Australasian aid conference

  • Speech, check against delivery
Australian National University

Acknowledgements omitted

This conference has grown into a pre-eminent fixture on Australia’s international development calendar, since it began as a humbly named ‘workshop’ in 2014.

And now, I am thrilled to be here today as Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific.

I’m proud to be here as a champion for the Australian aid program.

I see an effective development program as critically important to advancing our national interests.

As you know – the new Australian Government is designing a new development policy.

The policy will be finalised in the first half of next year.

In the meantime, we’re not sitting on our hands.

Today I’d like to share our current thinking – starting with two points which are going to be fundamental to our approach.

First, we’re increasing the amount we spend on Official Development Assistance.

As you will remember, Labor went to the election promising to increase funding for international development by a billion dollars over four years.

In fact, we have gone beyond that, and are delivering a 1.4 billion dollar increase over the forward estimates.

Finding that money in the budget wasn’t easy.

As you know, these are challenging economic times, and the Australian economy is certainly not immune.

But the Government was determined to lift ODA, because we understand the benefits that our development program can bring—both to us, and to our region.

We know it saves lives and can promote economic growth, create jobs and help lift people out of poverty.

We know it can address inequalities – including for women, girls, Indigenous communities and people with disabilities.

We understand that it can make countries more resilient in the face of shocks.

There is a clear moral case for Australia to help support these goals.

And we also know that Australia itself benefits from having a region which is more peaceful, more prosperous and more resilient.

The second fundamental point I would highlight is that the Government is listening – to partner governments, civil society and communities.

We want to build genuine partnerships.

Our development program can only be regarded as a success if it works for all of us – for our partners and for Australia.

With each of our partner countries we want a two-way relationship.

One that is based on respect, listening, learning from each other and working together.

The Pacific and Southeast Asia

As to which countries we work with, the Government has made clear that we want to drive deeper engagement with our region.

At the heart of that will be our development program.

Clearly, the Pacific will be an enduring focus.

Since coming to office, we have been working tirelessly—from the Prime Minister down—to demonstrate the high value we place on our relationships in the Pacific.

We’ll work to be the partner of choice for the Pacific family in the years ahead.

Southeast Asia will also remain a high priority.

Both of these regions are facing some serious challenges.

In the case of the Pacific, we don’t need to speculate what those challenges are – leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum have already told us.

In the Boe Declaration, Forum countries made clear that climate change is the biggest single threat facing the Pacific – an economic threat, a humanitarian threat, a security threat, and, indeed, a truly existential threat for many of the nations of the Pacific.

Pacific leaders have also highlighted the challenge of recovering from Covid, which hit the Pacific particularly hard.

It had a massive impact on public debt in the Pacific, which in 2025 is projected to be double what it was in 2019.

The negative impact on communities – and on health and education – is severe and ongoing.

Finally, Forum leaders have stressed the importance of regional unity in the face of intensifying geostrategic interest.

Southeast Asia is, of course, different in many ways to the Pacific.

But it too, is facing testing times.

It was also severely affected by Covid, which disrupted its previously strong growth trajectory.

Covid has placed health systems under severe strain, disrupted education and destroyed jobs.

Years of development gains have been lost.

So much so, that the United Nations estimates that some countries in Southeast Asia are no longer on track to meet any of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

The region is now beginning to recover economically, but the recovery is fragile.

None of these challenges – in either the Pacific or Southeast Asia – will be easy to resolve.

But they also represent opportunities for affected countries to build back stronger – and to deepen their cooperation with each other, and with Australia, in the process.

The Government has already started doing this.

In the case of the Pacific, Australia will deliver a comprehensive package of development investments consistent with the priorities that Pacific countries have told us are important to them.

We’re increasing our ODA in the Pacific by $900 million over the next four years.

Today I’d like to highlight some of the new areas we’ll be focusing on.

Climate change will be front and centre.

The government has already legislated ambitious new emission reduction targets for Australia – a change which was warmly welcomed by Pacific countries.

We’re bidding to co-host the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties – COP 31 in 2026 – in partnership with the Pacific.

We’re doing this to drive global climate ambition and to shine an international spotlight on the particular challenges facing the Pacific.

We’ve joined with the Pacific family in declaring that the Pacific is facing a climate emergency.

And we’re working much more closely with the Pacific in multilateral climate forums to ensure that Pacific voices are heard.

Indeed that was precisely what I was doing at COP 27 in Egypt a couple of weeks ago. 

In the ten meetings I had at Sharm El-Sheikh with Pacific leaders, ministers and other representatives, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Pacific countries have strongly welcomed our more active role.

Australia is also establishing the Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership, under the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP).

It is also worth noting that our policy for the AIFFP takes into account – very consciously – the risks of unsustainable debt burdens. 

That is why we’ve doubled the grant funding available under the Facility.

Grants allow Australia’s financing to be more concessional and attractive to borrowers.

They also ensure that the Facility can operate in countries where loans are not suitable because of debt concerns.

