Malcolm Turnbull on international development

malcolm-turnbull-holds-a-press-conference-dataSooner or later Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister, will need to think a little about overseas aid and the closely related topic of international climate change financing, if only in the context of preparations for his government’s first budget in May 2016—which will start shortly, if not immediately.

There are no indications that Turnbull has thought very deeply about aid before, though he has made some relevant remarks in parliament (collected here as Hansard fragments), mostly about ten years ago. He has delivered several thoughtful speeches about the place of Australia in the Asia-Pacific region, with a heavy emphasis on Australia’s relationship with China (Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, panned them). He is well known for his interest in innovation, an existing priority in Australia’s aid policy, and open data, not so convincing a priority in Australia’s aid policy.

Turnbull has in the past had a penchant for big, flagship initiatives, most notably the $10 billion National Water Security Plan (January 2007) and the $200 million Global Initiative on Forests and Climate [pdf] (March 2007). The latter was mostly aid-funded, and I have written elsewhere (mainly in section 3) about Turnbull’s role in it. It is, by the way, questionable whether these initiatives were the product of sober ‘Cabinet government’ processes.

World Vision Australia Chief Executive Tim Costello has been quoted as expressing the hope that ‘Mr Turnbull’s philanthropic, humanitarian bent may prompt an increase in Australia’s foreign aid budget and permanent refugee intake’. Quite some time ago, in 2005, Turnbull said the following in parliament:

I believe we should continue to increase the resources devoted to overseas aid, both in dollars and as a percentage of gross national income, but, unlike the members opposite, I believe we should commend the government for focusing its aid program on promoting good governance and economic growth.

The first part of the above statement is now being quoted back at Turnbull by the Campaign for Australian Aid. However, more recently, in the course of a 2013 pre-election Triple J radio interview with Tom Tilley, Turnbull said the following:

TILLEY: Malcolm, how generous are we? I mean, even Britain who are in much worse financial situation than us have stuck to their commitments to spend 0.7 per cent of their budget on foreign aid.

TURNBULL: Well it is a question of how effectively they spend the money. There is a tendency to just judge your foreign aid – this is true with governments generally – to judge your commitment by the amount of money you spend and pay precious little attention to what you are actually getting for it.

Our focus has always on what you get for your foreign aid, how effective it is, and what the outcomes are. You can spray a lot of money around in any policy area – not just foreign aid – and pat yourself on the back for spending a lot of money. But without paying any attention to what impact and what effectiveness you’re actually achieving – and of course that’s why we’ve always been focused, certainly when we were in government, on spending money to promote better governance. Because the critical thing in most developing countries, one of the critical requirements is to improve the levels, the standard of governance because without that of course then you are not going to get the economic growth and that will in due course lift standards.

Perhaps that comment is discouraging, or perhaps little can be read into it. Costello’s hope might yet be realised over time, not least because Julie Bishop is likely to argue for stabilisation and perhaps some restoration of aid funding levels, and now has both a more receptive ear and an even stronger position in the party room.

It is also worth noting that earlier, in his 2009 ‘Power balance in Asia’ speech to the Lowy Institute (linked above), Turnbull said that, in order to position itself for ‘ongoing success in the Asia-Pacific and in particular in terms of our relations with China’, Australia needed to demonstrate:

… [a] consistency of purpose, a coherent set of principles, fidelity to the values of the Australian people and maximum transparency in the conduct of its relationships across the region.

So, even if an early increase in aid volume is not to be hoped for, perhaps there is some prospect of greater stability and transparency in the management of Australia’s aid budget.

If Turnbull has said little about aid, he has said a lot about climate change financing for developing countries—though not recently. In 2007 he was strongly and vocally of the view that the necessary level of global climate change mitigation could not be achieved without significant action on the part of major emerging economies, and without international emissions trading arrangements (including arrangements for the trading of forest carbon credits) that would help finance that action. As he said in a 2008 speech [pdf] to the Melbourne Institute:

Harnessing market forces is essential to achieving abatement at the lowest possible cost.

And as he told Reuters the previous year:

We recognise that developed countries will take a larger share of the [emission reduction] burden, as they have to date. But you simply cannot get to the big global cut in emissions if there isn’t a pathway for the developing world. …

It [the Howard government’s emissions trading scheme] certainly could connect with other schemes and indeed connect with other forms of abatement, such as avoiding deforestation and reforestation.

