Challenge Australia helped highlight to the house late last year the pressing issues of world poverty. As a result of the Micah Challenge visit, Senators Mark Arbib and Guy Barnett discussed in this place some weeks ago the devastating effects of poverty and I commend their contributions on this issue.

The Micah Challenge is an international movement of Christians running campaigns in 29 countries to encourage world leaders to meet the Millennium Development Goals. I had the opportunity to meet with one of the Micah Challenge delegations that visited parliament recently and I was impressed by their enthusiasm, their passion and their commitment to eradicating world poverty. I found it refreshing to sit down and listen to young people discuss their bold vision as to how developed countries such as Australia should address poverty in our region. Australians would all agree that we live in the lucky country despite the world economic crisis. However, it is difficult to comprehend just how unlucky so many billions of people in the world are and to comprehend the appalling conditions they face every day.

The Micah Challenge delegation informed me of some alarming statistics: 923 million of the world’s people are undernourished; 1.4 billion people live on less then US$1.25 a day; every year 9.2 million children under the age of five die from mostly preventable illnesses and diseases that possibly no child in a developed country would die from; 2.6 billion people live in poor sanitary conditions that contribute to disease; 72 million primary school age children do not go to school; and 33 million people are living with HIV, with 2.5 million infections each year, predominantly in Africa.

These appalling statistics are nearly impossible to conceptualise. It is impossible to imagine the immense suffering of 923 million individual people or to try and visualise in one’s mind the enormity of 9.2 million children dying on an annual basis largely from preventable diseases. We cannot let the plight of 923 million people become just a number or just an abstraction. We must not let the size of the problem daunt policymakers or allow them to think that these issues are simply too hard to solve. Action can and must be taken.

The Millennium Development Goals agreed upon in Geneva in 2000 by nations around the world including Australia provide an important framework for tackling this urgent problem. There are eight Millennium Development Goals and the deadline for achieving these is the target year of 2015. They are lofty goals but ones that we should be doing our very best to achieve.

Goal No. 1 is to halve by 2015 the number of people whose income is less than $1 a day and who suffer from hunger. Goal No. 2 is to ensure that by 2015 all children complete at least a full course of primary schooling. Goal No. 3 is to achieve gender equality in primary and secondary education. Goal No. 4 is to reduce by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate. Goal No. 5 is to reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio. Goal No. 6 states that by 2015 the spread of HIV will be halted and that there will be a start on the reversal of the disease. Goal No. 7 is to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. And, finally, goal No. 8 is to create a global partnership for development under an open, non-discriminatory trading and financial system.

Australia has an important role to play in helping achieve these worthy objectives. I commend the Rudd government, which is obviously in difficult economic times, for committing Australia to spending 0.5 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid projects by the year 2015.

In the 2008 federal budget, the Australian government increased funding in official development assistance by nine per cent in real terms, bringing current expenditure on overseas aid to 0.32 per cent of gross national income. These increases in aid funding are essential because Australia has an important role to play in combating poverty in our region. If one is to believe the old adage, ‘charity begins at home’, perhaps a case could be made for a compulsory donation by people who earn more than $250,000 per annum towards boosting Australia’s Millennium Development Goals contribution. I doubt if such people would miss, say, $2.50 or $5 a week and, as a British statesman once said, ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.’

Unfortunately, poverty affects millions of people in Australia’s own backyard. Each year 24,000 mothers and 400,000 children in the Asia-Pacific region die from preventable causes. For example, Australia’s closest regional neighbour, Indonesia, has the highest mortality rate of any South-East Asian country. More than 50 per cent of the Indonesian population live on less than US$2 a day, 50 million Indonesians lack access to clean water and over 71 million Indonesians lack access to proper sanitation.

The aid that Australia provides to Indonesia is in our national interest. Reducing poverty helps reduce political instability in developing nations and minimises the likelihood of political upheaval. If the world economic crisis continues, there is the potential for political instability to increase. If there is no progress towards improving the quality of life of millions of people living in poverty in our region then we can expect the demand for Australia’s peacekeeping forces to increase into the future.

As I have indicated, poor economic conditions may often cause political instability. During the Asian economic crisis of 1997, not only was Indonesia hit hard economically but it also went through a revolution. Fortunately, the dictatorial Suharto regime was replaced by a parliamentary democracy. It remains in Australia’s best interest to have stable government in Indonesia. Reducing the severe economic imbalances in the region will help entrench stable governments in South-East Asia and will improve the esteem in which our nation is held throughout the region.

I would like to finish by recognising the fine work that faith based organisations such as the Micah Challenge and World Vision do to help people who are struggling. Faith is incredibly important to many people in the world’s charities and underpins their work. Faith provides them with the motivation to speak out against injustice and to persevere despite the enormity of the task that they face. The work of the Micah Challenge is about putting faith into practice.

I would also like to thank the Micah Challenge for raising this important issue with my colleagues and me. It was sobering to learn the true extent of the problems faced by millions of people living in poverty, which in turn become our problems also. By setting targets to reduce poverty, we can help to achieve an improvement for those doing it tough. Importantly, setting targets encourages us to take action now rather than to sit back. I sincerely hope that we meet all of these targets by 2015.

In closing, I would ask senators to remember that nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. Thank you.