All up, through the Facility, Australia will provide one billion dollars in grants and $3 billion in loans, for economically transformative infrastructure in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

We’ll also build on the existing budget support we provide to Pacific countries, to help ease their Covid-generated debt burdens.

I’m also proud to say we’re establishing a new Pacific Engagement Visa.

It will provide up to 3,000 permanent residency places each year for people from the Pacific and Timor Leste.

This will boost Australia’s people to people connections with the Pacific, underpinning future growth of economic and cultural linkages.

We’re also improving and expanding Pacific labour mobility.

We’re aiming to increase the number of Pacific workers in Australia to around 35,000 by June 2023.

By expanding and improving the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility program we will boost incomes and improve skills for Pacific people while assisting Australian employers facing labour shortages.

At the simplest level, we see around 30 per cent of all people in the Pacific living on the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of US1.90 a day—or roughly AUD $1,000 per year.

In comparison, we see long term PALM workers sending home around $15,000 a year. This has immediate and tangible flow-on effects for individuals and communities.

And beyond our ODA program, we’re introducing new measures which will boost the security of Pacific countries.

One is to establish an Australia Pacific Defence School, to help train security personnel of our partner countries.

And we’re providing additional funding for aerial surveillance to help Pacific island countries tackle illegal fishing.

The scourge of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing robs these countries of revenues their governments need to provide services to their people.

Finally, we’re also introducing a new Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy, which will boost ABC services and support the development of a resilient media sector in the region.

All in all, I would argue, the new Government is implementing the most comprehensive suite of measures that any Australian Government has adopted to deepen engagement with the Pacific.

In the case of Southeast Asia, our engagement is also broad ranging.

Our development assistance program has many layers.

It ranges across 10 different sectors, in seven different countries, as well as with ASEAN as an organisation.

We’re adding 470 million dollars to this over the next four years.

The needs of Southeast Asian countries vary greatly of course, reflecting their very different economies, demographics and levels of development.

While we continue to focus on supporting recovery from Covid, we’ll also ensure that our technical programs are geared to accelerating a return to inclusive economic growth.

Our development investments will be aligned with the new Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 that is under development.

And, we have just announced a Special Envoy – senior business leader Nicholas Moore – to shape and promote it.

The Envoy will map the emerging trade and investment opportunities and provide practical recommendations.

One area of potential investment is the green economy.

Southeast Asia has a critical role to play in reducing global emissions.

And the investment needed to do this is enormous – an estimated 2 trillion US dollars in energy investments alone between now and 2030.

The Government is going to work closely with the region to unlock these green trade and investment opportunities.

And we are establishing a new, 200 million dollar Climate and Infrastructure Partnership with Indonesia.

It will focus on climate and infrastructure financing, disaster mitigation and renewable energy.

And our broader Partnerships for Infrastructure program will work with other countries in Southeast Asia to assist their transition to net zero emissions.

Harnessing our National Assets

As you will have noticed, I’ve mentioned some activities that go beyond Official Development Assistance.

I did this consciously.

The Government wants to harness all our national assets towards strengthening countries and communities in our region and deepening their engagement with Australia.

We need to draw on our diplomatic network and our economic strengths…

… Our extensive connections across business, education, sport, churches, the arts and the media…

… And our diaspora of Pacific and Southeast Asian people living in Australia.

All of those assets will be used in – and strengthened by – the measures I’ve been referring to today.

All of those assets will help make our efforts to engage with the Indo-Pacific a truly Whole-of-Australia approach.

The challenge, of course, is to make sure all these different elements are properly aligned and pushing in the same direction.

How do we do that?

Well the first step is to consciously adopt that as a policy, which the Government has done.

The second is to make sure relevant Ministers are consistently pushing for alignment.

I can assure you that Foreign Minister Wong and I are doing so – right across Government.

And another part of this will be ensuring that we work in lockstep with our likeminded partners in the region.

This includes groupings such as the Quad and the Partners in the Blue Pacific.

Through those groupings, we can harness our collective strengths in support of regional priorities.

Beyond our Region

Now I’m conscious I’ve focused today very much on our region.

But the Government is also acutely aware of the huge development challenges that exist in other parts of the world.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is now in grave jeopardy, buffeted by multiple and intersecting crises.

A recent UN report says that due to Covid alone, we’ve lost four years of progress against combatting poverty.

Australia will continue to fund and rally the multilateral system so that it helps address these challenges.

In the shorter term, we’ll continue to help with unfolding emergencies.

Global humanitarian responses save millions of lives every year, but the humanitarian system is under immense pressure.

In the current financial year, the Albanese Government will allocate at least 470 million dollars to humanitarian action.

Looking longer-term, we want to increase our focus on reducing the risk of disasters and helping communities be better prepared when they do occur. We must work through, and with, the multilateral development system to crowd in support and expertise and to extend our reach.

We know that ultimately these investments in prevention and resilience can save more lives – and protect more livelihoods – than humanitarian assistance alone.

