Australia's $5.2 billion foreign aid budget deserves more in the way of competency and ministerial oversight than yet another Julia Gillard 'L-plater'.
Senator Matt Thistlewaite's appointment on 25 March this year as Australia's new Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs as part of Labor's latest ministerial merry-go-round means that this crucial portfolio now has someone in charge with no portfolio experience. In fact, during his time in Parliament, Matt Thistlewaite has demonstrated the level and extent of his interest in foreign aid and the Pacific through not one speech on the topic or the region.
So why has this appointment been made?
The short answer is because there was no-one left. Such is the level of loathing for the Prime Minister's leadership and the extent of internal poison within federal ALP ranks, Gillard had little choice but to shore up her position with the appointment of a 'friendly' proving once again that there is not one aspect of the Government's operations unaffected by the ongoing Rudd/Gillard wars. Enter the latest actor to the stage, Matt Thistlewaite with his AWU and Labor apparatchik pedigree as an obvious choice for Gillard, but not for the sector, the Australian taxpayer or our near neighbours.
Outgoing Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles was well-respected in the sector, internationally and by the Coalition because of his real knowledge and understanding of the portfolio. Richard Marles actually got out on the ground, rolled up his sleeves and saw things for himself. I saw this first hand myself in travelling with him in the Pacific. Personally I considered it an honour to have had the opportunity of working with Richard Marles and have no reservation in saying that his departure due to toxic ALP shenanigans will be a real loss.
Richard Marles' hands on approach was a very necessary foil to the arrogant, pontificating approach of Bob Carr who in one of his first acts as Australia's new Minister for Foreign Affairs threatened Papua New Guinea (PNG) with sanctions and to organise world condemnation and isolation in relation to that country's elections - cowboy antics from an egotist. Hardly the statesman-like persuasive skills expected and required from Australia's first diplomat.
After setting off that diplomatic bomb, Bob Carr fortunately had the good sense to mostly stay out of PNG and leave the cleanup operation to Richard Marles. Unlike Bob Carr, Richard Marles understood that his responsibilities in administering Australia's foreign aid programme were not the same as running a caucus meeting or playing power broker games as part of the NSW right. It remains to be seen whether Matt Thistlewaite will be able to discern the difference.
What Australia's foreign aid program so sorely needs is a revitalised focus on our own region, a clearly articulated focus on medical research targeting disease and a effective plan to engage the business sector in driving economic development as a primary lever to achieve positive aid outcomes. In this regard, it is instructive to note how China and East Asia have lifted millions of people out of poverty through economic development, while the foreign aid sector continues to wrestle with accepted aid dynamics (See Fig 1)
In terms of our own region, it should be noted that in the 2012/2013 financial year, approximately $1.17 billion of Australia's total $5.2 billion foreign aid budget will be spent in PNG and the Pacific. Just under half of this $1.17 billion, $493.2 million to be more precise, will be dedicated to PNG. Quite rightly, therefore, PNG should not only be seen as the number one priority of Australia's aid program, but it should also be the jewel in the crown of what positive results we have been able to actually deliver. Regrettably this is not the case. Since Labor came to power in 2007, the percentage of Australia's foreign aid budget spent in the Pacific, including New Guinea has decreased by 4.5 %.
Each year the United Nations Development Program publishes the Human Development Report (the Report), which presents Human Development Index (HDI) values and ranks for 187 countries. The HDI is a summary measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.
The Report shows PNG's HDI value for 2012 is 0.466-in the low human development category-positioning the country at 156 out of 187 countries and territories. Not exactly a result to be proud of, especially when regard is had to the fact that the HDI of East Asia and the Pacific as a region increased from 0.432 in 1980 to 0.683 today, thereby placing PNG below the regional average.
Another useful measure of the effectiveness of our aid programme in PNG is to assess progress relative to other countries. During the period between 1980 and 2012, long-term progress for PNG, Myanmar and China show that despite decades of international isolation and economic sanctions, Myanmar has a higher HDI than PNG (See Fig 1).
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