Address to 40 Years of Australian Aid exhibition

  • Speech, check against delivery
02 December 2014

Thank you my dear friend and colleague Senator Mason and I also thank him for the extraordinary job that he's doing as Parliamentary Secretary in this fascinating field of foreign affairs and particularly the work he is doing for our aid program.

There are so many friends here this evening, so many distinguished guests and so many people who have played such an important role in contributing to Australia's aid effort over many, many years.

When I learned that this month would mark the 40th anniversary of the formal Australian Aid program I wondered how we could celebrate the many achievements. And I don't believe that we recognise our history often enough. In recent times I've learned that we have a great deal in the DFAT archives in terms of records and photographs and so the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade put together a team – Rob, Lou and Lisa are heading it up – and they have put together this most extraordinary photographic exhibition. I want to thank them and the whole DFAT team for the concept, for the ideas, for the work and for the presentation. It says so much about Australian Aid.

One of the foundations of the robust, cooperative relationships we share today with nations across the region, and the world comes from our aid program.

Looking at these photographs tonight, and I have seen a number of them in advance, I'm struck by the diversity and the reach of our program over the decades by the individual stories of effort and impact and by how much the world has changed in those 40 years.

Contrast these facts - in 1974, life expectancy in PNG was 49 years of age, today it's over 62 years of age. In Indonesia, life expectancy back in 1974 was about 55 years, today it is 71. Per capita income has doubled in real terms in Philippines, and more than tripled in Vietnam. In China hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty through the rising tide of economic growth and in each instance Australian aid has contributed to the success.

Now there are a number of panels here that I want you to look at later this evening.

Panel 5 on the right – a small landowner, Yuan Bao Liu, holding his prize ram on his farm in Yunnan Province in China - it was Australian aid that helped improve the pasture and grazing programs, and through this, Yuan Bao Liu doubled his income within a year.

As we all know China is Australia biggest trading partner, and we have recently finalised negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement with China, the first with an advanced economy so that tells a story in itself. Today though, the total of global aid funds, the Official Development Assistance worldwide is about $134 billion. It is utterly dwarfed by other flows, including almost $900 billion in private capital flows to developing countries and remittances and philanthropy and the like.

Poverty reduction is possible today like at no time in history. That's why I decided that Australia needed what I called our new aid paradigm. So that Australia can maximize our efforts in this changing environment ­to recognise the role of economic growth in addressing poverty, embracing new partners and utilising the potential of the private sector and to ensure that new technologies and innovations are harnessed by our aid program.

Reforms in the aid program build on 40 years of experience and that's a strong foundation by any measure. The fact is Australia's aid program has been evolving since its inception in the post-war period because our development assistance actually began in earnest at least as far back as 1950 with the Colombo Plan. And as you may well know that is a very dear concept to my heart because we've reversed it now with our New Colombo Plan initiative. But at the time, back in 1950, the Menzies Government acknowledged the importance of our region.

Percy Spender, the Minister for External Affairs in the Menzies Government, said around this time: "We live side by side with the countries of South and Southeast Asia, and we desire to be on good-neighbour terms with them. Above all, it is in our interests to foster commercial and other contacts with them and give them what help we can in maintaining stable and democratic governments in power, and increasing the material welfare of their peoples. In doing so we take the long view." In those few words Percy Spender encapsulates the ambition, and the scope of our aid program. Good neighbours, working for stability and democracy, a focus on economic growth, the long view as those early days are represented here at the exhibition.

The Colombo Plan was one of our first outreach efforts. Another, in those early days, was the building of our relationship with Papua New Guinea, and supporting our dear and close neighbour to independence in 1975. Indeed I should mention Sir Paul Hasluck, the first member to hold my seat of Curtin in Western Australia, a one-time Australian Minister for External Affairs and Australia's 17th Governor-General, was vitally instrumental in recognising the importance of the Australia-PNG relationship.

The aid program continues to play a significant role in maintaining that key relationship. Today Australia and PNG are partners, we are partners in the economic growth initiatives for Papua New Guinea, and I think a testament to our relationship is the presence of the Papua New Guinean delegation here today. Thank you for being here.

From the time of Hasluck, Australia's role in the region has grown and matured.

For forty years we have built a reputation as a reliable, effective and honest development partner, our humanitarian efforts, our peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts, our contributions to economic growth, governance, security, law and order.

