E&OE - PROOF ONLY
PRESENTER: Labor has pledged to rebuild Australia’s foreign aid program if it wins the next election. Opposition Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Penny Wong argues the Coalition Government has cut $11 billion from the program since 2013.
But Senator Wong wouldn’t reveal exactly how much Labor is now prepared to spend. She sat down with our Chief Foreign Correspondent Philip Williams.
PHILIP WILLIAMS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining us here at The World.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Good to be with you.
WILLIAMS: Foreign aid – in the past there was agreement, generally between the Opposition and the Government, that we intend to do this together as almost a co-operative effort. You’ve departed from that. Why?
WONG: Actually the departure has been the Coalition’s. You’re right to point out that for decades we have had effectively a bipartisan approach to aid. It hasn’t been politicised. The Coalition went to the 2013 election promising to match the Labor Government’s investment in aid. And what happened? They cut $11 billion out of aid.
They then went to the last election when they said we won’t have any further cuts and they froze it, which is an effective cut.
Now, what we have said today, and this is an important position, is we’ve said a Labor Government will rebuild Australia’s international development assistance. We will rebuild our aid programs.
But I would say this, rather than making this a partisan issue I’d much prefer we could return to the days in which this wasn’t partisan and it wasn’t politicised. So we have said we invite the Government to join us in the commitment to rebuild the aid program, which is declining.
WILLIAMS: I guess the question is how much extra money are you going to put in? What is your commitment to that? And where is the money coming from?
WONG: And those questions are reasonable questions and those will be clear before the next election.
We certainly do want to make sure we engage with stakeholders, with aid groups and make sure that we look at this commitment in the context of the difficult fiscal environment. But what is important today is the Labor Party has said yes, this is a priority. We will rebuild this. Now that is a big task and that will take some years.
You may not know we are currently at the lowest level we have ever been in terms of the proportion of our national income to aid – 22 cents in every dollar of national income – and we’re on trajectory to go down to 16 cents in every $100 of national income.
WILLIAMS: Now you’d argue that there are real effects of cuts in aid. What concerns you the most?
WONG: That’s hard isn’t it? Because when you are talking about deprivation and suffering which is the worst? Is it more maternal deaths? Is it more children who are stunted? Is it the lack of vaccination leading to more disease and more illness and more deaths? The reality is there is a real life effect from a reduction in international development assistance.
WILLIAMS: So, effectively are you saying that the Government’s actions cost lives?
WONG: I don’t want to get into rhetoric that is unhelpful. We know that reduction in aid has real life effects.
WILLIAMS: The Government would argue that they have their Budget problems.
WONG: Of course.
WILLIAMS: They have to cutback in all sorts of areas, but in fact they have increased aid by $84 million in the last Budget.
WONG: An $11.3 billion reduction and then freezing it is not an increase, and I think they know that.
Look it is a question of what sort of country you are and I think we are a generous country. I think we should have an aid program which reflects the generous spirit of the Australian people. And if your compassion and your values aren’t enough, there’s a hard-headed reason and that is we have an interest in stability and prosperity in our region.
We are not immune to countries in our region either suffering in terms of development or in terms of health epidemics. We are a connected world, an interconnected world and we have an interest in a stable and prosperous region and aid contributes to that.
WILLIAMS: When we look at the region, you heard from Senator Fierravanti-Wells, her comments about China with their aid projects sometimes being white elephants or roads leading to nowhere. Do you agree with that?
WONG: I made the point in the speech today that it is unsurprising at a time where you are seeing these development needs and climate change effects in the region that we are seeing countries looking elsewhere for donors and it’s unsurprising that you are seeing different arrangements being put in place.
I would say about Connie’s comments though, they do continue a very poor trend that the Government has been engaging in and that is a great deal of clumsiness in their comments about China.
WILLIAMS: And yet a lot of people would say she was just speaking the truth?
WONG: Well, this is an important economic relationship for us and we saw the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister at odds and Julie Bishop had to clean that up. Then we saw Barnaby Joyce asserting that China was a greater threat than Islamist terrorists and then we saw Connie Fierravanti-Wells making really very clumsy comments about China; again having to be cleaned up by the Foreign Minister.
Now Julie Bishop has had to clean up a lot of mess from her colleagues and I’m sure she’s getting a bit irritated with that but there is a national interest problem which is ‘manage the relationship in a more coherent way’.
WILLIAMS: So in a sense truth is not a defence?
WONG: I don’t think it serves the nation’s interests to make sweeping generalised statements about a country with whom we have an important relationship both economic and more broadly.
WILLIAMS: Penny Wong, thanks very much for talking to us.
WONG: Good to speak with you.