Tanya Plibersek recently gave a harsh assessment of the foreign aid policies of the Abbott Government and expressed serious concern about the future of foreign aid in Australia during a forum held at the ANU, while expressing her support for the world’s wealthy nations to agree collectively on foreign aid budget targets of 0.7% of Gross National Income.

The Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party and Shadow Foreign Minister, along with the Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh were the guest speakers at the foreign aid forum held at ANU’s Haydon-Allen Tank lecture theatre. The full house audience warmly received the two frontbenchers.

The question and answer forum, hosted by ANU Labor Students Club, saw the two Labor MPs being questioned by students from the floor along with members of the public, including former foreign aid workers.

In addition to foreign aid, some time was spent discussing the budget as well as the current Australian political climate.

During Leigh’s opening statement, he reflected on his first contact with foreign aid, having lived in Malaysia and Indonesia during his childhood. Leigh explained how  the “experience of living  alongside people whose living standards are so much lower than our own” made him passionate about alleviating poverty. He went on to state that while the best reasons for giving foreign aid were selfless ones, there were also significant benefits for Australia in giving foreign aid, such as regional stability and trade.

Both panel members highlighted stark contrasts between Australia and other countries, namely the United Kingdom, where a Conservative Government has kept the rate of foreign aid at 0.7% of GNI despite the British economy being sluggish in comparison to that of Australia. The Liberal Government is on target to cut foreign aid to a rate of 0.22% of GNI by 2017, according to ANU’s Development Policy Centre.

Perhaps the highlight of the event was Plibersek’s response to a question about whether Australia could viably borrow money to give to poorer countries as foreign aid considering the current state of the budget. Plibersek’s response to this was that the budget is not in a state that should be considered perilous, exclaiming that “Joe Hockey’s argument about the state of the budget is, technically speaking, bullshit”. She then gave a passionate defence of Labor’s handling of the Global Financial Crisis: “I will never apologise for spending that money to keep 200,000 jobs and prevent a generation of people being unemployed.”

When questioned on whether Labor would restore the stand alone aid agency AusAID, Plibersek stated that Labor was committed to ensuring that there was a qualified cohort of foreign aid specialists working for the government to ensure that foreign aid money is spent well where it is needed.

Jacob Ingram is the Deputy Editor in Chief of Woroni and a member of the Australian Labor Party.

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