Turnbull has indicated he will not scrap the Coalition’s Direct Action policy. However, it will be interesting to see whether he dusts off part of his earlier belief system—which was that most mitigation action taken overseas, whether financed by carbon markets or direct public investment, is a lot cheaper than most mitigation action taken domestically, while also delivering development benefits. As Turnbull said in the Reuters interview linked above:

The incentives, the revenues from the carbon trading and investment in CO2 abatement, have to get all the way down to the grassroots.

Finally, a personal note. I was asked to brief Turnbull on development and deforestation in Indonesia when, as environment minister, he visited Jakarta at very short notice in early April 2007. He was neither affable nor brusque; just extremely focused and businesslike. He quickly extracted what knowledge I had to offer, much of it acquired in the hours before I met him, and assimilated it completely. He established an easy rapport with Indonesia’s then forestry minister (whose subsequent career was less illustrious than Turnbull’s), thanks in part to his own prior experience as an investor in a logging concern in Solomon Islands. He was careful to emphasise that Australia’s Global Initiative on Forests and Climate, in which Indonesia was expected to play a central role, was both a climate change mitigation and an economic development initiative. It was an assured performance, underpinned by a detailed technical knowledge.

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Robin Davies

Robin Davies is an Honorary Professor at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy and an editor of the Devpolicy Blog. He headed the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security and later the Global Health Division at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from 2017 until early 2023 and worked in senior roles at AusAID until 2012, with postings in Paris and Jakarta. From 2013 to 2017, he was the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre.


  • It is all very well to be starry eyed in Canbera about aid. You have to wonder about the billion dollar black hole in our economy and how it was allowed to get there. This mass migration of people fleeing their homelands should draw attention to the lack of effectiveness of our aid and NGO programs in keeping people in their homes.
    Australia needs significant infrastructure upgrades to strengthen our economy through efficient transportation. If you don’t want to hear this take a long drive around and through the desert and register the gaps that need to be plugged especially at a time when we are about to increase the level of migrant and refugee intakes.

    This a small country that has needed leadership to recognise that there is a demand for technology savvy people who are capable of building productive and intellectual strength into the backbone of the economy. We need to show how innovative solutions will help gain lost ground. There are clever people out there in rural Australia and we need more of them there rather than have them glued to their comfortable chairs and their eyes glassing over at computer screens in capital cities.

  • So – any comments about what seems a significant step forward in the Foreign Affairs Portfolio ? There is now a Minister for International Development and the Pacific (Steve Ciobo) – back to the days of Gordon Bilney ?

    Given the abuse of AusAID and the Treasurer treating the foreign aid budget as just another expense to be reduced, this at least treats “aid” as worthy of a Minister in its own right.

    Best evidence on previous levels on non-interest ? The reduction in aid to Afghanistan: from $148.4M in 2013-14 to $81.7M in 2015-16. This is not maintaining the commitment to that country so loudly proclaimed by Minister Bishop.

    Reactions from the experts ?

    • Apologies – I missed Ashlee Betteridge’s comments of yesterday. But I have to disagree with Minister Bishop supposed interest in foreign aid. Vide the reductions in aid to Afghanistan, when so many Afghans are fleeing the country – to Europe in this case (as Australia has made it so plain that we will not facilitate them to this country)

      The second reference doesn’t appear to made the Australian media and makes interesting reading about the continuing direct influence of the US military on the Afghan forces. Compare with our claims about training Afghan troops.

      • Hi Peter – while I certainly don’t disagree with you that Afghanistan needs stability and reliable support, I don’t think you can convincingly argue that Julie Bishop is not interested in aid, at least not on the basis of this year’s budget cuts alone. There are plenty of indications that the deck was stacked against her in Cabinet on this issue (see, for example, here).

        On the contrary, the fact that there is now a Minister for International Development and the Pacific may well be due to her interest in aid. (I can’t offer any proof of that, but it’s hard to think who else’s influence might have steered Turnbull into creating the position).


        • Thanks Camilla

          Can I make an important distinction between “interest in” and “results from” ? She may well be “interested in” foreign aid, but how well was she able to argue for the aid budget NOT being cut, much less actually able to achieve and increase ?

          And when was the last time she actually highlighted and promoted the results from any of the aid projects ? As in – saying that Australia’s aid actually achieves reductions in poverty in ………… ?

