CANBERRA — In spite of exit polls suggesting a Labor victory, the Coalition will be returning to Australia's Parliament under the leadership of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
For Australian aid and foreign policy, the results mean the government has been given a mandate to continue on the path set by Morrison since taking on the leadership in August 2018 — including its focus on greater engagement with the Pacific and infrastructure financing to become the “partner of choice” for the Pacific.
The result may have been a surprise to many, including NGOs, but not the fact that aid did not factor in the final decision.
“There is only one way to increase aid — and that is by it being bipartisan, to remove it as a political wedge,” Tim Costello, executive director of Micah Australia, told Devex. “There are never votes in aid — we’ve always known that. The recipients don’t vote. But leaders have to lead.”
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The final polls for the Australian federal election had suggested that the results would be a close call with, suggesting a 3% margin in favor of Labor. But at 9.30 p.m. on May 18, the election was being called by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s election analyst Antony Green in favor of a returning Coalition government under the leadership of Scott Morrison.
The same day, opposition leader Bill Shorten conceded defeat and announced he would be stepping down as opposition leader. As of Monday, with counting still ongoing, it was looking like Morrison will hold a majority government despite his party still seeing losses, including former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The final results for the House of Representatives will be confirmed within two weeks following the inclusion of absent, pre-poll, and postal votes with some electorates still too close to call. In the Senate, results will also be weeks away, with early indications that Morrison will not have the majority in the upper house. This may see minor parties playing an influential role in the decisions of the next Parliament.
The early indication is that Labor failed to make inroads — and in fact lost seats — to the sitting government — whether this was based on policy or the fact that Shorten himself was not seen as leadership material remains subject to debate.
Australian aid and foreign policy will now need to support two new Coalition announcements made during the campaign, which may impact the delivery of Australia’s aid program and commitment to the support of global challenges including refugees and migrants.
Dealing with the ‘efficiency dividend’
To fund election promises, the Coalition committed to cut 1.5 billion Australian dollars ($1 billion) from the Australian public service over the next four years and is expected to increase to AU$5 billion “over the medium term.”
There are agency exclusions to these cuts, but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is not one of them and will need to reduce spending by 2% over the next two financial years, followed by an additional 1.5% cut in 2021-22, and a further 1% in 2022-23.
The decisions on where cuts will occur are with the secretaries of departments — and for DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson this means determining whether cuts within DFAT should be specific to areas or reductions in expenditure on consultancies, travel, or elsewhere.
It could also see job losses, potentially leading to the continued loss of expertise and knowledge which observers have been critical of since the amalgamation of AusAid into DFAT.
Reducing Australia’s refugee intake
Immigration, and particularly Australia’s refugee intake, was also an election issue for the Coalition with Morrison pledging to maintain Australia’s refugee intake at its current number of 18,750 for the next three years. This was in opposition to Shorten’s pledge to reduce barriers to processing of refugees and increasing the annual humanitarian refugee intake to 27,000 by 2025.
With policies becoming stricter, international relationships could sour as a result.
Progressing Pacific engagement
The election results mean Australia will continue its “step up” on engaging its Pacific neighbors in a range of regional discussions including health and security.
It also means the controversial Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific will progress as planned from July 1 — a AU$2 billion initiative supporting high priority infrastructure development in the Pacific through concessional loans and grants.
This engagement has been viewed by many observers as a response to growing Chinese influence in the Pacific, but it is still considered by organizations including the Asian Development Bank as a welcome initiative to improve the infrastructure capability in the region.
An Australian aid and foreign policy leadership change?
Prior to the election, the Coalition saw a large number of retirements that will require Morrison to make new appointments to his cabinet. An election also provides Morrison with the opportunity to refocus his cabinet and the operation of the Australian government — and this could see machinery of government changes along with new ministerial titles or positions downgraded.
Existing leaders in Australian aid and foreign policy — Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific Anne Ruston, and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham — remain members of the government. But as part of ministerial movements, there is the possibility of being shifted into other roles with new Australian aid and foreign policy leadership.
Any shifts in leadership could result in changing priorities for aid and engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.