Interview with Kieran Gilbert – Afternoon Agenda Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Foreign Aid Budget
13 May 2021

Kieran Gilbert: This week's Budget said $335 million will be spent to help roll out vaccines in our region. It also showed, though, a cut to foreign aid. Let's discuss this now with the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja. Minister, thanks so much for your time. First of all, let's talk about the cut in the aid budget in real terms. We're talking about a cut of 4.9 per cent. Why did the Government undertake that?

Minister Seselja: That's not correct, Kieran, and it's important that we go through these figures. So when we announced our additional package of support for our region, we talked about temporary and targeted measures over and above our standard aid budget. So the baseline of our aid budget continues - $4 billion that we've committed to, will be $4 billion again in the next couple of years and then will be indexed again in the out years to around $4.1 [billion] and beyond. We've also committed a substantial amount, around a billion dollars, in additional support over that standard $4 billion of overseas development, most of it in the Pacific and South East Asia.

Kieran Gilbert: That's in the year gone?

Minister Seselja: That's in the coming years.

Kieran Gilbert: This coming year?

Minister Seselja: Well, this year, next year and then in the out years. And what's really important to remember is that we are delivering it as quickly as we can. So a lot of that is being spent in this financial year.

Kieran Gilbert: So official development assistance totals how much?

Minister Seselja: So in terms of this year, we've got- so this is the really important point to make is that we've got effectively a bucket of money that we have said it's over and above our baseline, and we're going to get that out as a result of responding to the COVID crisis. And it is front loaded. So this idea that it's a cut, we are literally spending it, as quickly as we can deliver this support, we will spend it.

I'll give you a really good example. Recently we signed $198 million procurement deal with UNICEF for vaccines in the region and vaccine support. Now, we deliver that in record time and that will be in this financial year. If we had waited, if we had delivered it in the next financial year, it would look like we were spending more next year than we are this year. The facts are that we are unashamedly spending the bulk of the additional money in this financial year or as soon as we can get it to the regions because this support is needed.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But when you say it's a billion dollars- but I just want to get clarity on how much official development assistance, because that's how the world judges our aid performance, the ODA as it's called, and experts in this field have said repeatedly that ours is one of the lowest in the OECD at .19 per cent of gross national income. Is that not correct?

Minister Seselja: Well, we can have a debate about that because some of that OECD analysis was based on incomplete year on year figures. But if we can deal with the critique that's come from some in the development community and certainly from the Labor Party and others, claiming that we are cutting the development budget in this year's Budget, that's not the case. And that's why it's really important to understand what we're dealing with. The baseline ODA stays where it is with an indexation in the out years, and then that additional money is all about getting that money out to the regions as quickly as we can.

We're not going to wait till year three so that that additional money sort of tracks up at a particular rate. The money's needed now. We're delivering it as quickly as we can, and the bulk of that money will be spent and then it will tail off. That additional assistance, yes, will tail off. But we always said that that was temporary and targeted, and it was all about getting it out as quickly as we could. So I could have just as easily, if we'd not signed contracts this year…

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Straight away.

Minister Seselja: …and we waited till next year, it would show our overall spend going out next year rather than this year.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] I get that. But the point Stephen Howes, development expert at ANU, and others make is that across the last decade, this budget has declined when nearly all other international donors have increased their aid, except for Spain, Portugal and Greece, where those countries were smashed by the GFC. Why has ours declined as a percentage? I'm saying as a percentage of our gross national income, from about .34 per cent to now .19 per cent. Is that good enough?

Minister Seselja: Well, those are different questions. And obviously, some of those historic decisions go back many, many years. And obviously, there was a whole budget repair scenario there in 2014. And obviously, that's a matter for history. But what we're dealing with at the moment is that we are upping our effort, particularly in our region. If we look just to the Pacific, which I have a particular responsibility for, the money that we are delivering in development assistance in the Pacific this year is absolute record levels. It is the highest we have ever delivered in dollar terms. $1.4 billion is the baseline, but with those additional measures, it's around $1.7 billion. That's higher than any previous government has delivered, and we're very proud of that because we've always had a very strong focus on our immediate region.

Kieran Gilbert: But it's not just the Pacific, though, is it? You look at any near neighbour of Australia, except for New Zealand and Singapore, they're all developing countries. So it's massively in our interest to be helping them as well.

Minister Seselja: Well absolutely. And that's why when we've responded particularly to COVID, yes, the Pacific has been our absolute first order of business, but we have announced significant support, and we are delivering significant support, to South East Asia. For instance, over and above what we'd announced in- we gave economic support in the region, vaccine support. Then we announced additional support as part of the QUAD, an additional $100 million as well.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister for International Development and the Pacific, as always, I appreciate your time.

Minister Seselja: Thanks very much, Kieran.

Kieran Gilbert: Zed Seselja there.

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