Election 2016: how do the parties compare on aid and development?

Aid commitments by Liberal, Labor and Greens - Election 2016

Voting sign (Flickr/Keith Ivey CC BY-NC 2.0)This year’s federal election campaign, one of the longest in Australian history, is mercifully approaching its finish line. Yet despite having so much time to cover a range of issues, relatively little has been said publicly by the parties on aid and development issues (though aid and foreign policy did feature prominently in this week’s National Press Club Deputy Leaders’ debate).

To help fill the gap, the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) solicited responses from Australian political parties to 10 questions, spanning the purpose of aid, aid volumes, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), humanitarian action, and more. Both major parties responded, as did the Australian Greens and Family First. A summary comparative table can be found here; as can the detailed responses from the Liberal Party, Labor, the Greens, and Family First.

In this post, we compare their responses on some key areas for aid effectiveness and development policy.

How much aid should Australia give?

While all four parties are more or less on the same page with the purpose of aid, the question of how many dollars they would put on the table elicited more varied responses.

The Liberal Party statement reiterated that it will refrain from committing to a “prescriptive, time bound aid target” until the Australian economy is on firmer footing (something that appears to be elusive at best), allowing only that the ODA budget will increase by the CPI from 2017-18.

Labor affirmed its existing commitment to reaching 0.5% of GNI, but also hedged when it comes to establishing how quickly that will happen, blaming the Liberals for making cuts “so deep that it is impossible to fix the aid program quickly”. If the ALP’s May announcement is anything to go by, don’t expect to see a radical difference from the Coalition here. Labor appears to be promising just another $200 million a year.

The Greens have by far the most ambitious target of the four parties for aid, planning straight line increases to reach 0.7% of GNI by 2025-26. Citing the Parliamentary Budget Office, they estimate this will cost $4.33b over the forward estimates by 2018-19 (according to their submission to ACFID) or $7.97b over forward estimates by 2019-20 (according to the Greens website and media sources).

Below we extrapolate the commitments of the Liberal, Labor, and Green parties out for a decade, as best we can, by assuming current policies remain in place. The Greens soon leave the other two parties behind. But then aid budgets are one of the few things ruling parties don’t have to negotiate with cross-benchers, so the Greens’ influence on aid volumes will be marginal.

Projected aid budgets under Liberal, Labor and Green commitments ($A billion)

Aid commitments by Liberal, Labor and Greens - Election 2016

Assumptions: Budget and forward estimates for the Coalition, and then aid increased in line with CPI. For Labor, aid increased by an additional $800 million over four years relative to the budget and forward estimates (see this post for details) and then increased with CPI. Aid reaches 0.7% of GNI by 2026-27 under the Greens, with fixed annual increases in the ODA/GNI ratio starting this year to get there. CPI and nominal GDP (GNI) growth figures extrapolated from latest budget projections.

What about transparency and evaluation?

On the issue of transparency, the Liberals assert that they will “continue to deliver a transparent aid program” by publishing three annual documents: the new Orange Book (summary of the aid budget for the coming year), the Performance of Australian Aid report (a look back at the previous year), and the Green Book (statistical summary). Interestingly, they also refer specifically to delivering a program that is “in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative [IATI]”. Presumably, this means that action will at last be taken to make project-level data currently submitted to IATI accessible: currently it’s not.

The ALP and the Greens both intend to legislate as a way of improving effectiveness and transparency. As announced by Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek more than six months ago, Labor promises legislation that will include arrangements for the independent evaluation of the aid program, as well as enhanced monitoring and reporting on aid effectiveness.

The Greens’ proposed legislation (which will augment the aid bill Senator Lee Rhiannon introduced last year) sounds much like British legislation, and would require an annual ministerial report to Parliament on how Australia is performing on increases in aid spending, aid allocations, and how those allocations are addressing the SDGs. On their party website, the Greens also look to Britain as a model on independent evaluation, suggesting that the Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE) is “lacking teeth compared to Britain’s Independent Commission on[sic] Aid Impact” because ODE is located within DFAT.

How should Australian aid be managed?

Nearly three years after the re-integration of AusAID and DFAT, the role and effectiveness of the latter is still clearly a hot topic for some. Tanya Plibersek had earlier talked of recreating AusAID if Labor won after one term, but that seems to have been given up on. In the final, open-ended question of ACFID’s questionnaire (more on that below), the ALP stated it would “re-evaluate the role of international development within DFAT”, and highlighted issues of departmental culture and practices as well as retaining aid expertise (all concerns which came through loud and clear in responses to our aid stakeholder survey last year).

