Senator Penny Wong – Estimates question about the decision to defund AMENCA

photo of Senator Penny Wong
March 25, 2021

Questioned whether the decision to end funding for AMENCA was made at a departmental or ministerial level.

Somebody makes a decision to discontinue it. That’s not a decision made at a departmental level, I’m assuming. It’s a decision of government, correct?

Whole interaction with Senator Marise Payne (Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Women), Dr Angela Macdonald (First Assistant Secretary, Global Counter Terrorism, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT) and Ms Frances Adamson (Secretary, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator WONG: Okay, thanks very much on that. I’m skipping along. I just have a quick question on AMENCA.


Senator Payne: We responded to some questions from Senator Faruqi on that.


Senator WONG: I know, I’m sorry, I was in and out for some of that.


Senator Payne: Happy to provide any information you need.


Senator WONG: I usually ask things more quickly. You discontinued the Australian Middle East NGO Cooperation Agreement from 30 June 2021, correct?


Dr Macdonald : I’ll just have to double-check, but I don’t think we discontinued from then. There are some aspects of that program that are continuing through the course of this calendar year—to the end of September at least.


Senator WONG: But you have discontinued it, as of a certain date?


Dr Macdonald : Yes.


Senator WONG: Which date?


Dr Macdonald : It won’t be recommenced. I just don’t want to mislead you because there is some of the expenditure which continues in terms of the activities there. So the agreement, I think, continues to September.


Senator WONG: 2021.


Dr Macdonald : Yes.


Senator WONG: Okay. Was that a decision made by the minister?


Dr Macdonald : It’s in the context of the overall program. I’ll have to just double-check, but—


Senator WONG: Somebody makes a decision to discontinue it. That’s not a decision made at a departmental level, I’m assuming. It’s a decision of government, correct?


Dr Macdonald : Can I just double-check? We consulted with the office, yes, and with the minister.


Ms Adamson : I’ve got it.


Senator WONG: What?


Ms Adamson : I think it was made in the context of the work we did on Partnerships for Recovery, as I recall—the orientation of funding, as Dr Macdonald explained earlier, to the Indo-Pacific. In order to do that we needed to put to the minister a series of decisions to enable that pivoting of funding to take place.


Senator WONG: If you chose to take money from it, I’d just rather we didn’t end up in a discussion about pivoting and get deflected into that. You chose not to continue to fund it. I just want to know who made that decision. Was that a departmental decision? Was it your decision, Minister?


Senator Payne: I don’t have this specific decision in my head, but I would say that it is part of the reprioritisation process, which we did to—I’m not going to use a word you’ve asked me not to use, but which we did for Partnerships for Recovery.


Senator WONG: When you did the reprioritisation, was there any indication that government did not wish to continue funding AMENCA?


Dr Macdonald : There are two aspects of the reprioritisation. One is of the aid program more generally, of course, as you know, through Partnerships for Recovery. The other was actually to COVID responses, if you like, within programs. That’s very much where the Palestinian Territories program has pivoted within that to more health security issues, including, for example, WHO funding this year. So it’s in that context that—


Senator WONG: Did you hear my question?


Dr Macdonald : I’m not sure I understand the question, so could you just repeat that?


Senator WONG: I was hoping this would not take longer but it’s going to take a while. So AMENCA was funded under two heads: COVID-related—correct?


Dr Macdonald : No.


Senator WONG: Well, do you want to explain it to me? All I’m trying to work out is who made the decision. That’s actually all I want to know at this point. Then I’ve got some other questions.


Dr Macdonald : In consultation—


Senator WONG: So we can spend ages going around and around, but I just want to know who decided they shouldn’t be funded, and was some of the discussion of your colleagues who had been advocating for it not to be funded taken into account? I just want to know that.


Dr Macdonald : It was in consultation with the minister, but I just want to double check so I don’t mislead you.


Senator WONG: When you say ‘it’—


Dr Macdonald : The decision not to continue.


Senator Payne: About reprioritisation.


Senator WONG: About cutting AMENCA.


Senator Payne: The movement of funds was made in consultation with me, yes, on this and many other things.


Senator WONG: Were you conscious at the time of the negative view in the coalition party room of funding to the Palestinian Territories?


Senator Payne: Senator, I have been sitting in these estimates for as long as you have if not longer, and I’m aware of concerns that have been raised over time. But if you want to ask me whether that influenced this specific decision, the answer is no.


Senator WONG: I understand there was a mid-term review of AMENCA 3 completed for DFAT in 2019. Is that correct?


Dr Macdonald : That’s correct.


Senator WONG: I understand it concluded that the program had ‘achieved considerable on-the-ground traction and its success to date more than justifies ongoing support as this will significantly augment the market-level impacts that are currently emerging’—correct?


Dr Macdonald : That’s correct. As I said previously, that review was in the context of the continuation of that program for the further two years, the current phase of which expires in September this year.


Senator WONG: Were you asked to table it?


Dr Macdonald : To table—


Senator WONG: The review?


Dr Macdonald : It was published on our website, I think the one you’re referring to, in November 2019.


Senator WONG: Is it still there or can you just table it?


Dr Macdonald : I can do that.


Senator WONG: This is a program that has been in place since 2005, correct?


Dr Macdonald : In various iterations, yes. This is the third iteration.


Senator Payne: This was a 5-year iteration, I think—is that right?


Dr Macdonald : That’s right.


Senator WONG: Can you tell me how cutting a program that has had that longevity and has had bipartisan support until now since 2005 serves our interests in the region?


Dr Macdonald : This phase comes to an end, and in the context of the very complex operating environment there, as you’d appreciate, and also the pivot within the program—


Senator WONG: The pivot!


Dr Macdonald : to health security, the future allocations are yet to be determined.


Senator WONG: The future allocations are yet to be determined. Is that what you just said?


Dr Macdonald : Yes, so the future allocations from within the PTs aid program, both in terms of quantum—


Senator WONG: The future allocations for what?


Dr Macdonald : Sorry, within the Palestinian program. They are yet to be determined into future financial years.


Senator WONG: So does that mean that AMENCA is potentially fundable, or it is off the table for future financial years, given that answer?


Dr Macdonald : This phase comes to an end at the end of September. The contracting parties, if I can put it that way, our partners there, have been advised that it won’t be recontinued after that.


Senator WONG: So there’s no possibility of it being allocated any funding beyond September. There’s a decision of government to that effect?


Dr Macdonald : That’s right.

Link to full Hansard transcript.