CANBERRA — It has been less than a month since Australian politics suffered its most recent bout of political madness, culling another prime minister and installing new leadership for the country. For the Australian aid program, the result was two new officials at the helm. Marise Payne took on the role of foreign minister and Anne Ruston became the assistant minister for international development and the Pacific — a role downgraded from a ministerial position.
Ruston has now been in the position for less than four weeks — and, for one of those weeks, she was working in another role, supporting the environment minister at the International Whaling Commission in Brazil. In Parliament House last Wednesday, Ruston said she was beginning to settle in.
Ruston spoke to Devex about her new role, discussing the changing leadership, the needs of the Pacific, and the future of Australia’s development assistance program. Thanks to the political whiplash, Ruston is the third international development leader in four years, but she is keen to assure Australia’s aid partners that the program will remain strong.
For Australia’s aid program, a leader who is behind the cause in an important first step in achieving its development objectives.
Ruston explained that she was initially “somewhat surprised” in being offered the new position, having being domestically focused on the agriculture and water resources portfolio. “But it became pretty obvious that ... I was chosen was because of my existing relationships in the Pacific,” she said, which includes her international experience with the Fisheries Forum Agency in the Pacific.
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“This allowed me to get a good understanding of the relationship between Australia and the players in our region and it was extraordinarily important for particular issues,” Ruston said. “Fishing is a particularly important issue, not just for the economic benefit, but sustainability and the security of many of the nations in the Pacific.”
Her first international engagement as assistant minister was at the Pacific Island Forum Leaders’ Meeting — and it drove home the importance of relationships in this position, she discovered that she knew many of the players already.
Maintaining, creating, and re-establishing relationships
Whether it is with other countries, charities, or the private sector, relationships will be central to Ruston’s role.
“Increased relationship building, maintaining strategic engagement and all the things that go with that and making sure we as a region are speaking as one voice are probably the initial key observations that I plan to do in the role,” Ruston said.
This also means building confidence among partners who had already established relationships with previous ministers. On building trust, Ruston is looking to the guidance and support of the former Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
“It has to a large extent been a seamless transition between the two of us and I will continue to rely on her very broad knowledge, particularly on the Pacific region, as I get to learn the more detailed aspects of the role,” Ruston said.
“From the development perspective, from the security perspective, shared regionalization perspective — for all intents and purposes, we will see no change or no reduction in the investment and involvement of Australia in our aid budget or in our development activities.”— Anne Ruston, assistant minister for international development and the Pacific
The impact of the downgraded role
The downgrading of the role from minister to assistant minister raised eyebrows among many in the development sector. But Ruston insisted the roles and responsibilities of the portfolio have not changed. And she insisted the budget will not be cut.
“We see that the region we live in — the Indo-Pacific region — is extremely important,” she said. “From the development perspective, from the security perspective, shared regionalization perspective — for all intents and purposes, we will see no change or no reduction in the investment and involvement of Australia in our aid budget or in our development activities,” she said.
“I have already established a very clear and positive working relationship with the new foreign minister, Minister Payne, and we will absolutely work together to ensure the level of engagement and commitment by Australia to the region — by the two of us — is not diminished in any way,” Ruston explained.
Ruston confirmed to Devex that the blueprint to determine the focus of the Australian aid program and international engagement will continue to be the Foreign Policy White Paper.
“There is no intention for us to not continue working towards those priorities, which include gender, innovation, children — it’s a great paper,” she said.
Ruston said she will be assessing what Australia is doing right, and where there is room for improvement. Early in her new role, Ruston is already seeing one area where Australia can build on existing momentum: Regionalization.
Cross-collaboration for greater development effectiveness
“This has been an important part of the Pacific agenda,” Ruston said. “I’m very keen to work with the rest of the nations in our region to make sure that we do take a regional approach … With a regional voice you can speak louder than you could possibly speak as an individual country.”
Australia would continue to be a strong advocate for climate action and mitigation, Ruston said, listing a number of climate policy achievements: Commitments to fund infrastructure development to protect the Pacific from the impact of climate change, a 300 million Australian dollar ($352 million) commitment toward climate mitigation strategies in the Pacific, and an AU$200 million commitment to the Green Climate Fund.
“We want to make sure our aid, development, and investments is all pointing toward delivering the region’s goals, the region’s strategies and the region’s objectives,” Ruston said.
The cross-portfolio nature of development work is very evident to Ruston. Collaborating more with other ministers, portfolios, and agencies will be important. But so will be the opportunities that come from working with “the extraordinary myriad” of NGOs already well-established, Ruston said.
Already, Ruston has met with the Australian Council for International Development. The council spoke with her about the NGOs working with the aid program who are keen to help make delivery of programs more effective, efficient, and credible.
“I am a very great believer that governments should be working to do things themselves, but in finding the right partners to actually deliver on our behalf,” Ruston said.
Taking time to adjust
While this week will see Australia’s new leadership take its place at the United Nations General Assembly, Ruston will not be part of the delegation. She told Devex her goal this week was to quietly sit down and “get her head around in greater detail” portfolio priority areas.
She will be planning her agenda with the remainder of 2018, with the intention of getting out and seeing development projects in action.