Former Labor ministers including Gareth Evans and Bob Carr have called on their party to increase Australia’s foreign aid.
The two former foreign ministers joined the former trade minister John Kerin, the former international development minister Melissa Parke, the former parliamentary secretary Bob McMullan and the former president of the ACTU Sharan Burrow in signing an open letter urging a future Labor government to “take decisive action to rebuild the Australian aid program and ensure that Australia meets its international obligations”.
“We live in a political moment defined by extreme inequality, conflicts which force millions of people to seek refuge, and the increasing impacts of climate change and natural disasters,” the letter says.
Evans told Guardian Australia it was up to Labor to strengthen Australia’s role in promoting development.
“It’s so important that the Labor party in government continue our commitment to addressing poverty and good governance through Australian aid. Labor has a proud history of supporting development around the world. That must continue under the next Labor government.”
The ministers and other supporters, under the banner Labor For Aid, are calling for the party’s national conference in Adelaide next weekend to commit to moving towards 0.7% of gross national income – a United Nations target which the UK has met – and to increase aid as a percentage every year beginning with a future Labor government’s first budget.
In May the federal budget kept Australia’s aid budget frozen at $4.2bn a year – 0.23% of GNI.
Labor for Aid also called for progress on the UN’s sustainable development goals, including reducing global poverty.
The group said Coalition governments had taken $11.3bn from foreign aid programs and diverted funds from humanitarian projects. Australia’s foreign aid spending was now less than 1% of the federal budget, the lowest proportion in history, it said.
This year’s budget included the biggest proportion of aid ever directed towards the Pacific, as Australia seeks to head off growing Chinese influence in the region.
The chief executive of the Australian Council for International Development, Marc Purcell, said calls for a Labor commitment on aid just before its national conference were essential.
“It’s vital because it’s the right thing for Australia to be doing if we want to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030, but also there’s a geostrategic imperative,” Purcell told Guardian Australia.
Purcell cited increases under the government of John Howard, who “essentially rebuilt the relationship with Indonesia after the referendum in East Timor”, and then added the $1bn aid package in response to the Asian tsunami of 2004.
The Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd made a commitment to spend 0.5% of GNI on aid, “harnessed to a security council bid”, Purcell said.
“There clearly is now a geostrategic concern about a more competitive influence … particularly in the Pacific.
“For a Labor government to bite the bullet on the geostrategic need to utilise aid for positive relationships and influence would actually be a breakthrough, and it would be consistent with history.”