          Like this one recently on decreasing deaths from malaria.

          Or – last year, I helped fund a project in Afghanistan that trained 40 women to be paralegals and be able to act as defence counsel for women in domestic violence cases. I think projects like that achieve demonstrable outcomes that benefit local residents (in this case, long after the ISAF military forces have been withdrawn).

          I am aware that DFAT’s Independent Evaluation Committee produces an annual Performance of Australian Aid report. I am unaware that it is ever highlighted in the media, as evidence of why Australia’s aid helps others and to persuade Australians of the merits of our aid programs.

          I am not aware of Bishop actually promoting the benefits of Australia’s foreign aid and what it achieves for some of the several billion people around our world who try to live on US$1.25 each. day.

          • Camilla notes that the appointment of Steven Ciobo as Minister for International Development and the Pacific might well be evidence of Julie Bishop’s interest in aid. There is in fact at least one item of circumstantial evidence to support this. Ciobo, formerly a parliamentary secretary with responsibilities across the foreign affairs and trade portfolio, was not merely re-labelled. For one thing, he was relieved of his trade responsibilities. More importantly, his new label was taken from a finite pool of labels at some other portfolio minister’s cost. The number of ministers is limited to 30 by legislation so ministry construction is a zero sum game. At first glance Turnbull looks to have appointed some 37 ministers but when you look carefully he has in fact appointed exactly 30, since many of them carry multiple ministerial titles. Getting an international development ministry into the pack of 30 cannot have been a trivial matter. We can’t know where the initiative came from but I note that Turnbull didn’t mention Ciobo in his long presentation on the new ministry, while he did mention a number of others in the outer ministry. It seems likely that Bishop wished to send a signal by giving Ciobo his current status, and that this involved the expenditure of some political capital.

          • Thanks for those thoughtful background comments, Robin.

            My earlier comments admittedly had some cynical undertones, as I see important distinctions between what a Minister “says” and what a Minister actually “does” and finally what a Minister “achieves”. I suggest that the “aid” aspects of Minister Bishop’s portfolio have gone backwards under her tenure, especially (to re-iterate) in Afghanistan.

            I would agree, however, that the appointment of a “specialised” Minister is a good step forward, as “aid” becomes one of the main priorities of Mr Ciobo (rather than one of the rest, in the main Foreign Affairs portfolio). BUT – if the reasons for giving aid remain as instruments of our foreign policy, rather than being given for humanitarian reasons, then the (new) Minister doing this won’t matter.

            “Naive” I know – I still believe that we in the wealthy West have much to share with those billions on $1.25 each day. Much less, accept responsibilities for those refugees disrupted by war, famine and other disasters.

  • I wouldn’t venture a guess as to election timing, though several commentators seem to think Turnbull would rather cement his authority for a while rather than immediately questioning his own legitimacy by calling an early poll.

    That aside, it’s clear that an change of Coalition policy on aid volume — to avoid the ‘captain’s call’ problem — will have to be achieved through the 2016-17 budget process, which means slowly and non-publicly. Turnbull’s response to Plibersek’s recent question in parliament (which she described as an instance of ‘mansplaining’) confirms this.

    That doesn’t mean that policy can’t and won’t be changed, though. A start would be the cancellation of the planned further reduction of $350 million in 2016-17, on top of the $1 billion cut in 2015-16. It would also be desirable to place a reasonable cap on the amount of money to be taken from the aid program to meet costs associated with the acceptance of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq, given that a substantial proportion of these costs (totalling $700 million over four years) will be ODA-elgible. Australia’s decision to pay a high price for membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will already place some pressure on a pulverised aid budget.

    By the way, Plibersek’s question might have carried more force if Labor itself were able to say something about its policy on aid volume. I assume that, if pressed, their line would be, ‘we’ll have to look at the books after we’re elected’. Some kind of a commitment on the Labor side would perhaps strengthen Julie Bishop’s hand in arguing for stabilisation or restoration of the aid budget.

  • Robin, what do you think about the chances of an early election? Some pundits have been throwing around the possibility of Turnbull calling an election as early as November this year. It would seem that if that happens, there should really already be concerted effort from campaigners to get some kind of commitment on aid from both sides of the political fence. At the moment, it seems like we have a bipartisan commitment to not commit on aid volume, which doesn’t bode that well if we do go to election soon.

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