Julie Bishop, outgoing Australian foreign minister. Photo by: Ryan Brown / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — The future of Australian aid is uncertain following a tumultuous week of Australian politics that has seen Foreign Minister Julie Bishop resign and the post of minister for international development and the Pacific downgraded to an assistant minister position.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stepped aside on Friday after several challenges to his leadership. Former Treasurer Scott Morrison won the fight to succeed him, with Bishop garnering just 11 votes in her bid for the top job.

Bishop chose not to go for the deputy position, one she has held for 11 years, with some reports suggesting she didn’t want to be “another man’s deputy.”

On Sunday, news emerged of WhatsApp messaging showing Bishop’s colleagues working against her. Within hours of the news, Bishop announced her resignation in a three sentence statement. She resigned weeks shy of her fifth anniversary as foreign minister.

Two new leaders have emerged, but with change come new ideas and approaches, and a need to revisit partnerships. As the Australian aid program was thought to be steadying after a period of great upheaval, many in Australia’s development sector were not ready for the shakeup.

Bishop’s legacy

Bishop oversaw a period of large-scale change in the Australian aid program — the amalgamation of AusAid into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, an aid program marked by greater outsourcing, and massive cuts that have resulted in official development assistance reaching its lowest level recorded. Funding is set to reach 19 cents out of every 100 Australian dollar by 2021-22 (14 cents out of $73).

For many, those cuts are still a point of anger.

“There is much to respect, for sure,” Joy Kyriacou, Fair Economies manager for Oxfam Australia, shared on Twitter. “But a great Foreign Minister would not have presided over the largest cuts to #AustralianAid in our nation’s history.”

Shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits, Andrew Leigh, shared a similar sentiment.

“There’s no hiding the fact that this has been a shocking period for Australia’s foreign aid,” he told Devex. “Never in my lifetime have we reduced our foreign aid so sharply. It has awfully adverse effects on some of the world’s most vulnerable people, on Australia’s footprint in the region, and on our ability to counter extremism and build trade — some of the benefits of foreign aid ... Julie Bishop has presided over the biggest aid cuts in a generation.”

But there were other areas where she stamped her authority.

Innovation and greater engagement with the private sector were a focus of her “new aid paradigm” which saw the innovationXchange established to bring new ideas and approaches to the aid program.

Gender also became a priority across all aid programming, with targets set to ensure 80 percent of investments, regardless of their objectives, effectively address gender issues in their implementation. She also fought for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and climate policy and programs.

New approaches to procurement saw a focus on indigenous businesses for greater local impact. She oversaw the development of a foreign policy white paper to direct Australia’s international engagement, the first of its kind in 14 years.  And under her leadership, Australia achieved a much desired international place on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

On the international stage, particularly in the Pacific, Bishop was regarded with a high level of respect.

“Julie Bishop carried a lot of weight in the Pacific,” Dan McGarry, media director for the Vanuatu Daily Post, told Devex. “Her no-drama, collaborative approach to engagement resonates with Pacific Islanders, and she was far and away the best informed Australian foreign minister in many years.”

“She is, to my knowledge, the only high-ranking Australian politician who has said, 'Australia is a Pacific nation.’”

Colleagues from both parties said she would missed. Turnbull called her “an inspiring role model for women here and around the world,” in a tweet and Penny Wong, shadow minister for foreign affairs highlighted her “tireless work ethic” and “commitment to standing up for Australia both here and abroad” in a statement.

A downgrade for development

In the turmoil, the Australian aid program has also lost Concetta Fierravanti-Wells who served as the minister for international development and the Pacific for more than two years. She resigned in protest of Turnbull apparently overlooking the conservative voices in the party last week.

Fierravanti-Wells had called for more Australian stories to share the benefit of overseas development assistance — including volunteers and NGOs, as well as greater engagement with diaspora communities to support developing countries.

And she sparked controversy by suggesting China was flooding the Pacific with poor quality infrastructure projects.

After Fierravanti-Wells’ departure, the position she had filled was downgraded to assistant minister, creating concern that development assistance will be downplayed under new leadership.

“World’s largest refugee camp on our doorstep. Competing with China for influence in the Pacific. PNG [Papua New Guinea] has 1 in 2 kids stunted. 90% of girls in Solomon Islands don’t finish high school. Yet no Minister for Development, nor Pacific. Massive own goal,” wrote Mat Tinkler, director of policy and public affairs for Save the Children Australia, on Twitter.

Leigh, the shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits, said the move was terrible.

“It means fewer voices speaking up for aid and we know that Scott Morrison has been part of a cabinet that has continued to cut aid. As we withdraw from countries, there is a loss of capacity within the institutions, as well as the direct impact in vaccination programs, sanitation programs, and other programs that save lives and build a better world,” he said.

Who are the new leaders of Australian aid?

Taking on the role of foreign minister is Marise Payne, who has been the minister for defense since 2015, worked with Bishop on the foreign policy white paper, has overseen the response to humanitarian disasters and has spoken out about climate change risk.

In a statement released following the announcement of her new role, Payne’s comments suggest a foreign policy and aid program that will have an even stronger focus on Australian security and prosperity.

“In this increasingly uncertain global environment, Australia must continue its active diplomacy to help advance a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific and strengthen the rules-based international order,” Payne said in the statement.

Leigh told Devex he did not have any initial read on changes to the aid program Payne may wish to make — but said she does need to understand that climate change and poverty were strongly linked to extremism.

“Yes we need a strong military, but without dealing with the root causes of poverty we are not going to be able to make our region safer,” he said.

The new assistant minister for international development and the Pacific is the largely unknown Anne Ruston, the former assistant minister for agriculture and water resources. Ruston does not have an international policy or development background.

What’s next for Australian aid

The development sector is looking for the ways to engage the new leaders — with the Australian Council for International Development focusing on a statement linked to defense to speak to Payne’s experience.

“Many of the challenges our neighbours face, such as the worsening effects of climate change; an increasing prevalence of natural disasters; and shifting disease patterns, are indifferent to military intervention and national borders,” ACFID wrote in their statement. “If the defence budget protects us when threats manifest in attacks, the aid program protects us from that very manifestation.”

The aid sector must continue to speak out about what is needed and what is important, Leigh said.

“The strategy of Liberals has always been to divide and conquer in the [development] sector,” he said. “They try to stop them speaking out by threatening to stop their funding. But it is vital our aid sector speak to their values and make absolutely clear that they will not tolerate further cuts, and aid has to be rebuilt.”

Some early signs of what is to come is just days away, when Payne will meet with Pacific leaders in Nauru at the Pacific Islands Forum. Australia’s commitment to climate and the Paris Agreement on climate change will be a point of interest, and there may be pushback on attacks on China’s interest in the region.

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 news.com.au. 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.