Chaotic Australian politics may have produced an unlikely winner — the foreign aid budget.
Votes may have been cast for who will govern Australia for the next four years, but a dramatic shift against the major political parties at the polling booth has produced an outcome that the Australian Electoral Commission is yet to finalize.
“We know from polling conducted prior to the election that ending poverty and increasing aid were influential on people's vote,” Tony Milne, campaign director of the Campaign for Australian Aid, told Devex. “Supporters of aid were deeply upset by severe cuts to aid and Australia backing away from its role as a middle power, punching above its weight on issues such as ending global poverty.”
On Sunday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed victory in the federal election after Labor leader Bill Shorten conceded defeat. The ongoing count has final numbers swinging between Turnbull narrowly winning the required number of seats to form government outright or a Liberal-led minority government. Forming a minority government would require wooing crossbenchers, comprised of minor parties and independents.
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Increasing the foreign aid budget is an important issues for three groups who will be at the discussion table — the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and independent member of Parliament Andrew Wilkie. All three have called for Australia to show greater generosity to its neighbors by increasing foreign aid spending to 0.7 percent of gross national income over the next ten years.
On the other side of the foreign aid aisle, political parties Jackie Lambie Network and One Nation want to see the foreign aid budget halved again or eliminated entirely, while independent Cathy McGowan has supported Coalition cuts in the past and is unlikely to support increases.
These groups could realistically obstruct any expansion of the Australian aid program, according to Ashlee Betteridge from the Development Policy Centre.
“It could be a very real risk that any time something that is a niche interest of these parties comes up and needs funding, that they will call for the aid budget to be cut to fund it,” she told Devex.
Dr. Kate Neely, from the Melbourne School of Government, revealed to Devex that the preferred outcome for NGOs would be a government headed by Labor.
During the election campaign, Labor announced they would increase foreign aid spending by $800 million Australian dollars ($593 million) over four years, including an immediate reversal of AU$224 million in cuts made in the most recent federal budget. In comparison, the Liberals remained firm on their foreign aid stance with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop even calling Labor’s announcement a “non-event”.
“In the case of a Labor government aligned with minor parties and independents who are committed to respecting the U.N.’s 0.7 percent GNI recommendation, there could be increases over the long term,” Neely explained, predicting a Liberal government would see much of the same.
Nongovernmental organizations have surprisingly been prepared for this political mess and will be using it to their advantage.The coming weeks will see NGOs engage with foreign aid supporters, as well as opponents, to push for a bigger budget.
“We always talk to all politicians and all elected representatives and it’s looking like there will be a number of key advocates for Australian aid elected into both houses of Parliament,” Benn Banasik, political engagement and campaign coordinator with Micah Australia, explained to Devex.
“We are not going to overly focus on any one party,” Banasik said. “We have always taken the position that people’s minds can be changed.”
Marc Purcell, CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, told Devex that regardless of the election outcome, NGOs will aim to work positively with the new government.
“ACFID looks forward to meeting with Australia's new federal MPs and senators when the Parliament next sits,” he said. “ACFID and its members will continue to work in partnership with the new government on the official aid program and constructively with opposition and crossbench MPs and senators on aid policy and funding.”
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