Australia’s leadership has seen a major reshuffling in the past two weeks, after former prime minister and staunch foreign aid advocate Kevin Rudd won back his seat from Julia Gillard and picked Melissa Parke as the new minister for international development.
Parke, who takes over the first such portfolio since 1996, is poised to run her non-cabinet office amid much belt-tightening in foreign aid spending in recent years that has led to a two-year delay of the government’s pledge to set aside by 2015 0.5 percent of national income for overseas assistance. Australia’s aid budget now stands at AU$5.7 billion ($5.2 billion), or 0.35 percent of GNI.
But how does the aid community view the appointment?
“We welcome the decision to appoint a dedicated ministerial position to the international development portfolio. Tackling poverty is a global challenge that merits direct ministerial attention,” Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development, told Devex.
Now with Rudd, who was the first to announce the 0.5 percent target in 2007, and Parke in the lead, there could be a change yet in Australia’s aid budget, even as some observers note that the opposition has also vowed to appoint an aid minister of their own if they win this year’s federal elections.
Who is Melissa Parke?
Before joining the Australian parliament, the new aid minister worked as an international lawyer for the United Nations in Kosovo, Gaza and Lebanon, where she assisted in peacekeeping, reconstruction and humanitarian efforts, as well as launching the U.N. Ethics office in New York.
As an MP, she was known for supporting foreign aid.
In her inaugural speech in 2007, she called for Australia’s increased participation in the U.N. and more engagement with the Asia-Pacific region and bilateral partners. Parke also stressed the need for the country’s promotion of environmental sustainability and good governance, and urged the G-20 to focus on food security and dealing with tax havens.
She strongly opposed what some called the government’s “diversion” of as much as AU$375 million to domestic asylum seeker costs and lobbied for asylum seekers to have greater representation in the government.
“Parke spoke out strongly against the government’s diversion of aid towards the domestic costs of processing and supporting asylum-seekers last year which we as indicative of a principled approach to policies,” a spokeswoman for AidWatch Australia said in a statement.
What lies ahead
The aid community is also waiting to see how Parke will share her duties with foreign affairs minister Bob Carr, who in a recent interview with ABC, called for a hardline approach to domestic asylum seekers.
Addressing the public for the first time as aid minister, Parke said development assistance is “a very significant aspect of the government’s work” in keeping with Australia’s national interest. Australia, she stressed, has the duty to contribute to lending a hand to people “in parts of the world affected by poverty, disease, war and civil unrest,” since development assistance builds economic capacity, regional cooperation and security.
Parke has so far confirmed Australia’s commitment to the “successful achievement of the MDGs by 2015 and to the consideration in due course of a coordinated approach” to accelerate the achievement of MDG targets especially in poor-performing Pacific countries like Papua New Guinea.
Some areas for improvement that she has noted were “decreasing child and maternal mortality, improving access to sanitation and primary education, combating HIV, and improving environmental sustainability.”
After less than a week in charge, Parke has already been hounded by controversy: Critics claim that her past open support for West Papuan independence may strain bilateral ties with Indonesia.
Other members of Australia’s aid community, however, are more forward-looking.
“The first tasks for the new minister are to ensure the government re-establishes bipartisan agreement on growing the overseas aid budget to 0.5 per cent of national income by 2016, and to increase the government’s commitment to tackling global hunger,” said Helen Szoke, CEO of Oxfam Australia.
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