The Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. Photo by: Matt Stewart / CC BY-NC-ND

Australia’s recently formed Parliament is a mix of old and new faces, with a growing variety of opinions on global aid. Following Australia’s federal election in July 2016, the 45th Parliament has already seen policies that are at times are as divisive as some of the members of the Parliament themselves.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull regained power by the narrowest of margins — his party won the bare minimum 76 out of 150 seats required to control the lower house of Australia’s Parliament but in the upper house, the Liberal Party won just 30 out of 76 seats. Negotiations with minor parties and independents is now a necessity of the new government to pass legislation, enabling the divisive personalities to wield power.

What does this mean for Australia’s aid program? Often first on the chopping block during budget discussions, the new Parliament could make or break the aid program’s next funding cycle — and well beyond.

There are obvious voices of support for aid within Parliament, including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong and minister for international development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. But they aren’t the only ones discussing the aid program and wielding influence.

Devex has your guide to the 10 Australian MPs the development sector should watch in 2017.

1. Tony Abbott MP, Liberal Party.

“… Australia should cut our $40 million a year in aid to the Palestinian Authority while it keeps paying pensions to terrorists and their families. Another way for Australia to demonstrate its unswerving support for Israel, as the Middle East’s only liberal, pluralist democracy, might be to join any move by the Trump administration to move its embassy to Jerusalem.” 
— Tony Abbott writing for the Spectator.

Despite initially saying he would support his party and Turnbull, former Prime Minister Abbott is fast becoming an outspoken internal opponent on a range of issues, including where foreign aid is being spent.

Abbott’s calls for cuts to the 40 million Australian dollar ($29 million) aid to the Palestinian territories was his most recent outspoken statement on government policy, causing concern for Turnbull, whose unpopularity is growing and threatened by the conservatives within party ranks.

Abbott has recently undertaken a string of international travels, speaking tours and committees, including the Australia-Israel-U.K. Leadership Dialogue in December. These will no likely not be his last controversial remarks.

2. Craig Kelly MP, Liberal Party.

If Labor has these wonderful plans and these wonderful ideas to spend more money on foreign aid, where is the money going to come from? What programs are you going to cut, what schools are going to go with less, what hospitals will go with less, what aged-care centres will go with less so we can afford more money for foreign aid? The money has to come from somewhere.”
 Kelly to the House of Representatives, Oct. 10, 2016

Kelly was first elected to Parliament in 2010 with a focus on small business interests, industry building and anti-climate change sentiment. He currently sits on the backbench, but he is not sitting there quietly. Kelly has openly criticized his government’s policies on a refugee deal with the United States and Turnbull’s comments on Australia becoming a republic.

In the 45th Parliament, Kelly launched a stinging attack on Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite for his calls for greater investment in the aid program, calling Thistlethwaite’s statement “disgraceful”. His statement demonstrated that the vocal backbenchers within the government may once again see aid as an easy expense to cut.

3. Sen. Pauline Hanson, One Nation.

“If they cannot rein in the budget with overpaid public servants … foreign aid, welfare fraud, politicians lurks and perks, including former prime ministers, and backroom deals for government jobs, then get out of the job of running this country. I warn this government and future governments: You never miss the water till the well runs dry.”
 Hanson in her maiden speech, Sept. 14, 2016

Hanson has been a player in Australia’s political landscape since 1996 and her anti-immigration policies have commonly seen her linked with the ideologies of Donald Trump and nationalists in Europe. She re-entered federal politics with force in 2016, elected a senator with support from additional candidates who took seats in Australia’s upper house. That coalition has made her party an important player in negotiations to pass legislation.

Hanson’s maiden speech in the senate identifying foreign aid as an area of the budget that can be reined in is a cause for concern to the development sector. Come budget time, she may be a person of influence in wielding the budget cutting ax.

4. Sen. Jackie Lambie, Jackie Lambie Network.

“Let me get this right: $78.5 million this year will be given to a nuclear-armed nation — an Islamic nuclear-armed nation — that being Pakistan, in Australian foreign aid, which is borrowed. How will that benefit us exactly?”
 Lambie to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee Estimates, Oct. 20, 2016

Lambie is one of the most controversial figures in Australian politics. First elected in 2014 as part of the now-defunct Palmer United Party, she quickly became a media sensation for her outspoken and controversial opinions. A vocal supporter of putting Australian interests first and opponent of the aid program, she can draw both public support and condemnation. 

New laws passed prior to the federal election aimed to remove the number of small parties and independents from the Senate, some of whom — including Lambie — were preventing legislation being passed in both houses. Yet Lambie’s popularity in her home state meant that new election rules made no difference — she was elected for a second term.

Within the current Parliament, her attack on the aid program has continued, using her position on the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to make alleged links between the aid program and the funding of foreign militaries and terrorism, as well as suggesting aid creates a financial burden at home.

With a government in power by just one seat, Lambie is an important political figure to watch: If there are deals to be made, she could have a strong influence on future aid budgets and program directions.