Last December I was able to see first-hand Australia's humanitarian contribution to the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan where hundreds of communities around the Tacloban area were devastated, thousands perished, and millions more displaced. Australia was on the ground immediately. We committed more than $40 million to this response effort, but it was the way we responded by funding key partners – including UNICEF, the UN Populations Fund, World Health Organisation, the Red Cross, and other Filipino NGOs. We supported recovery efforts through rebuilding schools, and immediately advising on infrastructure rebuilding, and helping with future disaster preparedness.

I believe the response of the Howard Government to the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 was a real turning point in our approach to humanitarian aid. The scale of that disaster generated the largest international response to a natural disaster that we've seen in modern times. Millions of people were so deeply affected and they needed our help.

The prompt, practical and reliable way the Australia Government responded, the heartfelt response of the Australian people, I think changed and strengthened our relationship with the countries affected, particularly Indonesia. Images on panel 12 on the right show that Australia was in Aceh within days.

Also Timor-Leste's relationship with Australia, we are Timor-Leste's largest development partner, we've providing over $1.5 billion in aid since 1999. Australia has been, and Xanana Gusmao tells me this, has been pivotal to achieving the stability that exists today. Likewise in Bougainville, we have been instrumental in peace-keeping and peace-building providing schools, medical kits, roads, police partnerships in training and the like.

In Afghanistan, Australia's aid program has supported some remarkable improvements. School enrolments have risen from fewer than one million in 2001 to close to eight million today, including about three million girls from almost zero. Basic health services are now available to 85 per cent of the population, up from 10 per cent in 2001, building roads and infrastructure, supporting economic growth and connectivity.

Speaking of infrastructure, we have some pretty powerful examples in the exhibition.

The My Thuan Bridge, that's panel 10 on the right - crossing the Mekong River in Viet Nam, was opened by former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in 2000. And the Friendship Bridge – panel 8 on the right – opened in 1994. In its first year I'm told that over 100,000 people crossed the bridge and that enabled goods and services to be traded, apparently total trade over the bridge was about 4.8 billion Baht.

In 2013 six million people crossed the bridge, up from 100,000 and total trade, up from 4.8 billion Baht to nearly 60 billion. So linking consumers and producers Australian aid has facilitated trade and has promoted sustainable agricultural industries. That's what the new aid paradigm is about.

Another crucial part is being played by what I call the 'jewel' in our aid program and that's the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research - ACIAR. ACIAR is the Australian Government's specialist agency for brokering international agricultural research partnerships to promote economic prosperity and to address poverty in the Indo-Pacific region. It is estimated that the $2.5 billion invested in research partnerships made by ACIAR since 1982 has delivered more than five times that in benefits to developing economies.

I am absolutely delighted to see the ACIAR Commissioners here today –– they advise ACIAR and me on how we can continue to see remarkable returns on Agricultural research, including by engaging the private sector.

Panel 13 on the left shows the joint DFAT–ACIAR Seeds of Life program in Timor-Leste, a program that has improved agricultural productivity by helping over 40,000 farmers grow improved varieties of staple crops like rice, maize, sweet potato and the like.

I was asked to choose a photograph that I thought encapsulated what our aid program was all about. Easy task, no pressure, just go through 40 years of photographs and pick one! Well, the image I chose was the one behind me on the stage and that is of two young East Timorese, the joy on their faces is palpable. It's about water, sanitation, empowering women and girls and to me that speaks volumes about the impact we have had in our region. Timor-Leste, another example of where Australian aid has made a huge difference in areas where we have expertise, water and sanitation.

It is worth reflecting that over 40 years, Australian aid has seen some remarkable results. More than 40 million children have been vaccinated. Tens of millions more girls helped to attend school for the first time. Tens of millions of people assisted to earn a living through microfinance and livelihoods support. Over 90 million poor people affected by conflict or disaster being provided with humanitarian assistance. And more than 75,000 future leaders of countries, government agencies, of businesses, of communities in our region successfully trained in Australia and we have a number of them here tonight.

The contributions of Australia's aid program has shaped our role in the world, and particularly in the region and shaped the development of countries in our region.

40 years of aid is a measure of national character. It is a measure of our aspirations for ourselves –as leaders, as 'doers', as a Top 20 nation making a significant contribution to the world and it's the quality of our spend that is important – careful, considered investments in the peace and prosperity of our region.

Our aid program is a product of our aspirations for other countries in our region, our aspirations for our neighbours, for low income countries to graduate to middle-income status and beyond and for the populations of these countries to receive the benefits of economic growth.

We have seen this occur in our region over the past 40 years and this exhibition gives us that sense of history and achievement. I pay tribute to all those who have contributed to the delivery of Australian aid, have delivered to the betterment of nations in our region and beyond. Australian aid has done remarkable things and it's been delivered by remarkable people.

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