Interview with Michael Sheldrick, Global Citizen

  • Transcript, E&OE
Whole of nation aid policy, Australia's aid role in the Pacific, IFAD

Michael Sheldrick: So, we have a special guest here. Earlier today I interviewed the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham and now we're thrilled to be joined by the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Minister Pat Conroy, who has had a wealth of experience on these issues and over the last few years has been the champion in the government for aid and development. And so with that, I would love everyone to give a very warm welcome to Minister Conroy.

Welcome, Minister. You know, Simon Birmingham, I went kind of hard on him earlier today. So, I'm going to give the fair treatment to you here, but I'm sure you can hold your own. You're used to this. I won't be as bad as the guys opposite in Parliament, I promise. So, the first question I've got is earlier today we had this amazing announcement of the Safer World For All campaign. We had Tim Costello, we had amazing advocates, and they were talking about the need for this whole of nation approach to development. But the real question on the minds of everyone here is when can we expect Australia to increase its aid budget and how can we all play a role with that? Yeah, let's give a round of applause for that. And importantly, when can we expect a plan?

Minister Conroy: Well, thank you very much. Well, we've already got a plan. We released our new development policy in August last year, our development framework, and we've already increased the aid budget. We've put forward this single biggest increase in the aid budget for ten years, a $1.7 billion increase. And our aid budget will be hitting $5 billion a year very shortly. We're repairing the damage from the $10 billion ripped out under the last government and we're really committed to growing it over the long term. That's why we fought very hard and have got indexation of the budget back into the budget papers.

Sheldrick: So, I want to turn a little bit to a specific aid program. Earlier today, we were joined by the Prime Minister of Timor Leste, and we've got representatives here from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and they announced today that we will be introducing into Timor Leste by July the HPV vaccine. And Bill Gates likes to say this is best bang for his buck. But from your perspective, what's needed to support global health in the region and how can we all be part of it?

Minister Conroy: Well, I think getting more attention to our region. I think we're a big supporter of the multilateral institutions. We deliver around 40 per cent of our aid through multilateral institutions and we provided the largest replenishment we ever have to Gavi, they do great work, but getting more attention to our region, both Southeast Asia and the Pacific, is critical. That's not to take away from the challenges in other regions, but things like that investment in HPV will be life-altering, not just for the individuals involved, but for the entire society. So, your advocacy is really critical.

Sheldrick: So, vaccines work, remember that. Let's spread the message. And I guess on that, we've got incredible advocates here. I know you and Minister Wong like to talk about whole of nation, you've got that in front of you. But what's your message to everyone here today? What do we need to do to champion Australia's leadership on the global stage?

Minister Conroy: Well, I think two things. First is, it won't surprise you to know that trust in politics is at an all-time low. I think we're just slightly above used car salespeople in terms of credibility. So, you talking to your neighbours, your friends and family members about why international development, why foreign aid is so important, why it's in our interests, both from a moral point of view as well as a selfish point of view, to support the 22 of our 26 neighbours who are developing nations.

The second one is to get political parties into a bidding war. At the moment, as I said, we've increased the aid budget by an extra $1.7 billion. We've reintroduced indexation. We need the other side, the other parties of government, to match us. Otherwise they're going to go into an election with a slush fund they can use to build car parks next to train stations and things. So, you making this not a political issue, as in Labor versus Liberal or Greens or anything like that, but making it clear that the aid budget is something that you'll decide who you vote for in the next election based upon.

Sheldrick: I mean, it's a good point. And it's like all politics is local at the end of the day right? And we need to be out in our communities selling the message. And tomorrow we've got your opposite number, Michael McCormack here, and we'll make sure we ask him the same question on that point.

Minister Conroy: Ask him, will he match our funding commitments?

Sheldrick: We will. We'll make a note. Producers, please make a note. We're asking tomorrow, I promise. So, as a follow up, though, when you are selling the aid budget and when you're in the community, you've got your constituencies knocking on your door and they're saying, Pat, why are we sending money overseas? You must have a powerful example, stories, you're travelling throughout the region, but at the end of the day, it's about humanity. It's about the very human impact. Do you have a personal story to share?

Minister Conroy: Well, I talk about, and it's always dangerous for politicians to talk about morals or morality, but I do think it's fundamentally about morals. We have an obligation to help our fellow human beings and that moral or ethical obligation doesn't end at the water's edge. It pervades the entire globe. So, I start with a moral argument and say we can help Australians here as well as helping people overseas. And then I move through a different range of arguments.

