The change of Australian leadership from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull not only brought about a new face to the role of prime minister, but also a shift in ministerial responsibilities.
As part of the reshuffle, a new position — minister for international development and the Pacific — was created to provide leadership to the Australian aid program and Steve Ciobo was appointed into the role by Prime Minister Turnbull.
In his first interview since taking on the job, Ciobo spoke exclusively with Devex about the new role, the challenges he faces and what he hopes to bring to the Australian aid program.
How were you first informed about this new position and what was your response to being offered the ministerial role?
I have had the good fortune of working with Julie Bishop as foreign minister in my previous capacity as parliamentary secretary to her and to Andrew Robb [minister for trade and investment]. We had discussed the high priority placed on the Pacific and also the development space through the many projects Australia has invested in. This was the genesis of where it came from, but when I received a call from the prime minister with the reshuffle, I was obviously very excited about the role.
How have your previous roles as parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister and trade minister shaped your understanding of issues impacting international development and the Pacific?
The good fortune I have had in working as parliamentary secretary has given me the opportunity to travel through many Pacific countries, including Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. I am going to build on that, but nothing beats the opportunity to sit down and meet political and community leaders from these countries, the chance to engage with Australian posts in-country and get an overview of the work that is being done, what the challenges are and how they differ from country to country.
I am bringing some of that background and exposure with me and now I am a minister in the Turnbull government with specific responsibilities for what we do in development and the Pacific.
What will the new roles and responsibilities of the minister for international development and the Pacific be and where will there be overlap with the work of the foreign minister?
The finer details of this are still being determined. We will get a charter letter from the prime minister identifying areas of responsibility. The letters will be coming out shortly but we [Ciobo, Bishop and Robb] have been having discussions and will continue our discussions. It has only been a week or two since this has all come to pass and work has continued as it has previously, but now there is an opportunity for this to be expanded.
Suffice to say, as per my job title minister for international development and the Pacific, my particular focus is on those two areas. Obviously I will work to support and assist the foreign minister, but it is also these specific areas of responsibilities where I will have primary carriage.
Will there be any changes to aid program operations within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for areas that will soon be reporting directly to you?
I don’t think those matters are fixed yet. Obviously with the integration of the former AusAID within DFAT there have been structural changes that have taken place. Programs are now delivered by the various desks responsible for countries. A lot of these will just be process-type issues, but I have every confidence DFAT will continue to provide very high-quality support, assistance and capacity building and we will tailor as appropriate as the exact requirements become apparent.
What work is Australia currently doing in development that you find most exciting and are keen to progress further?
If I had to pick two areas, one that I would focus on would be the Aid for Trade program. What we want to do is enhance prosperity, reduce poverty and create more stability throughout the region. Those are the broad objectives that have been outlined by the foreign minister and which I also subscribe to clearly.
In terms of the delivery of this, what I think is exciting in the development space is better incorporation of the private sector.
There will continue to be a shift away from the donor-recipient paradigm to one where we increasingly focus on capacity building — to build the ability for there to be enhanced economic prosperity in a number of countries, because we are building the private sector with the private sector.
That is the long-term and sustainable answer to a number of the problems and challenges that we face and it is one of the key areas I am excited about and look forward to beginning to work in.
In your discussions with countries and posts, have you identified any development issues that the aid program can be tailored to support and assist in?
To be honest, I come into this role having spent little over seven months as the parliamentary secretary.
I want to make sure that in the very near future I am getting around to as many of the Pacific countries as possible. I have certainly had the opportunity to meet with a number of leaders in the community and government sector over the past seven months, but I want to do a lot more of that.
I think that my focus in the very near future is upon building relationships even further, continue to develop on the good work the foreign minister has done, but most importantly I will be listening and discussing how Australia can be a partner in terms of the desire to build capacity and focus on better governance. These, in many respects, lay at the core of our focus on achieving the objectives of reducing poverty, promoting prosperity and enhancing stability.
Australian NGOs are particularly excited about having a minister with “international development” in the title as public awareness about the aid program seems to have been diminishing over time.
Will your role include promoting the aid program and its achievements to improve public awareness?
