Julie Bishop’s aid and development legacy

Julie Bishop speaking at the 2017 Australasian Aid Conference at ANU
Julie Bishop speaking at the 2017 Australasian Aid Conference at ANU

True to form, assessments of Julie Bishop’s five-year stint at Foreign Minister, which ended at the weekend, have said little about her role at the head of Australia’s four billion dollar aid program. Yet, for a small country like Australia, lacking in superpower status, the aid program is probably the main instrument by which a Foreign Minister can exercise influence.

To say that Bishop will not go down in history as good for aid is an understatement. She presided over the largest and the most number of aid cuts by any Foreign Minister. As Shadow Foreign Minister, she supported the bipartisan target of getting aid to 0.5% of GNI. As Foreign Minister, having abandoned that commitment, she started with at least the promise of protecting the aid budget against inflation. Instead, as per our latest analysis, she ended up cutting aid five years in a row, by one-quarter in all. Another three cuts are pencilled into the forward estimates, which, if implemented, would take the real reduction in aid to one-third since the Coalition took office.

One can’t place all the blame for this on the Minister, but, to the extent that she fought, she lost. She was in the Cabinet of an expansionary government. Over the same period in which aid was slashed by one-quarter, total spending increased by one-fifth. That’s a bad enough record to disqualify Bishop from the title of Australia’s “finest ever” Foreign Minister.

Bishop also reshaped the aid program. One of the first actions of the Abbott government was to abolish AusAID. It was never clear where this idea came from, but it was one Bishop championed and embraced. It wasn’t good for aid. DFAT took a long time to wake up to the challenges involved in managing aid, and in the intervening years many aid experts left the Department, as aid effectiveness came to be seen to be the least of its priorities. It is hard to make an overall judgement about aid quality, and there are recent signs of improvement, but when we surveyed aid stakeholders in 2015 most thought it had deteriorated sharply.

The Minister was a champion of various aid themes. In the early days she talked about her “new aid paradigm.” We heard less of that in more recent years, for good reason. But Bishop did leave her thematic marks. Her priorities included: gender, the private sector, aid for trade, innovation and, most recently, health security. Some of these will be her legacy, in particular the emphasis on gender. For others, we will have to wait and see.

Her oversight of the aid program was creative but lacked follow-through and rigour. Right at the start of her tenure as Foreign Minster – and indeed even as Shadow Minister – Bishop promised to improve aid transparency. But this received little support within the Department, and, despite the promises, aid transparency worsened. The innovationXchange (iXc) was a good idea, but, as I showed in my review of her flagship initiative, was weakened by its closeness to the Minister, and the fragmentation and spin which followed as a result.

Oddly, for someone who presided over the “deep integration” of AusAID (aid responsibilities are now spread across all five of the Department’s Groups), Bishop established two new dedicated aid units within DFAT: as well as iXc, more recently the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security. How long these will survive her departure is unclear. They seem like half-way houses. We argued for a new international centre for global medical research; Bishop put more money into such research but kept its management in-house.

Geographically, Bishop oversaw a retreat first from Africa and then from Asia to focus on the Pacific. PNG once more became our biggest aid recipient, reclaiming the top spot from Indonesia. The share of the Pacific in the bilateral aid program increased from 32% in 2012-13 to 45% currently. Perhaps this was inevitable, given Asia’s rise and competition with China. But it is hard to see the returns on this increased investment, given the difficult environment the Pacific presents for development. PNG in particular was a disappointment. Bishop was no doubt a friend of PNG, but she miscalculated on the economic boom there lasting, and cut back on Australian support for service delivery. You can’t place the primary blame on Australia for the recent resurgence in PNG of malaria and polio, but we certainly haven’t helped.

On development more broadly, Bishop’s legacy is much stronger, and largely for a single reason: Pacific labour mobility. Bishop’s Liberal predecessor as Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, was implacably opposed to the introduction of a seasonal labour scheme for the Pacific. Credit must go to Bob McMullan and Kevin Rudd for the pilot they introduced under Labor in 2009. But that was a tiny scheme. It would have been easy for the Coalition to leave it to languish, or kill it off altogether. Bishop, however, signalled her support for the scheme while still in opposition, and remained a vigorous champion of it as Minister.

Under her tenure, the Seasonal Worker Programme grew from 1,500 workers in 2012-13 to 8,500 in 2017-18. Moreover, working with DFAT, rather than against as in the case of aid transparency, Bishop was able to push through Cabinet last year a second Pacific labour mobility initiative, the Pacific Labour Scheme, a remarkable achievement given the anti-migration sentiment that has dominated in recent times.

Labour mobility is only going to become more important for the Pacific. Australia still has a long way to go. We are yet to adopt New Zealand’s example of providing a Pacific window in our permanent migration regime. But Julie Bishop will go down in history as the first Australian Foreign Minister to embrace labour mobility for the Pacific. The reverse Colombo Plan might have been Bishop’s favorite project, but the promotion of Pacific labour mobility will be her enduring legacy.

Julie Bishop gave three speeches at the Development Policy Centre, in 2012, 2014 and 2017. She also wrote two Devpolicy Blog posts as Minister, on health security and labour mobility.

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy, at The Australian National University.


  • Most importantly, on her watch Australia lost PNG to the Chinese. The lessons of the Kokoda campaign have been forgotten.

    Most current troubles in PNG are caused not by the public actions of Chinese Communist Party stooges (official and companies), but by the covert actions. Kickbacks of 50% are the rule not the exception on all contracts. Any building is done with Chinese workers only, and badly. We have seen it in Africa, and are seeing it everywhere in the Pacific.

