Asked by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age if she regretted delaying an increase in Australia’s aid spending, Ms Gillard said the global financial crisis meant the government had to make a decision about the pace of the increase.
“I think what has happened to the aid budget under the current conservative government is deeply to be regretted and we are at an incredibly low percentage compared with comparable countries so there’s a work of advocacy to do within Australia to do itself about an increase in the overseas development budget.”
“I think that actually shines a bit of a spotlight on a very valuable thing here in the United Kingdom which is the bipartisan commitment around 0.7.
“If you take this politics off the table you do a very good thing and then you can actually put the light, the white hot spotlight on the issues about the effectiveness of the spend,” Ms Gillard said.
She said political systems needed to work through the complexities of how to make aid work for the greatest possible impact at the lowest cost possible.
Under Ms Gillard, Labor deferred a commitment made by Kevin Rudd to increase Australia’s aid spending to 0.5 per cent of GNI. Liberal prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull then oversaw massive cuts to the budget, leaving Australia contributing just 0.23 per cent of GNI – an all-time low.
Australia’s aid budget ranks 19th out of the 29 wealthy OECD member nations making it the target of aid organisations which have condemned the cuts.
Former Conservative prime minister David Cameron says in his recently published memoir that legislating to lock Britain into spending 0.7 per cent of the country’s gross national income was one of his proudest achievements.
Sharma said he backed the 0.7 per cent target but did not want to lecture other countries like Australia as to whether they should also lock in a target. He said he personally backed keeping the UK’s pledge because there was a “moral and economic” case for aid.
“I personally and am completely committed to the 0.7 per cent, that is something that you see the government is totally committed to,” he said.
Sharma said the aid budget was split into economic development and humanitarian aid and that the primary goal was making communities self-sustainable.
Simon Gill from the Overseas Development Institute, a London-bank global think tank which assesses aid spending around the world, said Australia’s savage cuts meant it was spending less than Ireland according to one measure.
“If you compare Australia with Ireland, Australia is at the bottom of the pile, Ireland is at the top because Ireland spends more of it aid, I think it’s 70 per cent of its money goes to the poorest nations and that’s eight times better than Australia.”
I don’t think I ever saw myself at a Conservative party conference.
“So I would say to Australia bump up your money and target it much more powerfully,” Gill said.
Ms Gillard is one of two former Australian prime ministers and four ex-Cabinet ministers to speak at conference. Tony Abbott is due to speak on Tuesday, while former Attorney-General and current High Commissioner to the UK George Brandis has addressed several panels already.
President of the Senate Scott Ryan is also attending conference and is scheduled to talk on a panel event.
“I don’t think I ever saw myself at a Conservative party conference,” Ms Gillard observed on Monday.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.