Responders to Typhoon Haiyan hold a pre-departure briefing. Photo by: DFAT / CC BY

Twice a year, Australia’s senators go toe-to-toe with ministers and high-level public servants to question budgets and government operations as part of Senate Estimates. The past two weeks has seen post-budget inquiries, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade fronting estimates this week to answer questions on a range of operations, including the aid program.

In Senate Estimates, politicians can become petty in questioning as they seek to promote a political agenda, and ministers can become opaque as they seek to avoid answering questions. To break through the politics, Devex presents the key insights impacting the development sector.

Australia’s ODA under fire

Australia’s budget announcement included a freezing of the aid budget between 2018-19 and 2020-21, to save $303.3 million Australian dollars ($223.8 million). That came under fire during the estimates — particularly figures related to Australia’s generosity.

Under questioning from Labor Senator Penny Wong, DFAT deputy secretary Ewen McDonald confirmed that Australia’s official development assistance to gross national income ratio will reach the lowest level in recorded history in 2021, when it is set to reduce to 0.2 percent. The current expectation is for incremental increases after that, although this was not guaranteed by DFAT.

“If the indexation rate is less than the growth of national income per year, then as a matter of mathematics we will continue to reduce in our generosity as a proportion of GNI,” Wong said, confirmed by Paul Wood, DFAT’s chief financial officer.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam had harsh words for the ODA budget. “What an absolute disgrace that is,” he said. And he questioned projections, saying past statements by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that the aid budget would grow from its 2014 allocation of $5 billion Australian dollars ($3.7 billion), in line with the consumer price index, were essentially worthless.

“On what basis of confidence should we take what is written in this budget paper when what you’ve been saying since 2014 turned out not to be worth the paper it was printed on?” Ludlam asked. “Why should we believe a single thing this government says about what may or may not happen in 2021?”

Ludlam further tried to clarify programs and countries impacted by the $303.3 million Australian dollars ($223.8 million) budget savings, with no clear answers. And he failed to gain answers on how how Australia’s ODA was being redirected to political events, such as support for the 2018 Asia-Pacfic Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit to be held in Papua New Guinea.

Daniel Sloper, first assistant secretary of DFAT’s Pacific division, confirmed DFAT will be spending up to $23 million Australian dollars ($17 million) over two years, directly supporting the APEC summit. It will form part of the ODA for the country under the heading “Building PNG Capacity.”

The Australian Federal Police will additionally be receiving $48.2 million Australian dollars ($35.6 million) to provide policing support — some of which is ODA eligible.

“I would have thought our overseas development aid budget to PNG would have focused on things like maternal mortality, childhood health, education, and holding an APEC summit doesn’t seem to mesh with those earlier priorities,” Ludlam said.

PNG, Sloper explained, had asked Australia to support the necessary security required to host high-level global leaders, and a “reorientation of existing programs” receiving ODA from Australia took place to fund the initiative.

Salary cuts for Australia’s overseas staff

Following an enquiry and report into remuneration and allowances for Australia’s staff posted overseas, a decision by the Australian government recommended new changes that would produce a net savings of $37 million Australian dollars ($27.3 million) over forward budgets.

“One of the purposes that the government had in undertaking this review was to try to ensure that across Australian officials serving overseas there was a standard approach to allowances,” Frances Adamson, secretary of DFAT, explained.

The cost savings measure from the budget will impact Australian public servants from 28 government agencies who have overseas representation.

“It will be a reduction in their take-home pay, in simple terms,” DFAT’s Wood said.

Exceptions for members are the Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police on active service. It will be DFAT staff taking on the largest portion of the budget savings. $21 million Australian dollars ($15.5 million) in savings will come from DFAT over forward budget estimates. The changes will additionally reduce budgets for the Australian Defence Force by $13.5 million Australian dollars ($10 million) and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection by $5.3 million Australian dollars ($3.9 million).

The cut will occur by adjusting the maximum salary for staff posted overseas. For DFAT, this is currently set at a maximum annual salary of $137,021 Australian dollars ($101,211). Senior staff who are paid higher will have salaries reduced.

