No dream job: Steven Ciobo appointed as Julie Bishop’s parliamentary secretary

Following Tony Abbott’s pre-Christmas frontbench reshuffle, Queensland MP Steven Ciobo replaces Brett Mason as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. This is mostly an overseas aid job, give or take the occasional consular crisis, though for Ciobo it will be a part-time one: he will, unlike Mason, also be Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Trade and Investment. According to Abbott, this is “in recognition of his work on the recent G20 in Brisbane”.

Ciobo is undoubtedly a vigorous conveyer of the Coalition’s messages. Here, for example, is what Mr Ciobo said about the latest aid cuts in a recent interview:

The Labor Party and the Greens keep opposing us, so we need to find the money somewhere. We cannot be in a situation where we keep borrowing money from overseas to then pay out overseas. We keep borrowing a billion dollars a month just to pay the interest on the debt that Labor left behind.

That’s straight from the Coalition’s hymn sheet, regardless of the fact that the government is not borrowing from overseas or borrowing very much in comparison to many other OECD governments. This year’s hymn sheet, that is. Last year’s was a little different. In a December 2013 parliamentary debate on overseas aid, Ciobo said:

As the Minister for Foreign Affairs recently noted, Australia will continue to provide development assistance worth around $5 billion every year. At that level of funding, Australia is likely to be the eighth largest donor in the world. I repeat: Australia is likely to be the eighth largest donor in the world.


The government’s decision to increase the aid budget in line with inflation over the forward estimates will provide certainty for Australia’s aid program and the NGO community, after years of broken promises by Labor. Having promised to increase overseas aid spending to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015-16, the Labor Party broke this commitment not once, but twice, pushing this time frame out to 2017-18.


Having diverted millions of dollars in aid funding to support its effort for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the Labor Party felt free to break the very promise that was central to its campaign. That, of course, was: Australia, we do what we say. That was the central tenet of Labor’s campaign for the security council. When it comes to the Labor Party and overseas development assistance, recent history has shown that that is not the case and Labor does not do what they say.

Such is the short game of politics. Ciobo, like his senior minister Bishop, cannot claim consistency, and enters his new field with a large credibility deficit. However, he appears to be regarded as a promising younger member of the outer ministry. He will certainly have his work cut out defending the government’s aid cuts, implementing them, and managing their consequences during and beyond 2015.

Robin Davies is the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre.

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Robin Davies

Robin Davies was appointed Head of the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in September 2017. Previously, from 2013, he was the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre and from mid-2014, concurrently an Honorary Professor at the Crawford School at ANU.


  • Note also that Melissa Parke, Minister for International Development in the short-lived second Rudd Labor government, had extensive international experience as a legal adviser with the UN in Kosovo, Gaza, New York and Lebanon, and that Brett Mason, until recently Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, did have a stint as a legal adviser with the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia. Some kind of an international perspective is undoubtedly useful in a politician with aid responsibilities. More important, though, is a critical receptiveness to well-founded departmental advice – as Sarah says below. Alexander Downer and Stephen Smith knew nothing about aid when appointed to the foreign ministry. They didn’t necessarily think their departmental advisers were all geniuses, but they considered advice carefully and generally accepted it.

  • Sam, I’d note that former Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance Bob McMullan was very well qualified for his role with a background in international development, economics and trade (and was much loved by his Agency), and he is now an Executive Director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Likewise former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Duncan Kerr had extensive networks and experience in the Pacific. The question is, can we secure this expertise on an ongoing basis? Given that most politicians lack expertise in aid, it seems unlikely – but then, few Ministers come to their portfolios with subject expertise, which makes the advice of their bureaucrats so important.

  • Two observations:
    It’s quite uncanny how similar Steven looks to his ALP predecessor, Richard Marles; and
    wouldn’t it be nice oneday if we have an aid Parl Sec (or better still, Minister) who had some sort of background in aid.

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