Research report

Changes to Australia’s overseas aid program under the Abbott and Turnbull Governments 2013–2016: key policies and responses

22 Sep 2016

The Abbott Government made important changes to Australia’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) programs, following its election in September 2013.

Large reductions in funding, foreshadowed in the Coalition’s September 2013 pre-election costings, commenced in January 2014. A further series of funding cuts were announced in the December 2014 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) and implemented in the 2015–16 Budget. While non-government organisations (NGOs) and some independent experts strongly criticised the severity of these cuts, they continued to be implemented as part of the Turnbull Government’s 2016–17 Budget ahead of the dissolution of the 44th Parliament.

Alongside the reductions in funding, the Coalition Government has changed the way Australia’s aid program is administered, and has adjusted sectoral priorities. These changes include:

  • the merger of the former Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)
  • a more explicit focus on using aid to pursue foreign and trade policy goals
  • an increased focus on aid-for-trade
  • changes to monitoring and evaluation
  • a higher proportion of aid funding directed to the Indo-Pacific region and
  • a commitment to strengthen the focus on addressing gender inequality and, after some adjustment, the causes and impacts of climate change through aid.

Some of these changes, such as the merger of AusAID and DFAT and the increased emphasis on the national interest and aid-for-trade, have been criticised by some NGOs and other experts. Others, such as an increased focus on addressing gender inequality and adjustments to funding for climate change, have been welcomed. But they have also raised new questions about how these issues will be incorporated effectively into existing programs, how outcomes will be measured and how new activities will be funded.

The government heralded its changes as part of a ‘new aid paradigm’. Some commentators supported this view, welcoming the changes as ‘arguably, the most significant structural reform in our aid history’. Others, however, have suggested that the changes pursued by the Coalition Government since 2013 represent little more than a ‘rebranding’ or a process of ‘incremental change’, rather than a fundamental shift in approach.

The 44th Parliament continued to take a strong interest in aid and development issues during its term. The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (SFADT) References Committee conducted inquiries into ‘Australia’s overseas aid and development assistance program’ (2014) and ‘the delivery and effectiveness of Australia’s bilateral aid program in Papua New Guinea’ (2016). The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) conducted inquiries into ‘the role of the private sector in promoting economic growth and reducing poverty in the Indo-Pacific region’ (2015) and ‘the human rights issues confronting women and girls in the Indian Ocean–Asia Pacific region’ (2015).

This paper outlines the key changes to the aid program during the Abbott and Turnbull Governments during the period from September 2013 to May 2016, and examines the responses from NGOs and other experts. It also briefly discusses the findings and recommendations from parliamentary committee inquiries conducted during the 44th Parliament, as well as alternative policies put forward by the Labor Opposition and non-government parties over this period.

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