The announcement was made to DFAT staff on budget night, but those currently posted overseas under the old arrangements, a figure estimated at 890, will not be impacted. Those planning a posting will need to revise their budget expectations, which includes not only salary reductions, but cuts to a range of additional allowances. A child reunion supplement, household maintenance and assistance allowance, pre-posting financial assistance allowance, allowance for cable and satellite subscription and an outfit allowance for senior executive staff are all set to be removed, in addition to other minor household and children allowances.

Additional allowances, including cost of living allowances and cost of posting allowances, will not be based on a percentage of salary, and could see reductions in pay to staff.

“The money is gone to repair the budget,” Wood said.

Implementing the SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals, and how Australia intends to implement them, were also touched upon.

Australia’s implementation is still at the stage of identifying key stakeholders and developing a consultation plan — private sector, the research community and NGO players are important to this.

But DFAT, McDonald explained, was actively seeking to raise the SDGs at forums of a high level. “For example, we’ve recently had the German government, we’ve had the Canadian government and the European Union out here, and that’s been a key part of our discussion about how we’re going about implementing the SGDs together.”

Labor Senator Claire Moore raised concerns that despite high-level stakeholder engagement, there was not enough public awareness occurring, including reporting from working groups in Australia.

But McDonald said there was still work needed to operationalize the SDGs within all levels of Australian government, in business, academia and more, to make sure it was not simply an “add on.” “We want to integrate it into the work we do as a key focus,” he said.

Australia’s competitive human rights bid

Australia's fight for a seat on the UN human rights council

Australian officials are working hard to secure one of two seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2018-2020 term. Yet at home, there is increasing evidence of human rights abuses in the treatment of refugees, indigenous Australians and children in detention. And it has human rights experts debating if Australia's questionable record will impact the final vote.

The status of Australia’s strategy to win a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council came up in questioning, providing insight into the campaigning that occurs for high level U.N. councils.

Lachlan Strahan, first assistant secretary for DFAT’s multilateral policy division, explained that Australia has been running a vigorous campaign for several years, led by the foreign minister.

Bishop has been raising Australia’s desire for a place on the council at multilateral, bilateral and other forums over a number of years to gather support and votes.

“She also wrote to her ministerial counterparts last year and asked for their support,” Strahan said.

The team pushing for Australia now includes the minister for justice, minister for defense, minister for trade and minister for international development and the Pacific, and two “special envoys” — one a former member of parliament currently on his eighth overseas visit to gather support, and a French-speaking envoy to woo francophone nations.

Senior executive staff from DFAT, including the aid program, are also expected to advocate for Australia’s human rights seat when they are engaging other countries and people of interest.

Strahan said that their opponents, France and Spain, were not to be taken lightly. “We would anticipate that this vote in October is going to be quite close,” he said. “What that means is that we have to run this campaign frankly at full tilt, right up until the vote, and we are not going to leave any stone unturned.”

The countries who have announced support for Australia would not be discussed, for fear of it “arming their competitors” with key information, and costs associated were not provided.

Advocating for NGOs

Ludlam also highlighted the value of NGOs in delivering Australian aid outcomes, and advocated for their quality work.

Australia's NGO program 'delivers strongly on results'

An evaluation of the Australian NGO Cooperation Program concluded that ANCP is a big winner not just for the Australian aid program in general but for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in particular. But what impact will its key recommendations have on the Australian aid program?

“Based on aggregated results alone, the ANCP [Australian NGO Cooperation Program] is one of DFAT’s best performing programs,” Ludlam said. He noted that the ANCP program delivered 18.2 percent of DFAT’s development results, despite receiving only 2.7 percent of the budget, in 2015.

“They appear to be an extraordinary multiplier,” Ludlam said, questioning why NGOs were not being used more widely.

Jamie Isbister, first assistant secretary for DFAT’s humanitarian, NGOs and partnerships division, said NGOs were used beyond the ANCP in delivering Australian aid through bilateral programs, but wider use of NGOs was restricted by their operations.

“It is also an issue about the absorption capacity in the ability for NGOs to effectively deliver on that,” Isbister said. “NGO programs, community development programs, are quite intensive in terms of how they are managed and resourcing of staff both here and overseas. So I think part of this coming up with a simple like for like isn’t a fair way of interpreting how you would allocate [funding].”

But the advocacy and acknowledgement of the work of NGOs was an important endorsement for a sector that has felt overlooked and undervalued in Australian politics.

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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.