July 28, 2023

Has Labor lost its ambition on international development?

“Labor’s international development program will speak to who we are, the confidence we have in ourselves, the values we believe in and to the region and world we want to live in.”

Ahead of last year’s federal election, then-Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, laid out Labor’s intended approach to development.

Subsequently securing the election and farewelling a coalition government that operated very differently, there was a palpable sense of optimism amongst development experts in Australia over new leadership with apparent ambition.

Now over a year in, are we still seeing said ambition? Projecting out the budget, there’s a serious ceiling. An impending policy that’s sounding modest. And a Foreign Minister that doesn’t touch as much on development as she does other foreign policy matters.

So – has Labor lost it’s ambition on development? Or are we jumping the gun? To test the waters, we asked the experts.

Dr Michael Green
Professor and CEO, US Studies Centre, The University of Sydney

While Australia ‘punches above its weight’ when it comes to its development profile, one area for reflection should be Canberra’s approach to democracy support.

Democratic governance is critical to effective aid, particularly at a time when Beijing’s strategy for expanding influence seeks to exploit corruption and weak governance as we have seen in the case of Solomons Islands. It is a bit of a mystery, therefore, that in surveys of Indo-Pacific elites I have conducted over the years at CSIS, Australian experts are significantly less likely to identify human rights or free and fair elections as priorities for regional community-building than most of their counterparts in Asia.

This idea that emphasizing democracy undercuts influence and access has only grown in the past year. The Biden administration’s rather clumsy unveiling of its Summit for Democracy was problematic, to be sure, but the President’s overall thesis was correct, and it is striking that the Yoon administration in Seoul jumped in to host the second summit, pledging increased assistance for democracy. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has also staked out a clearer stance with the appointment of former Defence Minister Gen Nakatani as Special Advisor on Human Rights. Japan is by far the most trusted international partner in Southeast Asia and Korea is not far behind.

While Japanese and Korean development assistance practices would have a lot to learn from Australia’s experience, it is worth asking why Tokyo and Seoul have concluded that an emphasis on democracy is both necessary and far from detrimental to their own strategic and economic positions in the region.

CEO at the USSC and Secretary of the Board and Executive Committee for the Asia Foundation, Mike is a long-standing foreign policy expert. He has written multiple books on East Asian Security and, in a past life, was senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and served on the staff of the National Security Council. Mike is one of those international analysts that fascinates us with his sharp geopolitical observations and pro-US commitment that’s always balanced with a strong social conscience.

Michelle Higelin
Executive Director, ActionAid Australia

Expectations on Labor are high with the imminent arrival of the new international development policy. Efforts to reduce extreme poverty have halted, and hard-won gains in women’s rights are being rapidly eroded. The Government has an opportunity to set an ambitious agenda and reorient development assistance towards poverty alleviation and sustainable development rather than the national interest agenda that has been embedded over the past decade.

To be effective, however Labor must ensure investment matches ambition and work towards coherence between its development, trade, diplomacy and defence policies to ensure maximum impact in responding to global challenges and growing gender inequality. Some areas that could have high impact include:

  • Significantly scaled up investment in gender transformative programming. This means actively targeting unequal power relations, harmful gender norms and widespread gender discrimination.
  • Funding modalities that do not deepen debt distress in low-income countries. High levels of public debt can restrict governments from directly investing in health, education and other vital services that are crucial to gender equality. Global leadership in addressing debt relief should be on our agenda.
  • Progressing ambitious international tax reform, so that Australia can support low-income countries to free-up vital funding for investment in public services and sustainable development as well as reach the 0.5% GNI ODA target at a faster pace. Multinational corporate tax evasion can reduce public resources that are crucial to addressing inequalities.
  • Transforming existing trade agreements to include provisions that impact women’s access to decent work and labour rights. Well-designed trade rules play an important role in supporting development outcomes and gender equality.

Michelle Higelin is the Executive Director of ActionAid Australia, and has more than two decades of experience working to advance women’s rights in Australia and internationally. Both at ActionAid, and in her previous role as Deputy General Secretary of World YWCA, Michelle has been a force behind gender transformative development and humanitarian programming. At the Lab, we’re constantly impressed by her commitment to systemic change and drive to see the bigger picture.

Madeleine Flint
Senior Analyst, Development Intelligence Lab

Right now, I switch between three ways of thinking about this:  

“It’s fine, Labor’s just playing the long game."

Having sat in opposition for so long, of course Labor has its eye on multiple terms in Government – and we all know aid isn’t a vote winner and can divide the party internally. So right now, their work on returning from the deficit we were in under the coalition (through the mammoth travel schedules, stabilising the budget, and a return to actually talking about development, albeit lightly) is perhaps perfectly appropriate for a 10-year plan.

“We’re headed on a new upwards path – but it’s not the right one.”

Ok, so there are some positive signs: development is certainly being valued more, we’ve got more money for capability, and we’re gearing up for the slew of policies, strategies, and sub-strategies that will guide our path over the next decade. But is it the right one, or are we being fooled by some nice rhetoric? Are misinterpretations of purpose, a budget without appropriate growth and what I expect to be a fine-but-not-revolutionary policy the path we want to walk? Probably not.  

“Come on Labor – where are you?!"

To look for signs of true ambition, I have a watching list – and this is what we must wait to see unfold (or not). Political ownership through a Parliamentary Ministerial launch of the policy; an outcomes review to measure our impact and make nice rhetoric more than empty words; targets that are set to seriously challenge and drive change (perhaps borrowing from Sam Power’s playbook); and commitment to critical things we know we need to be ready for: technology, climate, and locally-led development.  

So has Labor lost their ambition? Possibly. Hopefully not. But we’ll have a definite answer within the next 18 months.

Maddie is a Senior Analyst at the Lab and the person behind The Intel. The team at the Lab love Maddie’s unique combination of research skill, design flair and content production know-how. Maddie’s known by her peers for her meticulous standards on quality and commitment to gender justice. She was the Lab’s first employee and is a friend to many in the Australian and Timor-Leste development communities.

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