A politician’s speech can easily get lost in a week of major political events both inspiring (the Climate Strike) and tragic (the terrorist outrage in Christchurch NZ). A speech on international aid policy may seem crushingly irrelevant in the face of terrorism and climate emergency. However, Penny Wong’s speech ‘Rebuilding Australia’s International Development Program for a Time of Disruption’ is an important speech, and if it becomes the next government’s international aid policy, what she said in that speech will matter – a lot.
The major theme of her speech is that international aid should be based on Australia’s values (compassion, equality, fairness, democracy, human rights) and its interests (national security and prosperity, stability – including the rule of law – and peace in the region and constructive internationalism). Furthermore, Wong does not see values and interests as contradictory. She effectively wants Australia’s aid program to increase our ‘soft power’ – the influence exercised by states in the international community through non-military measures. Soft power is also exercised through trade policy and educational links like the New Colombo Plan, one of former foreign minister Julie Bishop’s big projects. Soft power is useful in building alliances. It helps Australia get elected to bodies like the United Nations Security Council.
Most states exercise some forms of soft power. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has seen it put large amounts of money, although mostly through loans, into infrastructure building in developing countries including Australia’s Pacific Island neighbours. Some even see the Initiative as blurring the lines between soft power and security policy. Pacific Islands, who are on the front line of climate change impacts, especially through sea level rise, are major recipients of Australian aid and therefore on the sharp end of recent cuts. Wong reiterated that the Pacific will be a priority for Labor’s aid policy, repeating the words of Pacific leaders that the region, including Australia, is ‘one Blue Pacific continent’.
We still need details on some important aspects of the development policy. Wong undertakes to work with non-governmental organisations, and several welcomed her speech. However, after revelations of misconduct by aid charities, such as sexual abuse by Oxfam in Haiti revealed last year, governments cannot rely on outside groups to deliver aid unless they include strong accountability mechanisms. Wong’s speech did address issues around ensuring transparency and communicating the value of aid, partly to address her concerns about growing populist antagonism to international aid.
Some will be disappointed that Wong is not committing Labor to re-establishing AusAID, abolished in 2013 by the Abbott government. Instead, Labor will build development capacity into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Including so many policy priorities in one department, however, has not worked well in the current Department for Home Affairs. There is a risk that trade interests will drive development, leading interests to overtake values.
Wong also seeks a return to bipartisanship on international aid. Her ability to achieve this goal will depend on the shape of the Coalition opposition, should Labor win and Wong become Foreign Minister. A party that has consistently cut international aid would need to make a major policy shift to align itself with Wong’s values-and-interests progam.
International aid, although a small part of the Commonwealth budget, relates to other national concerns such as security and climate change. Through aid, Australia can support states most vulnerable in the short term to the climate emergency. It can enhance Australia’s security, particularly by continuing to support key Asian states such as Malaysia, and by providing states with an alternative development partner to China. Aid policy may not change anyone’s vote, but it deserves more attention than given by most voters.