As I said, 22 of our 26 nearest neighbours are developing nations. The closest one is Papua New Guinea. That's only four kilometres away. You could literally swim there if you weren't worried about saltwater crocodiles, and you should be. So, it's in our own interest for these countries to be stable and safe and prosperous. You can only have a safe and prosperous Australia if you've got a safe and prosperous region. And that's why supporting vaccinations in Timor Leste, or fighting COVID and TB and polio in PNG, or supporting economic development and gender equality in the Solomon Islands is in our interests as well as being a moral obligation.

Sheldrick: So, one of the things which I've seen in recent years around the world, so I'm originally from Western Australia, I now live in New York and I travel to Washington D.C. a lot, is Australia, in some respects, has never received so much attention. The other day I was in D.C., I was speaking to a former Member of Congress. He's bringing out 20 members of Congress to Australia in May. And he said it used to be the case 15 years ago, the only way you would get that many members of Congress is either they were leaving or they wanted a junket. Right. And now it's a serious issue, lots of attention.

But I also know there's many institutions over the last few years that's also been missing Australia. Right. And in the fight against hunger, we've got institutions like the International Fund for Agricultural Development, whose president is here. I think Australia, and I said this to Birmo earlier today, so I'm saying it to all, but I think Australia is the only G20 country who isn't a member. But in terms of these institutions writ large, is there a desire to reengage and to shape them and to be part of the global effort?

Minister Conroy: Well, there is, and that's why, for example, we've seen the biggest ever replenishment to the Global Fund or to Gavi. We've rejoined the Green Climate Fund, but there's a tension, and I've got to be very frank with people in this room. There's a tension between providing aid bilaterally to countries so we can listen and act on their priorities, or working with multilateral institutions where we can leverage their influence and their ability to raise other money. But part of it is how do we get the attention of those institutions.

So, I'll be meeting the president of IFAD after this and I'll be saying to him, I shouldn't disclose this, but it won't surprise him. I'll be saying it's going to be hard for us to rejoin while they only allocate 0.5 per cent of their funding to the Pacific. When we have half of all Papua New Guinea children stunted due to malnutrition, why is it only 0.5 per cent? Now there's an argument we should rejoin to exert influence, I understand. But sometimes the best influence is by not rejoining until behaviour changes. So, these are the debates we have in multilateral institutions and with development organisations like the Asian Development Bank. And I'm going to keep driving home being a fierce advocate for our region to make sure that we're the voice for the people who often don't have voices in these debates.

Sheldrick: So, if President Lario's backstage and he's watching this, he's got exactly five minutes to come up with a good answer to that question. So, there you go. Look, very last question, you know, I've heard a lot about this idea of whole of nation approach. The cynical side, some might say is, is government putting the finger over there and saying this isn't our responsibility to defend the planet, defeat poverty.

But there's also an incredibly, I think, optimistic vision behind it. And so I guess in your words, how would you explain that vision? And here we've got businesses like Cisco, we've got businesses like Procter & Gamble, we've got musicians, we've got Crowded House playing tomorrow night at our concert. We've got non-profits, we've got faith groups, we've got a lot of that whole of nation society represented here. But what does this mean to you and what do we all need to do? What's our responsibility?

Minister Conroy: Well, I think I start one step back, which is whole of government. So, the last government had a cap on foreign aid funding. So, if another department did something good, partnering with another nation, DFAT had to cut its aid budget. So, we've got rid of that cap so the rest of government can do its job and help out, then we want to engage the whole of nation. So, it can be about philanthropy. There's much more money coming from philanthropy than governments can possibly fund.

So, mobilising that and mobilising impact investment. So, that's why the centrepiece of our new development policy was the Australian Development Investments Fund, ADI, which is about mobilising impact investing. And the pilot project in Indonesia, for every $1 we put in, mobilised $10 of impact investing to target things like gender equality and climate change. So, it's massively beneficial where we use the government's reputation and the government's seed finance to give confidence to everyone else. And that's a great way of using the whole of nations effort to help alleviate poverty and fight structural inequality.

Sheldrick: Minister, I think you summed it up well, and by the way, I include everyone. We've all got to be part of this effort, even Australians overseas like myself. We've all got to take a responsibility for the Australia we want to be in the world to stand proud as we do in the community of nations. One of my favourite quotes is, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. And I think you summed it up well. I really want to thank you for taking time. Ladies and gentlemen, let's give the Minister a very warm welcome. Thank you.

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