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Thursday, 17 October 2002
Page: 5440

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6:01 PM) —I would like to speak to the report from AusAid, the Australian government's overseas aid program. The report makes a lot of good statements about the importance of poverty reduction. I think it is particularly appropriate to note that—as many senators would be aware, but perhaps not others outside this place—a petition was presented outside Parliament House today by the National Coalition Against Poverty to a group of parliamentarians, including the Independent member for Calare, Mr Andren. The petition had many thousands of signatures—I think, off the top of my head, that there were about 50,000 Australians calling for a royal commission into poverty, obviously focused on poverty in Australia. As part of that presentation, there was a very good speech made by Professor Julian Disney about poverty levels around the world as well as different issues of poverty in Australia. The conclusion of this document, I think, makes a good point in that it says that aid is a central component of Australia's foreign policy and national interest—it is and so too is the need for better prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region that Australia is a part of.

The Democrats have argued strongly— and even more so since the tragic events of the weekend—that we must increase our focus on the countries in our region. Part of that is assisting them with issues of prosperity, governance and opportunity. Poverty is not just about lack of money but also about lack of opportunity—whether it is in housing or other areas. The Democrats asked in question time earlier this week whether the government would now consider increasing its aid or changing the direction of its aid. Unfortunately, I think the answer given by the minister was fairly dismissive of the point that the Democrats were making.

I do not think there is much doubt that if you can increase prosperity overall in a region you will increase the opportunity for a society to address issues of extremism and violence and the prospect of such movements gaining greater numbers of adherents. It is true that some of the leaders of some of these terrorist groups are not poor—they have stacks of money—but their ability to gain greater numbers of adherents is often linked to levels of poverty in their region. It is not the sole factor but it is obviously a key factor and I do not think that it can be, or should be, denied. Assisting greater prosperity and stability in our region is in Australia's national interest and it highlights again one reason, among so many others, that aid is so crucial.

The report outlines world poverty by region and in the East Asia and Pacific region there are over 250 million people in poverty. Those are people living on $US1 a day, so it is a pretty tight definition of what determines poverty. In Indonesia a huge percentage of that country's population live on less than $US1 per day. I do not think Australians understand, sometimes, the level of poverty and the nature of life for large numbers of people who live in our neighbourhood. That is why aid is so important and that is why it is so disappointing that Australia's overall aid contribution continues to be so poor.

This report suggests that our aid levels have increased. Australia's aid as a ratio of gross national income is estimated at 0.25 per cent—one quarter of one per cent. Astonishingly, that has continued to drop. It has dropped from over 0.3 per cent in the 1980s to 0.25 per cent now. Despite that, this report has the audacity to say that the government continues to support the UN's 0.7 per cent target. I do not know how you can support the target whilst getting further and further away from it, particularly when a number of other countries, European countries in particular, are much closer to it and a number of them are over it. Some of the northern Scandinavian countries are at, or near, or aiming for, one per cent.

So, fundamentally, the level that we put into aid is a scandal. It must be addressed. We are talking about investing in prosperity in our region and around the world. As the report says, that is in our national interest as well as in the interests of humanity around the globe. It must be given greater priority. If one looks at some of the issues behind the tragedy of the weekend, one will see that the need to provide better assistance to our brothers and sisters around the world who are in need is important. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.