Will new leadership bring a sea change to Australian aid policy?

By Lisa Cornish 15 September 2015

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s new prime minister after Tony Abbott was ousted on Sept. 14. Photo by: veni markovski / CC BY-NC

In a scene Australians have become far too familiar with, a leadership vote saw a sitting prime minister ousted by a challenger from within his party — and with it, a chance to change the direction of Australian foreign aid.

Although Tony Abbott survived an earlier no-confidence vote in February, he was ousted last night in Canberra as prime minister in favor of Malcolm Turnbull, who until he challenged the leadership of the Liberal Party was the communications minister in Abbott’s cabinet.

For Australian political observers, this change was a long time coming.

Abbott, according to these observers, made many gaffes and policy mistakes on home soil. He broke election promises. He proposed to impose waiting periods for unemployment benefits. He proposed an unpopular co-payment system for access to general practitioners. He threatened changes to the pension system. And he awarded a knighthood to Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, for services to Australia.

But his foreign policy and international relations also brought attention to Australia for the wrong reasons.

International perceptions of Australia

Professor Derek McDougal, an expert on Australian foreign policy at the University of Melbourne, told Devex that globally, Abbott is perceived as being on his own.

“Australia has good working relationships with a range of countries without being close to any,” he said.

Abbott can be erratic in his policies, but McDougal said he implemented policies that would allow him to stand on the international stage to claim he was doing enough.

“The broad question for the Australian government to ask is it doing enough to contribute to and deal with these global issues,” McDougal said. “Per capita we’re one of the [wealthiest] countries and I’m not sure we are doing enough.”

The cutback on Australian foreign aid also played a role in their loss of leadership in the work.

“Australia won’t become a global leader but it can look at making a niche contribution in specialized areas,” McDougal told Devex.

In comparison, since Abbott took office nearly two years ago, countries such as China and Japan have been considered a “peg above” Australia in world leadership.

What were some of the key aid and policy issues that affected the Abbott-led government’s standing and influence in the international stage?

1. Offshore detention.

On July 1, a new law introduced as part of the Border Force Act created a shroud of secrecy on government activities in detention centers based in Nauru, Manus Island and Papua New Guinea.

According to Graeme McGregor, refugee campaign coordinator for Amnesty International Australia, the new legislation allows the government to imprison doctors, nurses and child welfare professionals who speak out about the alleged cases of abuse in detention centers.

“This legislation is an escalation of the Australian government’s increasingly desperate attempts to ensure that abusive conditions and treatment of asylum seekers in its offshore detention centers are kept from the public,” McGregor told Devex.

Offshore detention was already widely criticized even before the act was introduced, with inquiries and leaked reports showing strong evidence of physical and sexual assault against detainees — including children.

The international advocacy group has not been able to verify these reports, however, as its request to visit the Nauru detention center has been denied three times. The last time Amnesty International was able to gain access to the facility in November 2012, shortly after the detention center was reopened, no allegations of abuse were being reported.

2. Refugees.

In early September, as the world responded to images of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, Abbott claimed that a hard-line approach to refugees would have prevented the child’s death. But he said his government would look to altering the country breakdown of refugees to allow more Syrian refugees into Australia.

It was a response out of line with the Australian and international climate.

Rallies throughout the country called for Australia to open its doors to refugees. Even within the Liberal Party, members were calling for an intake of as many as 50,000 refugees above the current quota.

Abbott did a sudden about-face Sept. 9, when he announced support to house 12,000 Syrian refugees, above the existing refugee intake of 13,750 for 2015.

“It is a generous, prudent and proportionate response by a decent and compassionate nation,” Abbott told the media.

But the goodwill this announcement created was quickly overturned when he shifted the focus of his news conference toward Australia beginning military action in Syria.

Mat Tinkler from Save the Children Australia said that the government’s contribution was “generous,” amounting to an intake of almost 26,000 refugees by 2016. But Tinkler was strongly critical of military action.

“Airstrikes are not going to solve the conflict in Syria,” he said, noting that warfare is a key factor behind the growing number of refugees. “We’re one of the few organizations working in Syria today. We need access for humanitarian workers and a strategy to resolve this long term.”

3. Climate change.

Climate change had almost all but disappeared from Abbott’s vocabulary before the August announcement of the carbon pollution reduction target they would be taking to Paris in December. It was particularly evident in the aid program where a strong focus on programs targeting climate change under the previous government was dramatically reduced.

But the announced target — to reduce carbon emissions 26 percent by 2030, based on 2005 levels — put Australia behind the United States, the United Kingdom and even China. It was a policy criticized strongly at home.

“It’s in Australia’s interest that the world acts to cut carbon pollution, but we can’t urge others to do more if we sit at the back of the pack. We can get a better outcome at the front,” said Kellie Caught, national manager for climate change at WWF Australia. “By taking real leadership on climate change action we can reduce future costs and risks and build a more sustainable and healthier future for all Australians.”

And the targets did nothing to satisfy Australia’s neighbors in the Pacific, many of which are under threat from the effects of climate change.

Last week at the Pacific Island Forum Leaders meeting, low-lying island nations called for tougher global targets — they wanted target temperature increases of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But there was no support from Australia or New Zealand, which both opted to stick with the U.N. target of 2 degrees. The meeting ended with an agreement that the parties would agree to disagree on the way to tackle the global problem.

What will change under Turnbull?

Under Turnbull, many are hopeful that a stronger climate change policy will come out of the Australian government. In 2010, he made a passionate speech to parliament urging immediate and strong action to tackle climate change.

“It is our job, as members of parliament, to legislate with an eye to the long-term future, to look over the horizon beyond the next election and ensure that as far as we can, what we do today will make Australia a better place, a safer place, for future generations to live in,” he said in his speech. “Climate change is the ultimate long-term problem. We have to make decisions today, bear costs today so that adverse consequences are avoided, dangerous consequences, many decades into the future.”

But on Monday, it was evident that foreign policy was not a high priority on his agenda and would remain the responsibility of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who retained her position as deputy leader of the Liberal Party.

“The policy on climate change that [Environment Minister] Greg Hunt and Julie [Bishop] prepared is one that I supported as a minister in the Abbott government and it’s one that I support today,” he told media, saying Australia’s climate change policy had been well-designed and will be the proposal they will be taking to Paris.

There was no mention of Syria or refugees, just the importance of creating a strong economic future for Australia.

But foreign aid and development is an immediate issue for Turnbull’s leadership as his first day in the job saw a parliamentary forum in Canberra on the need for Australia to back the United Nations’ new sustainable development goals and apply these throughout the aid program. The Australian Council for International Development was among those briefing members of Parliament.

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

Cornish img
Lisa Cornish@lisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. 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 has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.


Join the Discussion