The Greens would go one step further, and seek to not only stop the clock but wind it back by re-establishing an independent department to manage Australian aid, with its own cabinet-level Minister, separate from what it calls the “conflicting interests” of DFAT.

Parting shots

Potentially the most interesting question that ACFID asked the parties to respond to was the final one: “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?” As political campaigns show time and again, it’s those less-scripted moments and open-ended questions that often provide valuable insights into what candidates and parties really think.

Like much of the rest of its response, the Liberal answer was predictable: reiterating its commitment to gender equality initiatives under Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s leadership, and highlighting, yet again, the innovationXchange. By contrast, despite taking a potshot at the innovationXchange in a recent media release, Labor’s response to ACFID was mum on the future of the controversial office.

In addition to putting the status of aid within DFAT under the microscope, Labor used the last question to call for better use of Australia’s diplomatic network to advance development efforts.

In a rare moment of commonality with the Liberals, the Greens’ response too dedicated a paragraph to the issue of gender equality. They also advocate a Tobin tax on financial transactions to raise funds to address global poverty and climate issues.

Family First wins the award for the quirkiest final answer of the four, which asserted that aid should go to NGOs rather than foreign governments, on the somewhat dubious basis that this “better insulates aid funding from potential corruption via government officials” – thereby unfortunately appearing to reinforce the discredited notion that corruption is a significant risk in aid, as well as contradicting its own position that “NGOs [should] remain independent from government”.

In summary

The Coalition and Labor stand together on volumes; the Greens and Labor are united on the need for aid legislation. And everyone seems to support more transparency.

Camilla Burkot is a Research Officer at the Development Policy Centre. Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre.

Camilla Burkot

Camilla Burkot was a Research Officer at the Development Policy Centre, and Editor of the Devpolicy Blog, from 2015 to 2017. She has a background in social anthropology and holds a Master of Public Health from Columbia University, and has field experience in Eastern and Southern Africa, and PNG. She now works for the Burnet Institute.

Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School.

3 Comments

  • Hi Paul and Camilla,
    Yes, I think that Paul has a point the money needs to be well spent as the first priority. However, the answer is not just to cut it until there is nothing. When done properly, development funding serves a to benefit not just the country receiving the funds but Australia also receives stable, friendly and co-operative neighbors. I believe that is a good thing!
    Cheers,
    Nigel

  • The real issue is not how much should be ‘given’ but how the amount ‘given’ actually helps those who it is supposed to be helping. The recent Senate Report highlights the question of accountability for results of Australia’s overseas aid as opposed to simply ‘spend!, spend!, spend!’. Funny how no one of any persuasion seems to be prepared to take up the points raised in this Report?

    When queried the Department replied that: “The department welcomes public scrutiny of the Australian aid program and thanks the Committee for its work. We are considering the report’s recommendations closely and will provide a detailed response in due course.” To who the response will be supplied to was not said.

    Yeah! Right! Don’t hold your breath.

    The graph above merely illustrates the similarity of both Labor and Liberal planning and the absolute fantasy of those who apparently think they can just allocate what they like. Should that ever happen the same people would be screaming about all the advantages they now enjoy that would disappear since there wouldn’t be enough funds to go around.

    The ‘warm and fuzzies’ won’t help the poor and suffering if aid money simply just gets distributed to those who have made an art form of siphoning aid money off into their own bank accounts. The introduction to the Senate Aid Report to PNG is telling in it’s factual detail.

    In addition, the problems of overpopulation in regions and countries that are currently increasing to the point they will not be able to feed themselves will only exacerbate the future aid dilemma. One of those regions is the Pacific and most importantly PNG.

    The expression ‘Do more with less’ is sounding like a good mantra to start chanting.

    Hello…Is anyone listening?

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that how aid is given is as important as how much aid is given. For that reason we do find it encouraging that the parties which responded to ACFID’s survey seem are expressing interest in placing greater emphasis on transparency and evaluation.

      Just a side note on the the subject of a departmental response to the Senate report on aid to PNG, as I understand it these are usually published on the Senate inquiry website (see for example the government response to the 2014 aid inquiry here). Hopefully after the election takes place and the caretaker period ends then the Department will be able to produce a response before too long! I too would be interested to read what they have to say.

      Camilla

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