Mr Wilson (12:30pm) — In the week in which we observe the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, it's worth reflecting on Australia's recent engagement in our region. There's no doubt that we're living in the Asian century, which is our good fortune, but the potential and promise across the Asia-Pacific are subject to economic, social, environmental and security challenges. Unfortunately, the starkest single change to the means and quality of our regional engagement since 2013 has been the evisceration of our international development program. This enormous shift was never flagged and hasn't been explained. The Australian public was told that the approach to international engagement under the coalition would be more Jakarta than Geneva. The reality is that aid cuts to countries in our region have been both steep and recurrent.
The starting point was an almost across-the-board reduction of 40 per cent to our bilateral and regional programs in Asia. In the case of Indonesia we have reduced our development assistance by $248 million, which is between a third and a half. In the case of Timor-Leste—a tiny country whose wellbeing Australians have been proud to support—we have cut assistance to an emerging nation in which 50 per cent of children suffer from malnutrition that manifests in physical stunting and developmental delay.
In 2013 Australia's aid program was cited by the OECD as a model for others to follow—a properly funded and resourced program delivered by a dedicated aid agency that operated at the cutting edge of theory and practice in seeking to save lives and reduce poverty. Yet in barely four years of the Abbott-Turnbull government we have seen the dissolution of AusAID, the savage and repeated sacking of our aid budget, and the abandonment of bipartisan agreement to scale up our aid program to 0.5 per cent of GNI as part of our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals.
Our abdication of leadership and responsibility in this space is not in Australia's interests or in keeping with our national values. These cuts are an abrogation of responsibility at a time when other international donors are also stepping back. The 2018 budget proposed by the new Trump administration would see the US aid budget cut by one-third, or US$11 billion, with heavy and disproportionate cuts likely in our region. And let's not forget, at a time of conspicuous consumption when it comes to defence budgets, that there is no better investment, dollar for dollar, in regional security and economic self-sufficiency than well-targeted international assistance.
In response to the US cuts, more than 120 retired generals and admirals wrote to congress arguing that aid programs are 'critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way'. And Secretary of Defence James Mattis, in his previous role, put it very plainly when he said:
If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition …
This year the OECD will again conduct its peer review of Australia's aid program, at a time when, under this government, we have seen the largest cut to Australia's aid budget in our history—the least generous level of aid contribution by any Australian government, with the structural and cultural harm done to the human capital that is crucial to effective aid programming and delivery. It demonstrated failure to comprehend the geostrategic importance of properly funded and directed international assistance.
It is easy to cut aid budgets. It takes courage to maintain them. It is easy to play to shallow self-interests, to the idea that charity begins at home, to the idea that people in other countries aren't working hard enough to help themselves. It's easy to take advantage of the fact that foreign aid cuts don't directly affect the domestic constituency. And it's easy to pretend that relatively insubstantial trade agreements represent some kind of foreign policy achievement. But it is much harder, clearly, to make a strong case that Australia's development assistance is key to our national and economic security and it is too hard, apparently, to defend Australia's record as a generous and sensible provider of life-saving assistance in a region that includes some of the poorest countries or to argue that it is part of our character to lift up the individual lives and national prospects of our neighbours, our regional brothers and sisters.
Let's not kid ourselves about what sharply reduced development assistance means. It means lives lost due to poorer maternal health outcomes. It means children go without an education. It means democratic institutions are weaker and there is greater instability across our region. It means that Australia's role and influence is diminished at a time when we should be showing leadership.
I pay tribute to the public servants within DFAT who have fought for and continue to fight for Australian aid, and I pay tribute to the many Australian organisations that provide assistance to people facing aching and grave disadvantage, especially those like Fred Hollows who have pioneered distinctively Australian approaches to changing lives for the better. To the many people who do that incredible work, thank you. What you do is valued. What you do deserves better support from your government.