There is absolutely a challenge in making sure Australians appreciate the many benefits that flow through Australia’s development assistance. There are obviously elements of Australian society that take the view that we should just focus on our own backyard.
I couldn’t possibly in my role not address these concerns.
Part of the challenge is to be an advocate, and in some respects, an ambassador about why it’s in Australia’s national interests to ensure we are a good regional neighbor, why we have a role to play in provide support to the region and ultimately derive a win-win outcome from the work we do to engage with the region and to help them with capacity building and better governance.
What are your strategies for improving public awareness?
You do it through several ways. One is regular engagement with people. It is important that I don’t just speak to those that are on board — the message needs to be much broader. Preaching to the choir only goes so far.
There is also a role to play with colleagues and discussions with colleagues about the value derived for Australia and our neighbors. We still have very strong engagement — I don’t want to understate Australia’s engagement in the region, it is still very strong and rightly so. But there is an opportunity to engage further with colleagues.
And we will be taking opportunities to make sure that we are able to spread the message out more broadly as well.
The new role has been announced at a great time in International Development with the signing of the Sustainable Development Goals. Will this impact Australian aid deliverables in the Pacific going forward?
The really encouraging aspect of Agenda 2030, or the SDGs, is that there is no misalignment between the SDGs and Australia’s objectives. There is arguably even a stronger alignment now than previously. That’s really encouraging and is a really big positive, not only for Australia but also the 193 countries involved with it.
The foreign minister encouraged a strong focus on women, girls and gender equality as part of the aid program. Will this continue to be a focus going forward?
Gender empowerment and equality will continue to be a very strong focus for Australia. What we have done in terms of the fund specifically aimed at this outcome we will continue.
I’ll be delighted to work with the foreign minister and Australia’s ambassador for women and girls, Natasha Stott Despoja, in this space and this will continue to be a very strong focus of government.
With the SDGs highlighting climate change and oceans as part of goals, will the Australian aid program need to create a stronger focus in these areas?
I think Australia could do better at outlining to the region the very responsible approach that we have adopted in respect to climate change.
I don’t frankly believe that we have done a good job as we should have done in being advocates about why Australia has and will continue to take responsible actions in respect to climate change. This has led to the concerns that are genuinely help by our Pacific neighbors.
With natural disasters increasingly threatening the Pacific region, will your new role enable Australia to better respond and assist the region?
We want to play an important role in disaster recovery. Even more important than disaster recovery is mitigation. In both those respects, we want to be proactive as well as reactive and we will need to be as we continue to see challenges move through the region be it drought or cyclones. There will need to be a focus on these areas and this with be part and parcel with what I am looking at and seeking advice in relation to. There is certainly room for there to continue to be improvements as there has been over the past several years.
How will the Australian aid program continue to work further with NGOs, the private sector and research institutes to bring about improvement in development outcomes?
The Australian aid program has been able to incorporate NGOs very well as partners and we will continue to have a very strong relationship with all of them. They are very important relationships we want to see continue going from strength to strength.
The opportunity to engage more with the private sector is exciting an exciting opportunity and we are seeing real interest from a number of people in that space and we will continue to promote that and it is something I am going to continue to focus on. That perhaps isn’t more important, but it is an area of growth and it is a partnership that I think people should be excited about.
But there will be a real strength that comes from improved collaboration between sectors. Collaboration will be more than just communication. It’s about the efforts in relation to actual delivery of services and delivery of support and capacity building. Collaboration is an exciting opportunity for us.
Where do you see the aid program in five years, progressing towards the 2030 goals?
The three broad themes of promoting prosperity, ensuring stability and reducing poverty are front and center. Every day program design and execution needs to be focused on achieving these outcomes.
So in five years, we should see a continuation of the success we have been having. We want to ensure there has been improvement in gender issue and greater empowerment of women. I would like to continue to see solid progress made in terms of labor force mobility and work that has been happening in respect to remittances throughout the region.
I would like to see continued development of capacity building, not only in the private sector but also in relation to governance, and the ability to see a broadening and deepening of skillsets throughout the region.
These are going to be crucial to ensuring there are long-term and sustainable programs that are bringing about meaningful change.