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Thursday, 17 September 2015
Page: 7188

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (16:12): I just wish to speak briefly to this report of the inquiry into the International Aid (Promoting Gender Equality) Bill 2015. I certainly thank the secretariat for preparing a comprehensive and very useful report on this important issue. While the Labor Party cannot support the bill, for the reasons explained in the report, I do acknowledge Senator Rhiannon for bringing the bill to the parliament, which has given the Senate another opportunity to look in detail at the actual implementation of the government's aid framework, which includes, as one of its priorities, investment in gender equality and empowering women and girls.

The bill proposes new legislation similar to that implemented in 2014 in United Kingdom. However, as was pointed out by most submissions, the UK's gender equality act was additional to an already well-established legislative framework that governs overseas development aid. We do not have that overarching legislative framework in Australia, although the inquiry raised the issue of whether or not that is something that Australia should contemplate. I note that most of the submissions to the inquiry supported a legislative approach to ODA, although a number of submitters pointed out some problems with the bill that have been traversed in the report, as I said.

There was no disagreement between committee members about a bipartisan commitment to focusing on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in Australia's overseas development aid program. The importance of addressing gender equality as a development goal, in and of itself, is well known—as is the fact that gender equality is a precursor to eliminating poverty. And those facts were well supported once again by the evidence given to this inquiry and to many other inquiries undertaken by this parliament into the effectiveness of aid. I note that the role of gender and development has been covered extensively in an inquiry into the human rights of women and girls in the Asia-Pacific region currently being undertaken by the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

There is agreement within Australia's parliament and within government, and there is agreement by international organisations, economists, civil society and other stakeholders that women suffer disproportionately from poverty and that aid programs should therefore disproportionately support women. The Millennium Development Goals and the new Sustainable Development Goals will include similar commitments to gender equality.

The Senate committee examining the bill spent some time attempting to find out from DFAT officials how the government's commitments are actually being rolled out. I think it would be fair to say that while the commitment to gender equality and aid is often articulated and repeated, the various reporting and accountability methods that DFAT uses to report on the effectiveness of its programs need to be enhanced if we are to actually discover whether the commitment is being delivered on the ground and is effective. This was highlighted by a number of submitters. For example, Plan Australia noted that DFAT's reporting on gender impacts of Australian aid focused largely on headline figures, such as the number of girls in schools, but only gives a limited picture of the effectiveness of Australian aid in addressing gender inequality. The IWDA noted that the department does not track enough information to actually be able to realise the commitment to gender-equality implementation. DFAT itself struggled to respond when asked how it can substantiate the government's claim that over 50 per cent of Australia's aid budget is spent on initiatives that promote gender equality.

A number of submitters noted that reporting to parliament was inadequate. For example, it was noted that the coalition government no longer prepares a specific aid budget statement as part of the annual budget process. Of course, AusAID is no longer a stand-alone organisation and the aid budget is within DFAT. Submitters suggested that there should be an annual report to the parliament by the minister that can be scrutinised by the public and by the parliament. It was noted that many of DFAT's current reporting mechanisms are not subject to parliamentary and public oversight. For example, AQCs and partner performance assessments are kept confidential, although the cumulative results of those are included in aid program performance reports that can be scrutinised by Senate estimates.

Whilst Senate estimates allows examination of some aspects of the aid budget, many submitters sought more information that would specifically go to aid effectiveness in delivering the goal of gender equality. While the potential cost of that additional reporting was traversed by the inquiry, the committee report and the committee members recognised that the benefits of identifying gender-specific expenditure would outweigh the cost. The committee also said that more publicly available reporting on gender-specific expenditure would assist in better promoting the achievement of Australia's aid programs.

As I said, there are specific matters raised in the report about the technicalities of the bill that makes it problematic, including a lack of definition of gender equality, the threshold amounts for reporting requirements and the lack of overarching legislative frameworks. While the Labor Party does not support the bill, we do of course support the ongoing focus on gender equality in our aid program and we will work to ensure that the focus is translated into real, effective, transparent and accountable outcomes.