Audience Q&A following speech at the Australasian aid conference
Jo Hall: I'm Jo Hall. I'm a student, formally with AusAID and DFAT and civil society [indistinct] I'm interested in measuring the effectiveness of development. And so, one of the questions I had – I would like to thank you, Minister, for being the champion of the Australian development program and I think it's very heartening for us all to see it back on the map. So, thank you for that. But my question is: since the abolition of the Office of Development Effectiveness, DFAT's capacity to measure the effectiveness and evaluate the program is quite eroded and I wonder what your plans are for dealing with that, please.
Minister Conroy: Thank you. As I said in my speech, transparency in measuring development effectiveness is critical and the development strategy that is being undertaken right now will look at that. I'm confident that it will provide some recommendations for Government to look at. I think one of the critical parts of that effectiveness story is to make sure that it does not just give the public confidence or confidence to the public that our dollars are being spent effectively, but that it can give close to real time feedback to other development practitioners on how to improve their approach and to look at the exemplars around both within our program and overseas. I don't think we will be returning to the past. I'm looking at a new and improved approach. But I agree with you that we need to measure effectiveness and then we flow that through to our policy.
Convenor, Professor Helen Sullivan: Yes, please.
Audience member: Thank you very much. Minister, listening to you – by the way, I'm [indistinct] from Cambodia. Listening to you, I can completely understand the Australian Government's new international development policy is indeed comprehensive and insightful, so a very warm congratulation to you. Coming from Southeast Asia, I would like to seek your view regarding the declining moral value, which you talk about quite eloquently in part of your policy. And this year – last year Australia became a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to ASEAN – a welcome sign. So, my question is: how will you help – how can Australia help Southeast Asian nation to cope with the decline of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression. Political space is shrinking, as well as I know that Australia have just started a Mekong program and how your Government intends to come in and help the Mekong [indistinct] country whereby we have on one side Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, which is Chinese‑led and the US initiative [indistinct] as well and many other. I would like to hear a little bit more from you. And thank you very much.
Minister Conroy: Look, our aid program, our development program, in Southeast Asia is one that has an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is that there's lots of other significant development aid programs operating in Southeast Asia, so there's an opportunity for us to work constructively where it makes sense with countries like the United States and others, but the United States in particular. But the challenge there is to make sure that we coordinate where we can. And so, I think that's one we need to do further work.
On your first question about the moral case, obviously, one element of our development program has always been governance, supporting investment in governance. And that's something that I think is particularly critical at this time, is we are committed to supporting civil society and institutions of civil society where we can. I launched a forum for emerging Pacific leaders yesterday in partnership with Micah which is bringing together church leaders from the Pacific, and that was about supporting civil society growth in the Pacific. We've obviously got a focus on civil society in Southeast Asia as well. So really strengthening and underpinning civil society is one way we can play a role in creating a more open public space where we can.
Professor Sullivan: Okay. I know we've got some more questions here, but I've been told that by the miracle of technology, which this being the ANU might not work! [Audience laughter] So I understand that there's a question from the Weston Theatre. So, Minister, I think behind you is the Weston Theatre and somebody has a question.
Audience member: Maybe Barton.
Professor Sullivan: Maybe Barton. Okay, let's go to the Barton. This is a bit like [indistinct].
Audience member: Maybe go to the Barton Theatre.
Professor Sullivan: Does anybody in Barton have a question?
Professor Sullivan: [Indistinct] technology work. So, [indistinct] okay. Yes - please.
Audience Member: I'm [Indistinct] from Amnesty International and I work on the Pacific. You mentioned working with leaders across the region and I just wanted to know what the initial aim of the policy is in terms of working with human rights defenders across the region and particularly noting that women human rights defenders are facing new challenges, including threats and intimidation in terms of them using the public and political space across the Pacific. Thank you.
Minister Conroy: Thanks for the question, and I think, as I said before, our governance programs are pretty critical to supporting and reflecting Australian values and investing in civil society is a critical part of that as well. I reflect on the example I used yesterday we're funding a program around church fellowships, the Australian Pacific church fellowship program which I think is very important to growing that particular element of civil society, but also just creating a space through having things like gender equality goals in our development program – well, 80 per cent of development programs but any development program over $3 million has to have a gender goal. I think that's one way that we can address the issues that you've raised.
Professor Sullivan: Yes. Please.
Anna Gilbert: Thank you, Minister. Anna Gilbert independent consultant. Thanks so much for your really inspiring speech, and your point about local content was really encouraging. And I guess I just wanted to pick that up a little bit more to ask what the appetite is from the new Government around further local leadership within the aid implementation, but particularly around local leadership of Australian investments. So in terms of changing the balance: between expatriate‑led, international TA‑led programs, and ones that are actually led by Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians and more supported and facilitated by Australians.