We’ll also continue our long term support to UN development agencies, including UNICEF, UNDP, UN Women and the World Health Organisation.

And we will be at the table – with energy and enthusiasm – to actively work with the world on what the post-2030 agenda looks like.

As I said, the SDGs are under greater pressure than ever before, so we must recommit ourselves to their achievement and think ahead to what we want the world to look like beyond 2030.

Towards A New Development Policy

So far I’ve sketched some of the themes that are already guiding our approach to development issues.

But as I mentioned, the Government is designing a new development policy.

One that is fit for purpose – for the times we live in.

Without getting ahead of the careful work developing the new policy, I’d like to flag some of the things I think we may want to do differently.

I’d like to find a way to embed a First Nations approach in our development work.

This is likely to guide not only what we do through the development program but also how we do it.

As Foreign Minister Wong has said, “with daunting challenges facing the world, we have much to learn from First Nations peoples – both at home and in international fora”.

Elevating First Nations perspectives into how we find solutions to shared problems – including through our development program – has never been more important.

There are also other elements that I would like to integrate throughout our development program, in particular: gender equality, climate change and disability.

We have already reinstated the target that 80 per cent of our aid investments advance gender equality.

And we have a new requirement that any future aid investments over 3 million dollars have a gender equality objective.

So we have a good basis for action, but I would like to explore this further.

On climate change, I think I’ve already made it clear – the Government knows that for many countries in our region, if not most, dealing with climate change is the number one priority.

We will act accordingly.

On disability, I’m proud that under the last Labor Government, Australia was the first donor country to develop a disability inclusion strategy, which led the way for many others to follow.

Yet 13 years on, it’s clear that people with disabilities are too often excluded and left behind.

With that in mind, I’m pleased to announce here today that Australia will develop a new disability strategy for our development program.

This will follow the launch of our new development policy.

I would also like to explore how we can work more with local organisations in developing countries.

We should look to draw in local knowledge and on-the-ground expertise to make our programs better.

We’re currently working through this with the Australian NGO Cooperation Program, which we boosted by $30 million in last month’s Budget.

Another element I would like the new policy to address is our approach to ensuring quality, transparency and accountability in our development program.

We need to develop a more rigorous, evidence-based approach so we can evaluate whether our aid is effective, and build public support for the program.

One final element I want to flag here that I will seek to embed in our new policy—particularly when it comes to how we implement our new policy and programs—will be a focus on local content.

Our investments across the region must deliver local jobs and local procurement wherever possible. It’s the most direct economic contribution many of our programs can make to communities, and it’s the best way for us to strengthen relationships.

We are, of course, consulting widely as we design our new development policy.

I’m sure that many people in this room have already provided input. Your views and experience are valued.

We are expecting to receive hundreds of public submissions, which will be carefully studied.

We’ve held around 30 roundtable discussions across Australia.

Our overseas posts have led consultations with their partner governments and local organisations.

In the input we’ve received so far, some themes have begun to emerge.

One theme is that some want to increase investments in the areas of climate, gender, disability and civil society.

I think you’ll have noticed from my remarks today that I agree.

As always, the issue is what to prioritise – within the budget we have.

Another theme emerging from our consultations is the need to strengthen development capability to help translate policy into action.

I’m committed to strengthening development capability in DFAT.

I’d like to address one more theme before I conclude …

It is very clear to me that an effective development program can’t be produced by the Government alone.

We need input from practitioners, from civil society, from academics and from the private sector.

As I said earlier, we need a whole-of-Australia approach, not just a whole of Government approach.

I also want to explore how we can work better with the private sector and with philanthropists.

A good example of how we are working to crowd in more voices is the Development Finance Review.

We know that there is a major financing gap in our region – one that the Australian aid program can’t realistically hope to fill through ODA alone.

We’ve consulted widely in the development finance review.

The review team has heard a lot of support for the Government having a fresh look at the issue.

There is also widespread recognition that all sectors – government, civil society, the private sector – need to be involved.

And it’s clear that the huge requirement for climate finance is front of mind for many people.

The review will present options for expanding the financing options that are available.

We will be working very hard over the coming months to bring all of these different strands together to help create long-term policy settings and a resource and capability base to revitalise and strengthen Australia’s approach to international development.


I think I’ve probably talked enough, and I’d like to leave time for questions.

Before I finish though, I’d like to summarise the key messages I hope you’ll take away from my presentation today.

This Government takes international development seriously.

We’re putting it at the heart of our engagement with our region.

We’re thinking deeply about how to make it more effective – so that it produces good outcomes for our partner countries and for Australia.

We’re better aligning it with all of the other instruments we have at our disposal – diplomatic, economic, educational, cultural and personal – to accelerate the deeper engagement that we want with our region.

And we’re listening – to partner governments, to civil society, to academics, to the private sector and to ordinary Australians – to make sure we get it right.

I wish you all the very best for your conference.

You are grappling with some of the most important issues for our nation, our region and our world.

Thank you.

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