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Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Page: 1489


Mr THISTLETHWAITE (Kingsford Smith) (20:25): I am speaking in respect of the Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013. As the shadow minister pointed out, the opposition will not oppose this legislation, which is a machinery of government bill that facilitates the transfer of employees of the Australian Civilian Corps from the abolished AusAID to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Australian Civilian Corps is a Labor initiative of the last parliament. The ACC has around 489 registered specialists who assist our friends and neighbours in other countries with a range of specialty projects ranging from legal, electoral and governance matters to health, financial management and engineering guidance. The ACC was formed in 2011 and is designed to provide a flexible and timely Australian response that bridges the gap between humanitarian and emergency relief and long-term development programs. ACC personnel are a group of experienced experts who provide stabilisation and recovery assistance to fragile states and countries experiencing or emerging from conflict or natural disaster. The personnel have been deployed to 11 countries across the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The ACC is one of the few Australian overseas aid programs that are governed by specialist legislation. The ACC makes a lasting contribution to the recovery of countries that have been struck by natural disaster and conflict. It is a commendable organisation that provides a vital service to countless people.

We are pleased to see that the ACC will continue, but of course the opposition firmly opposes the $4.5 billion worth of cuts to Australia's foreign aid budget. We firmly oppose the government's veil of secrecy surrounding these cuts, which will make it much more difficult, particularly for NGOs and aid organisations, to predict what the cuts will mean in areas of Australian interest and for the future of the ACC as an operational body. Will the cuts mean fewer vaccinations and immunisations for Australia's Pacific neighbours? Will they result in the loss of experienced and capable people in the field of foreign aid delivery? It is hard to tell just how much expertise in international development policy will be lost as a result of the government's heinous policy decisions on foreign aid.

There are a number of important foreign policy and overseas development aid programs currently operating in the Pacific, including the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development program, which is an initiative that was introduced by the former Gillard government to combat domestic violence in the Pacific, to provide opportunities for women to undertake increased educational opportunities and to improve participation by women in democracy and within government organisations. There are shocking—absolutely appalling—rates of domestic violence against women in the Pacific: in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and other areas, rates of domestic violence are close to 85 per cent. The Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development program is aimed at ensuring that Australia as a nation works bilaterally through organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum to combat and eventually bring down the rate of domestic violence in the Pacific. A big question mark hangs over that particular program and the great work that has been performed by many NGOs and aid organisations in working with AusAID and the Australian government and governments of our Pacific neighbours to bring down the rate of domestic violence, in particular, in such countries.

The Climate Change Adaptation Program is, again, an initiative of the Gillard Labor government to work with Pacific neighbours in fighting and combating the effects of climate change. Anyone who believes that climate change is not real need look no further than the Pacific. Climate change is not an imminent threat in the Pacific; it is occurring as we speak. One need only look at a nation such as the Marshall Islands, where, over the course of the last 12 months, there has been very little rainfall. The crops are drying up. The nation is in drought. Australia has been involved in providing close to $600,000 worth of emergency relief to the northern atolls of the Marshall Islands in the form of food drops and emergency water supplies to ensure that there is sustainability of populations in those areas.

The issue of climate change in the Pacific is only going to get worse. The scientists tell us that one of the areas most susceptible and vulnerable to climate change is in our backyard—the Pacific. It is incumbent upon Australia as a wealthy nation, as a nation with high living standards, to work with our Pacific neighbours to ensure that we are doing our bit to maintain civilisations—populations—in the Pacific that are going to be affected dramatically by climate change. And, of course, there is a big question mark over the Climate Change Adaptation Program because of this government's commitment to cut $4.5 billion worth of the foreign aid budget.

Development for All is an appropriate program to be mentioning this evening, given that today is the 21st birthday of the UN International Day of People with a Disability. Development for All was a program introduced by the former Labor government in 2009, which specifically recognised and focused our aid budget on relieving and assisting those living with disabilities throughout the Pacific, in particular. The focus of that program was to ensure that those living with a disability were not forgotten when it came to the allocation of aid funding throughout the area.

So, make no mistake, this bill is necessary solely because of the government's abolition of AusAID. We oppose this government's cuts to overseas development aid to the tune of $4.5 billion. We are particularly concerned about AusAID and its being subsumed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. AusAID has worked for and partnered with some of the world's poorest nations to alleviate poverty, educate children and eliminate disease. It has a very effective record. In June of this year, I was fortunate to travel to the Western Province of Papua New Guinea as the Parliamentary Secretary for the Pacific Islands Affairs, to open a state-of-the-art tuberculosis clinic in Daru. It is a $35-million investment by the former Labor government in providing state-of-the-art facilities to combat the difficult and serious problem of the spread of tuberculosis in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea. That funding was administered through AusAID. That program was delivered by AusAID—very effectively, I might add—in the Western Province. It was not just about providing the facilities in that hospital. There was also a medical boat supplied to the Western Province, to Daru, to travel up and down the Fly River. It transports patients who do not have access to roads, or who do not have access to other means of transportation, from remote areas and down the Fly River to this state-of-the-art facility. It has been an effective investment by the former Labor government in combating and eradicating tuberculosis for one of our very important neighbours. Again, these sorts of programs are up in the air due to the intended budget cuts.

The countries that AusAID has provided assistance to depend on us, not just for aid but for our expertise. Many Australians with that expertise are employees of AusAID. As the shadow minister has explained, the integration of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was executed suddenly and clumsily. It is because of this policy that staff will head into the Christmas period with some uncertainty regarding their employment going into 2014.

Labor has a clear and concise commitment to overseas international development. We will increase our spend on overseas development assistance to 0.5 per cent of GNI, and we have a goal of reaching the target of 0.7 per cent of GNI. Our record on foreign aid and overseas development aid speaks for itself. Labor grew our nation's development assistance every year. In 2006-07 we gave $2.95 billion through AusAID and by 2013-14 that had grown to $5.66 billion. That was clear indication of Labor's commitment to working—particularly within our region, in the Asia Pacific—on overseas development to boost the living standards of our most important partners.