  • You just knew it was going to end badly well before the 2013 election with Julie Bishop:

    – calling for a review of the aid program
    – saying Australian aid to Africa was just a Labor bribe to get into the Security Council
    – calling for vague and undisclosed benchmarks to be met by AusAID before aid would be increased
    – refusing to give a target date to reach 0.5%
    – saying aid had to serve our national interests
    – repeatedly talking about a lack of support in the “community”
    – expressing concerns that the aid program had grown too quickly and was not sufficiently focused on the Pacific and on trade, and
    – saying next to nothing positive about what the program had ever achieved.

    Add LNP policy to increase defence to 2.0% of GDP, Labor leaving the budget in deficit and with growing expenditure and the rest is history.

    • Thanks Garth – your comment about “saying next to nothing positive” about Australia’s aid achievements did remind me.

      Neither Senator Ferrovanti-Wells nor Ms Bishop ever attempted to persuade that feared “community” that aid is a good thing. And that we get results amongst the poorest of the world’s poor.

      Anyone remember the 2005 International Year of Microcredit, explicitly endorsed by Prime Minister Howard ? Aid can take years to demonstrate its effectiveness.

      And DFAT has external and internal evaluation capacity to demonstrate that. Their reports never seemed to receive the Ministerial attention they deserve.

  • Sorry Ashlee – the optics of any Minister’s occupancy of a position should not be the performance indicator. Andrew Peacock dressed very well, always went to the right meetings and spoke the right words. He was – eventually – derided as a show pony.

    Going to the right meetings in the Asia-Pacific area does not mean long-term beneficial outcomes for the local recipients of Australia’s aid. The amount and professional delivery of that aid was significantly diminished during Julie Bishop’s tenure.

    As just one example, where we committed Australia’s troops to defend the Afghan people.
    Despite Afghanistan’s unpromising future, Australia’s help for its civilians has been steadily declining: from A$131 million in 2014-15 to A$87 million in 2015-16 and currently A$80 million.

    The linking of aid and Australia’s foreign policy was not a good look, either.

  • Julie Bishop is receiving a lot of praise in the media for her overall role as Foreign Minister. However, as Stephen’s blog points out, hardly any of these (often glowing) assessments have taken into account – perhaps have not even noticed – the fact that Australian aid has fallen under her watch to the lowest level in Australia’s history using the most common standard ODA / GNI measure.

    This is strange given that one of the main reasons for abolishing AusAID and making aid part of DFAT was to better align Australia’s aid and diplomatic interests. Aid cannot – and should not – ever “buy” diplomatic friendship. But cutting aid so consistently and heavily over the years, including summarily cutting aid to most countries in Asia by 40% and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by 70% in the May 2015 budget (as reported here) cannot help but undermine trust in Australia as a reliable partner in development. This is important because, given our geography, Australia has more to gain by being an active, trusted, partner in development than virtually any other OECD country in the world.

    It is possible that the aid program may increase, even in real terms, in future years. But it is likely to take longer to regain the critical mass of in-house professional and practical expertise about managing complex development programs that once was a characteristic of Australia’s aid program, much of which was lost following the abolition of AusAID. And it may take even longer for countries in the region to regain lost trust in Australia as a reliable development partner given the severity and suddenness of aid cuts to country programs over recent years. Trust and reliability is surely a key part of a country’s overall foreign relations.

    So, yes, as Stephen’s blog points out and Ashlee and Bal’s comments confirm, it is a mixed legacy when it comes to assessing Ms Bishop’s stewardship of the aid program as Foreign Minister.

  • Thanks Stephen. While I do agree with all you have written above, on thinking a bit more I think she also deserves a bit of credit on some of the softer stuff, for example, like people-to-people links in the Pacific. Through the New Colombo Plan, but also through things like her own demeanour while in the region and her frequent trips, I think she has made more of a contribution to this than previous FMs. While people-to-people links may not lead to direct development outcomes, they will hopefully bode for a greater interest in the development of the region and more partnerships between Australia and the Pacific. Obviously there’s still a lot more stepping up to do on the Pacific step-up, but JB has had more of a focus on this engagement it seems than past FMs.

    There’s also just the powerful optics of a woman in a high-level position of power engaging in the region. While of course there could have been a lot more tough-talking with countries like PNG during her tenure, for example, it does send a message on women in leadership when there are very few in the region. Along with a focus on gender in the aid program, the commitment to the bipartisan trips to the region where you saw JB, CFW, Penny Wong and Claire Moore, for example, really did send this message that women leaders from Australia are highly capable and interested in the region (reality of Australians’ own perceptions on women leaders perhaps sadly different, but don’t get me started on that!).

    I also understand that she has encouraged some Liberal women, like Sen Linda Reynolds as one example, to become more interested in PNG and to observe elections etc. Again this kind of thing could help in the future.

    All this is more optics than policy perhaps, and policy speaks louder, but optics do play a part in how people think about the region, and think about Australia. I think it was always positive that she found time for the Pacific when there were so many other ‘big’ things happening i.e. at the UN, with US and China etc. When you think of the obsessions of past FMs, at least in recent years, I can’t really think of any that had the same amount of time for the Pacific.

    • Stephen, a fitting tribute to a respectable FM who graced her position with ease and intentionally promoted the Pacific. That is not to overlook some of her representations that were called into question at various points in her career but one understands she was part of a government with clear standing on certain issues. Overall, she had a positive impact on the Australia-Pacific relations. As Ashlee rightly pointed out, she was also an important inspiration to women folks in the Pacific region that are struggling for political leadership.

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