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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 79

Senator BARTLETT (3:45 PM) —I welcome the ministerial statement on Australia’s aid program. I think it is a positive thing to have the details of Australia’s aid program presented in a self-contained way to parliament. It highlights an area that should be given more scrutiny and more support. It would be better if there were a stronger demonstration in the chamber from the government of their support and interest in this issue beyond the Minister for Foreign Affairs tabling a statement. Nonetheless, the information contained within it and the fact that it is tabled are positives.

Having said that, in lots of ways the statement is somewhat thin. The minister states that the government’s focus is ‘not on rhetoric but on action and results’. Yet this is a statement which, in many respects, is full of rhetoric. The minister goes on to say, ‘The government will back up our rhetoric on growth.’ The statement commences with a recognition of the generosity displayed by Australians in response to the tsunami crisis. I should note that, while the extent of the giving by Australians following the tsunami was truly inspiring, the personal contributions of Australians to overseas aid and development have risen by 12.5 per cent each year over the past five years. So it has not been a total surge of international assistance out of the blue. There is a wellspring of support amongst the Australian community for others who are in need around the world, including in our own region. I think we should recognise that fact more clearly and seek to build on it. It is for that reason that I also spoke yesterday in this chamber about the need to ensure that the aid and donations that are being provided for the tsunami victims across the entire Indian Ocean region are spent as wisely and effectively as possible so that the value of the contribution that the Australian community has made can be demonstrated and people can be encouraged to continue to increase their donations and support.

I was interested to note in the minister’s statement that ‘Australian aid personnel will stay in Aceh and other affected areas until we are satisfied their work is done’. I certainly hope that is the case. The Democrats will be monitoring the situation in Aceh carefully, as we have done for many years. The people of Aceh have for many years grappled with poverty and suffered gross violations of their human rights. It took a tragic event, such as the tsunami, for the Indonesian government to permit humanitarian organisations and the media into the region. We have to take the opportunity presented by that horrendous tragedy to ensure that some of those past problems do not become part of the future.

I was also interested to see that the government aims to help countries accelerate progress towards the millennium development goals. There has been very little evidence of this objective in previous aid budgets. A UN report last year indicated that progress in eliminating hunger and malnutrition has virtually ground to a halt. The UN had also documented evidence showing that at present more money flows from developing countries to developed countries than the other way around. In September 2000 all UN member states unanimously adopted the millennium declaration, which gave rise to the millennium development goals. The goals are a set of global objectives to be achieved by the year 2015, which is only 10 years away.

Within that time, among other things, the aim is to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty—by definition, on less than $1 a day—halve the number of people living with hunger, achieve universal access to primary education, reduce the mortality rate of children under five by two-thirds and halt the spread of AIDS within that time. Unfortunately, we are already falling well short of reaching those targets, based on the first almost five years since they were adopted. The minister’s statement acknowledges the conference coming up later this year and, as I say, notes the millennium development goals. I hope that does provide renewed commitment to them.

I acknowledge the statements that have been made. They have a lot of substance to them. One of the reasons why the amount of resources continues to drain out of the developing countries and into the richer countries in the world is not just debt but the flow of income and wealth due to the world economy. There is a lot of truth in the statements that there needs to be as much assistance and focus provided not just on development aid in the sense of grants but on increasing the opportunities for economic development through trade in particular.

The minister’s statement mentions providing secure and stable environments—that is, not just social environments, but the natural environment needs to be protected as well; improving governance and the investment climate, including property rights; opening up to trade; and helping the poor participate in such economic growth, through health, education and market access. The key issues that must be more clearly defined beyond what are generally nice-sounding statements that would be hard to disagree with are that it is the right sort of growth, the right sort of property rights and the right sort of trade—that is, fair trade and property rights that do not allow a few powerful people to grossly exploit the impoverished majority. That is a risk, and there are plenty of examples of how that has already happened.

The Democrats and I do not have a Hansonite approach to the world. We do not believe in putting up barriers to trade. But we believe that, in opening up trade, we need to make sure that it is fair, particularly to those in the most vulnerable positions. That is clearly the case with less developed countries. We have to make sure that, in pursuing this appropriate agenda of increasing the wealth of poor nations through economic development and trade, it is done in a way that genuinely enriches those countries rather than continuing to maintain the overall flow of wealth from the poor to the rich and in a way that does not allow a minority within those countries to exploit their fellow citizens. Certainly, they are valid concerns, whether you are talking about economic activity or ensuring that aid is provided effectively. That is partial support for the minister’s comments, but with a lot of caution thrown in. We need to see how those very broad concepts work in practice and how they are applied to ensure that they do generate greater wealth and a genuine meeting of the millennium development goals of helping those people currently without education and who have problems with child mortality, hunger and extreme poverty. It is not just a matter of stimulating growth; it is about ensuring that that growth operates in a way that is positive overall.

In conclusion, I would like to re-emphasise that, despite the welcome and repeatedly praised contribution—it was certainly praised by the Democrats and I—of this government to people of our region following the tsunami, we should try to ensure that that particular activity is used as a springboard for further expansion of assistance of all sorts to countries less fortunate than ours. It is not being purely altruistic, I might say; it is in our own interests to do so. I certainly hope to continue to push this government to further improve its efforts in that area.

Question agreed to.