International Development Assistance speech in Parliament

When Ben Chifley spoke of the 'light on the hill', he was very clear that Labor's aspirations for better lives cannot end at Australia's borders. He said then that our task was to work 'anywhere we may give a helping hand'. But all too often what is—and, indeed, who are—out of sight can become very easily out of mind. While Australians have, rightly, rebelled against this government's budget, I am concerned that too little attention has been focused on its largest saving, our foreign aid budget. Recent events and our response to them in Vanuatu show the importance of our aid budget to our region. However, this government seems to regard this budget allocation as something like an ATM—readily enabling cash withdrawals for other purposes. This carries major consequences to Australia and to our neighbours and a heavy human cost. We are now a long way from Chifley's vision at a time when there is so much to be done in our region most especially.

The majority of Australia's foreign aid focus is in the Indo-Pacific, where 22 of 24 countries are still developing and face significant poverty levels. As my friend the member for Gellibrand has previously noted in this place, in November he and I were fortunate to visit one of these countries, Cambodia, as part of a joint US and Australian delegation organised by Care to see firsthand the impact programs supported by Australians make to the lives of Cambodian women and girls. Our visit had a particular focus on programs aimed at ensuring that young women and girls are afforded equal opportunities. Despite remarkable progress being made in Cambodia in terms of health and development indicators, Cambodia remains one of the world's poorest nations. This situation is particularly acute for women and girls. For example, a mother in Cambodia is 28 times more likely to die during childbirth than a mother giving birth in Australia and more than 3.1 million newborn babies die every year from causes that are typically linked to the mothers' health. A lot of this comes down to a lack of access to healthcare services as well as education about and supplies for basic hygiene. These are all readily preventable and they are situations where Australia can play a meaningful role.

I believe that community support for this role is underestimated, at least by some. The Lowy Institute 2014 poll found that 75 per cent of Australians said that 'helping reduce poverty in poor countries' was the most important objective of Australia's foreign aid program. It is clear to me that Australians want their government to play an active role in creating a more prosperous and equal region. Indeed, yesterday I was heartened after my brief conversation with Emily Wrethman, Camilla Ryberg and Tom Evans from RESULTS Australia, a grassroots international advocacy organisation that aims to create the political will to end extreme poverty. I think also of the representatives who visited parliament last year from the Oaktree foundation, young Australians committed to eradicating extreme poverty. The political will is here on this side of the chamber; I wish I could say the same for all of those opposite.

A key part of ending regional disadvantage is empowering women. Women's financial empowerment and sexual and reproductive rights are fundamental to building equality in our region. The Australian government currently supports a range of programs which seek to protect marginalised urban women in garment factories and entertainment venues, educate rural women in economic leadership in their communities and provide education for ethnic minorities in Cambodia, where educational opportunities are often limited.

Of course, there are broader challenges in Cambodia, and beyond, that go beyond the scope of our aid budget and can reduce poverty like a minimum wage and supporting unions and other civil society organisations. Australia is well placed to provide government-to-government guidance on this and to continue to support the development of democratic civil society. Whilst I support the government's aspiration for 80 per cent of aid investments to effectively address gender issues, savage cuts presently being made to the aid budget reduce the chance of this worthy aspiration being realised. Our aid budget has been slashed by this government, yet it is the world's most vulnerable who are paying the price. Australia's relatively small but extremely worthwhile contribution to the betterment of people in countries such as Cambodia shows us all what is possible when we work together with our neighbours.

Chifley actually spoke of 'mankind' in 1949. In 2015 we cannot do likewise in our words or our deeds. In addressing the great challenge of lending a helping hand for those in need in our region, we must address gender equality at every step, recognising as we do the wonderful work people—Australian volunteers, aid workers and locals—having been doing and the great changes that their work, properly supported, makes possible.


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