5. Sen. Lee Rhiannon, The Greens.

“Will aid be invested in organizations that can inquire into, monitor and prosecute corruption on Bougainville? Is that something that you are addressing through the aid program? Will where you targeted our aid to address these issues of corruption?”
— Rhiannon to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee Estimates, Oct. 20, 2016.

At 65, Rhiannon is a war horse of Australia’s Parliament and a longtime advocate for Australia’s aid program. She will continue to be vocal on aid-related issues in the 45th Parliament, focusing on corruption in the aid program, Australia’s assistance to countries alleged to be responsible for human rights abuses and programming and gender equality in the aid program. She will be an important figure in countering anti-aid sentiment within the upper house of Parliament.

6. Sen. David Leyonhjelm, Liberal Democratic Party.

“Have payments from the Australian government to the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Clinton Foundation ceased?”
— Lyonhjelm to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee Estimates, Oct. 20, 2016.

Leyonhjelm has been a controversial politician since assuming office in 2014. Pro-gun and anti-authoritarian, he has made questionable statements against women while at the same time standing up for privacy and rights of accused terrorists to a fair trial.

With minority parties and independents able to make or break government legislation, Leyonhjelm often uses his influence to negotiate changes including a recent amendment to make private a register of businesses using foreign workers.

Leyonhjelm’s sharp opinions make him a darling of the 24-hour media cycle, and his tough stance on government waste puts his comments at the front of center of the voting public. He will continue to closely watch aid spending in order to jump on any collaborations shrouded in controversy, such Australia’s collaborations with the Clinton Foundation which included the signing of MOUs in 2006 and 2014 to deliver health programs in the Asia-Pacific and additional contracts for climate programs

7. Sen. Claire Moore, Australian Labor Party.

 “… when we had a previous white paper on aid, which is a long time ago, we had a range of community consultations. That was back when it was AusAID … What came out of that was an overwhelming demand that people wanted more of them. There may well be officers who were still around  it was not last century; it was this century  when that occurred. We had demand from the community that they wanted to have more of these kinds of things.”
Moore to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee Estimates, Oct. 20, 2016

Moore is in her 15th year as a senator and has experience working both for governments in power and in opposition. Her background working in aboriginal affairs and social security has seen her political interests focus on social issues, including aboriginal rights, welfare and gender equality.

In the current Parliament, Moore’s questions and statements on aid and development indicate she maintains an interest in climate programs, funding for HIV initiatives, multilateral donations, implementation and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals and community views on foreign aid. As the shadow minister for international development and the Pacific, Moore is expected to become a more vocal advocate on aid-related issues within the current Parliament.

8. Sen. Linda Reynolds, Liberal Party.

“In that visit to Cambodia, it became very clear that there are increasing numbers of orphanages spreading all around the world, but predominantly in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. The nub of the message from the ambassador, Burrows, was that DFAT has stopped funding those sorts of organizations because they simply cannot tell which ones are real and which ones are not.”
— Reynolds to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee Estimates, Oct. 20, 2016

Like Fawcett, Reynolds has a defense background. She was the only woman to have attained the rank of brigadier in Australia’s Army Reserve. Issues of interest for Reynolds include gender equality and young people in institutionalized care.

As a participating member of Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Reynolds has also been speaking up about “sham” orphanages that earn money from adoption of children with living parents. During a visit to Cambodia with Save the Children in January 2016, Reynolds saw the impact these false orphanages have on the lives of children.

Reynolds does not currently hold a ministerial role in government but has been noted in the Australian media as a politician to watch in 2017. With a larger role in government, her views on aid could influence program funding and directions.  

9. Sen. Janet Rice, The Greens.

“I want to ask about Australia's participation at Habitat III … It is the biggest urban conference in history, being described as the Olympics of urbanisation, with 45,000 delegates, including over 140 national delegations, 200 city mayors and many of the world's leading academics, architects and urbanist thinkers gathered to discuss how to make cities more sustainable, inclusive and resilient. Yet I understand that Australia has not sent a ministerial or departmental representative.”
— Rice to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee Estimates, 20 October 2016.

Rice first entered Parliament in 2014 with a background as a climate and environmental scientist and has continued to be an environmental advocate within Parliament. As a participating member of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Rice is using her position to question Australia’s international response and involvement in global climate and environmental initiatives. She is expected to continue being vocal on these issues to hold the Turnbull government accountable to international commitments.

10. Matt Thistlethwaite MP, Australian Labor Party.

“There is little doubt that this 'madness of endless aid cuts' as described by the World Vision CEO, Tim Costello, has damaged our reputation as a responsible global citizen and put Australians at risk by cutting public health, education, infrastructure and biodiversity projects.”
— Thistlethwaite
 to the House of Representatives, Oct. 10, 2016

In office since 2013, Thistlethwaite has become one of Labor’s strongest voices for increased development funding and an expansion of the aid program. Ending polio and greater research and care for tuberculosis are among the projects he speaks of most often in Parliament.

As the shadow assistant minister for treasury, Thistlethwaite has strong sway within his own party. And with an increasing media profile, his influence could boost public perceptions of the aid program — an outcome NGOs are very keen for.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.