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Wednesday, 27 October 1993
Page: 2604

Senator REYNOLDS —I address my question to the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister for Foreign Affairs. What truth is there in reports this morning that the government's $130 million, four-year population initiative for developing countries announced in the budget has been suspended on the basis of pressure from Senator Harradine? Does the government no longer agree with this objective, announced by Minister Bilney on 7 September, to significantly increase aid expenditure on population? Does the government also no longer agree with Mr Bilney that the proposed expenditure would help cut infant and maternal mortality in developing countries, give women greater control of fertility and reduce unsustainable population growth?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The story in this morning's Canberra Times and some of the subsequent comment in other media have been based on incomplete information and totally exaggerate the significance of what has occurred in discussions to date on this issue.

  The government did, of course, announce in the budget context a substantial increase in population related activities to a total of $30 million in 1993-94 and $130 million over the four years to 1996-97. This was in order to make a substantial move toward the OECD's Development Assistance Committee target of four per cent of assistance being devoted to population activities by the year 2000.

  The vast majority of funds out of those allocated for 1993-94, and also those allocated for the whole four-year period, have already been committed either in terms of firm financial commitments or firmly communicated political commitments which it would not be appropriate for any government to break. Those commitments will all be honoured.

  As to Senator Harradine's position—he can, of course, speak for himself—honourable senators will know that he has been long concerned, as he has made clear in estimates committee hearings and elsewhere, about a number of the aspects of the government's population program. For example, one of his key concerns has been the possibility of people being coerced in family planning programs. That concern is very much shared by the government and AIDAB, our aid agency.

  The principle of voluntarism is central to all of our population activities. We have been making some important strides in getting that principle accepted, especially in China, where there have long been question marks raised about the nature of some of the programs in question.

  A more fundamental concern of Senator Harradine—it was triggered again this year by the scale of the funding increase in the budget—is one that goes to what might be described as the basic intellectual foundations of the government's population policy, that is to say the relationship that exists between rapid population growth on the one hand and continued impoverishment, environmental degradation and other matters of developmental concern on the other.

  In the course of discussing this issue with Senator Harradine recently, we proposed that an appropriate development economist—someone with an international reputation who is fully independent and has no axe to grind on these matters in issue—be asked to spend a few months reviewing the available evidence as to the nature of the relationship between the variables I have mentioned and reporting to the government on that issue. We agreed that we would receive and consider that report before we made any commitment as to the expenditure of the remaining—that is to say, quite small—part of the population budget, which is that part in respect of which neither financial nor political commitments have already been made.

  We believe in policy making in development assistance matters, as elsewhere, being conducted rationally and on the basis of the best available evidence.

Senator Hill —So it has been suspended, has it?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I have answered the question. Senator Hill should listen. We have made commitments as to a significant proportion of it. We will honour those commitments. We will not make new commitments as to the remainder until such time as we get the body of that report.

  I make it clear that we are quite prepared to subject the foundations of our population program, as indeed other policy issues, to this kind of scrutiny. We anticipate that we will have to hand the report we are seeking by March or early April next year, well before the end of this financial year. Further details of the inquiry exercise, including the person or persons who will conduct it, are still being settled.