Minister Conroy: Look, I think it's essential. I am incredibly passionate about it. We have to go beyond just listening to the priorities of our development partners and acting on them to including them in the development process itself. And this is important for both giving them an adequate voice, but making sure that the economic dividend flows through to them and also that the projects are sustainable.
I am sick of the number of projects I see, where a few years later, I run into an Australian engineer about to fly out to do maintenance on a project where it's broken down. Some of that's understandable, but something that I'm talking to the department about is making sure that as much as possible we think about maintenance on projects – where there's hard infrastructure like water treatment works – and skills transfer. And it's a message that's being really well received out in the Pacific is that these projects should be symbols of Australia's cooperation with that particular country. They should be seen as improving the lives of people. And if in two years' time it's broken down, it's not a symbol of that. It's a symbol of something very different. It's something we're very focused on and, quite frankly, I think it's something that we've got a real advantage over other countries in.
Our aid budget is not transactional. Our aid budget is not about short-term political leverage. Our aid budget is about investing in the people, particularly the people of the Pacific and Southeast Asia, and so that investment has to be long-term and transformational.
Elliot Stein: Hi, Elliot Stein from UNICEF Australia. You spoke about in your speech the Government's commitment to a First Nations foreign policy to support for The Voice and also the new development policy. How do you see those three things interacting? And then what do we need to be doing as a sector in support of that particularly as it comes to what we do as a sector in support of The Voice?
Minister Conroy: I'll answer the last question first. Thank you very much for the question. We need you to – every single one of you out there, to be a passionate advocate for The Voice. We've had eight successful referendums in this country and all of them have been because we've had bipartisan – well, not because of but – every successful referendum has had bipartisan support across politics. As of yesterday, that no longer exists. So, I'm convinced that there's a deep and generous support for The Voice, that the majority of Australians support The Voice. But there's going to be a lot of misinformation out there throughout this process, so I urge everyone here to talk to your neighbours, to your friends, to your family about it.
Sadly, politics is a discredited profession to some extent. I think the only profession that has a lower trustworthy ranking than us is used car salespeople. And I mean no offence to them. But – so we need all of you to be advocates for The Voice. On the integration of those things, there's deep wisdom in First Nations communities and heritage that we intend to mobilise. We're going through the process now of appointing a First Nations Ambassador. But we've already got them out there. I remember at the PIF I was having some great conversations with some of our Melanesian leaders and they were talking about how they've been working with Senator Patrick Dodson and taking lessons from the Father of Reconciliation in their countries already. So, I think there's a great opportunity to integrate those together, and it's something that we're incredibly passionate about.
Professor Sullivan: Steven, you have a question that the Minister would like to answer.
Stephen Dziedzic: Thanks for your time. Just quickly –
Professor Sullivan: You need the microphone.
Stephen Dziedzic: I'm happy without it.
Professor Sullivan: People won't hear you over there.
Stephen Dziedzic: Fair enough. The ABC's facility with technology continues. Just briefly, Minister, the Chinese Government has again reiterated that it would be happy to engage in trilateral or multilateral cooperation with other developed countries when it comes to development. This was specifically in relation to police cooperation, but it seems to apply more broadly. What's the Government's attitude towards this offer? Does the Government believe it's a serious offer made in good faith and are you open to cooperation in the development space with China?
Minister Conroy: Thank you for that question, Stephen.
Minister Conroy: I mean it, I mean it. It's an opportunity to restate this Government's policy on development cooperation. We've got a number of priorities – sorry, not priorities, principles that guide our development cooperation. And that includes, firstly, that any development program and cooperation has to be transparent. Secondly, it has to come with no strings attached. We will never engage with development partners that trade development for something else. Three, it has to listen to the local priorities and the needs of the partner nations. Fourthly, it has to be of the highest possible quality, the projects. And, fifthly, it has to emphasise local content.
So, they're the five principles that drive our development cooperation with third-party countries, for lack of a better word. I'm not going to speculate about future cooperation, but I think those five principles are pretty high barriers for particular countries to hurdle, and I might leave it at that. But they're things that I'm passionate about as you've heard me talking about. We will not be using aid for transactional relationships. We will be using aid to lift people out of poverty, to help fight climate change, fight for gender equality and disability inclusion and, at the same time, we will be using it to respond to the local needs and priorities of our partners.
Professor Sullivan: Okay. I know that there are a lot more questions. The other theatres have got some too, but we really do need to let the Minister go. So, please can you all join me in thanking Minister Conroy.
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