How to win friends and funding in the Australian Parliament

The Australian House of Representatives chamber. Photo by: Kit Carruthers / CC BY-NC

Australia’s latest parliamentary elections shook the aid sector, ushering in new faces and whisking away stalwarts. Thanks to the work of NGO RESULTS Australia, however, one issue remains relatively unscathed by the transition: Australian support for tuberculosis.

RESULTS built and leveraged relationships, linked TB to urgent political priorities, and continued their public campaigning throughout the political changes. That formula helped convince new MPs to increase Australia’s funding for the Global Fund to AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria by 10 percent, to $160 million in September.

The success offers clues for other nongovernmental organizations looking to build support in the Parliament, which was elected in July. The government holds just a one seat majority and new members of the Parliament hold philosophies on foreign aid. RESULTS’ experience, however, indicates that common ground is possible.

The RESULTS campaign

Fighting tuberculosis is a priority for RESULTS, an anti-poverty NGO based in Australia, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea and Mexico. The organization serves as the Secretariat for the Australian TB Caucus and Asia-Pacific TB Caucus, both regional offshoots of the Global TB Caucus, which encourages political representatives worldwide to advocate for eradication programs, funding, and signing of the Barcelona Declaration, a pledge to support efforts to end the disease.

RESULTS accelerated their advocacy with the Australian government in September 2015. That month, RESULTS helped organize the first meeting of regional parliamentarians for the Asia-Pacific TB Caucus. On World TB Day in March, MPs created the Australian TB Caucus within Parliament, with 27 parliamentarians. Some 80 MPs also became signatories to the Barcelona Declaration. A year after they began, RESULTS had secured for the Barcelona Declaration from 135 of the 226 sitting MPs and senators.

That initial support became the stepping stone RESULTS needed to advocate for an increased contribution to the Global Fund.  

Consistent campaigning

Parliament was dissolved in May for the election campaign. But as the government took a hiatus, RESULTS worked overtime to prepare for potential changes in government.

“Part of the ‘long haul’ in advocacy is that we work with whoever is available and engaged,” Leila Stennett, campaign director for RESULTS, told Devex. “During the election campaign, RESULTS staff and grass-roots advocates began to form relationships with new MPs and senators, which introduced them to the Caucus and provided the opportunity for them to join.”

Election results were close and votes needed to be counted and recounted before outcomes were declared. This delay of more than a month was turned into an opportunity for gathering new support.

“By the time Parliament was ready to resume, we were also ready to hit the ground running and get to work with both returned caucus members and to recruit new ones,” Stennett said.

RESULTS had work to do: “About half a dozen caucus members retired or lost their seats,” Stennett said. These included Bronwyn Bishop, Philip Ruddock, Sharman Stone and Dr. Andrew Southcott. But the Australian TB Caucus co-chairs, Warren Entsch and Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite, were re-elected and this allowed RESULTS to continue conversations with key ministers.

“The caucus co-chairs have had a continuing dialogue with the foreign minister’s and prime minister’s offices about drug-resistant TB and have spoken in the media about TB and the Global Fund throughout the year,” Stennett explained.

When the new Parliament convened, Entsch and Thistlethwaite provided continuity as RESULTS gathered support for the replenishment of the Global Fund.

During the first week of the new Parliament, Entsch made a strong statement within the House of Representatives on TB, echoed by remarks from Labor MP and caucus member Sharon Claydon. In the Upper House, further support came from Sens. Catryna Bilyk, Scott Ludlam, and Helen Polley.

Campaigns need relationships

The key to the campaign’s success was establishing relationships with MPs and senators at all levels, Stennett believes.

Grass-roots advocates developed relationships with their local MPs, introducing them to the issues surrounding TB and need for increased funding, including through the Global Fund. RESULTS then engaged directly up with MPs, encouraging them to sign the Barcelona Declaration and join the Australian caucus and continue to support and develop this relationship. Caucus members, for their parts, established relationships with peers to request support for TB eradication.

These relationships opened the doors for discussion, said Stennett. “Some people may have seen the timing as tough but we were on the ground the first week of the new Parliament meeting new MPs and senators and forming relationships from their first day in Canberra.”

Understanding political concerns

Once the conversations began, Stennett needed a hook to ensure TB would be a political priority — especially for new MPs with election platforms to promote. RESULTS focused messaging around health security.

“There is an understanding that ‘TB anywhere is TB everywhere’, since it’s an airborne infectious disease,” Stennett said. “Antimicrobial resistance is an increasingly recognized serious threat to global health — with TB as its ‘poster child’.”

Stennett’s hook brought TB to Australia’s doorstep. RESULTS pointed to Papua New Guinea, Australia’s nearest neighbor, which faces drug-resistant strains of TB. So close by, the disease poses a direct threat to Australia, campaigners argued. Supporting an increased contribution to the Global Fund would be in the national interest.

Continuing their success

Stennett plans to build upon the success of the RESULTS campaign and the TB Caucus over the next 18 months. One priority will be to help the TB Caucus cross party lines to gain wider parliamentary support.

Also ahead, upcoming meetings of the Australian and Asia Pacific TB Caucuses will develop a regional response to TB. Australia’s TB funding to Papua New Guinea is expiring in mid-2017 and will need to be renewed and possibly redeveloped. Funding for Product Development Partnerships for TB, a public-private partnership model for developing new medical technologies, also runs out in March next year and will need to be renewed.

RESULT’s work to engage the Australian Parliament has been highly regarded by MPs and senators themselves.

“We appreciate the support our parliamentary colleagues have given the TB Caucus on this very important issue and the work of RESULTS International in helping to keep TB front and centre as an issue,” Thistlethwaite said.

Despite perceptions that Australian politics make aid and development a tough sell recently, RESULTS’s work demonstrates that it is possible for the development sector’s voice to be heard.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex 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.