Questioned the cuts to Australian aid for Palestine and asked how the blockade of Gaza impacts the delivery of aid projects.
Senator Ludlam: Can you just confirm for me that the 2015-16 budget cut aid to the Palestinian territories from $34.2 million to $20.5 million—is that accurate?
Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, that is right.
Whole interaction with Mr Marc Innes-Brown (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT) and Mr Ewen McDonald (Deputy Secretary, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).
Senator LUDLAM: I have a couple of questions that relate to Australia’s foreign aid into Gaza. Who would be the best person to take those on?
Mr McDonald : Mr Innes-Brown will come up, Senator.
Senator LUDLAM: Great, thank you. Thank you for joining us, Mr Innes-Brown. Can you just confirm for me that the 2015-16 budget cut aid to the Palestinian territories from $34.2 million to $20.5 million—is that accurate?
Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, that is right.
Senator LUDLAM: What components of Australia’s contribution to that part of the world did that hit, in particular?
Mr McDonald : I do not know if you were here earlier, but in relation to the 2015-16 budget allocations, which were announced the best part of three weeks ago, we are now going through discussions with our partner governments on the priorities for 2015-16. When they are complete we will be able to provide that information to you. If you do not mind, we will take that on notice.
Mr Innes-Brown : I should add that I will be travelling to the Palestinian territories in two weeks to go through all of this.
Senator LUDLAM: You will be?
Mr Innes-Brown : Yes.
Senator LUDLAM: Can you give us a rough idea of who you are likely to meet with while you are there.
Mr Innes-Brown : I do not have a program at the moment, but senior officials in the Palestinian Authority.
Senator LUDLAM: I also understand that Australia committed—I do not know whether it was an additional; you may be able to clarify that for me—$5 million to assist with the rebuilding of Gaza, which was very, very badly damaged last year. Did that $5 million come from a humanitarian fund or a separate appropriation, or was that out of our regular aid contribution?
Mr Innes-Brown : That is right. It was $5.7 million and it came from our existing appropriation for the Palestinian territories.
Senator LUDLAM: Has that aid money been able to reach Gaza?
Mr Innes-Brown : I would have to take the details on notice, but the money went to UNRWA, which has a fund which is organising assistance for people who were affected by the conflict last year. Whether they have dispersed the money at this stage or not, I do not know. I will have to take that on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: Have they reported any difficulties in implementing Australia’s aid projects into that area?
Mr Innes-Brown : Not specifically; no.
Senator LUDLAM: They have not specifically reported any difficulties since the war last year?
Mr Innes-Brown : No. There are obviously some general difficulties.
Senator LUDLAM: How would you describe those ‘general difficulties’ to us?
Mr Innes-Brown : I gave evidence on an earlier question. In terms of reconstruction of Gaza, there are a range of challenges, including in delivering money and also materials into Gaza. I can go through those again, if you like. First of all is the fact that the Palestinian Authority has not been able to take control of the reconstruction effort in Gaza, because Hamas has refused to relinquish that. Also Israel, understandably, for security reasons, is scrutinising materials that go in, including because of the history of what has happened to construction materials in the past. Another issue is that there was a conference in Cairo after the conflict, and only about 26 per cent of the contributions that were made by donors have yet been paid. However, there has been some general progress, as I reported earlier. UNRWA has been able to assist about 60,000 families, almost half the case load of displaced refugee families, to help them repair their homes.
Senator LUDLAM: What effect is the blockade of Gaza having on Australia’s aid program to this area?
Mr Innes-Brown : To my knowledge it is not having any specific impact. None has been brought to my attention.
Senator LUDLAM: You can clarify your language, if you like. You say that materials are being scrutinised or checked for security purposes before it enters the Palestinian territories. Is it Australian aid and reconstruction materials that is being scrutinised before it goes into Gaza?
Mr Innes-Brown : What I am saying is that there is a thing called the UN materials monitoring unit. It is a tripartite arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian territories and the UN. It is a mechanism set up to scrutinise all construction materials going into Gaza.
Senator LUDLAM: Just to be clear: you have not had it reported to you. When was the last time you visited that part of the world?
Mr Innes-Brown : I have not visited it. I am planning to visit in two weeks.
Senator LUDLAM: You have not been there before?
Mr Innes-Brown : No. My staff have.
Senator LUDLAM: I am a bit surprised, I must admit, that you do not report any impact of the blockade of those territories.
Mr Innes-Brown : Not specifically affecting our projects that we are funding. None has been specifically brought to my attention.
Senator LUDLAM: What about generally?
Mr Innes-Brown : I just went through that. I did explain that there is a process of stuff going in. It has generally been slow for the reasons I outlined before.
Senator LUDLAM: Sure. Has Australia made any representations specifically to either Israel or Egypt to allow reconstruction materials to more easily enter those territories?
Mr Innes-Brown : Not to my knowledge.
Senator LUDLAM: Is that something that you could check for us?
Mr Innes-Brown : I could check, sure. I will take that on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: In the context of the destruction of a large part of those areas and the very clear humanitarian need, why did the 2015 budget reduce aid to the Palestinian territories?
Mr McDonald : Earlier we talked about the funding for 2015-16 to the Palestinian territories. That was a question you asked at the beginning. There was also some humanitarian assistance, as Mr Innes-Brown talked about, of $5.7 million—
Senator LUDLAM: But that came from within the existing—
Mr McDonald : Yes. There is also core funding that we provide to UNWRA. We provided $20.3 million last year and we are providing $19.3 million next financial year as well.
Senator LUDLAM: I am happy to put the question to you, if you would rather take it.
Mr McDonald : Yes, sure.
Senator LUDLAM: Why did the 2015-16 budget reduce aid to those territories given the extraordinary scale of the need?
Mr McDonald : In terms of the humanitarian need, overall the humanitarian budget was reduced by a very small amount—
Senator LUDLAM: And I am asking the reasons why. I would have thought, given that the place was virtually pulverised during the last financial year, that an increase in aid would be in order.
Mr McDonald : Senator, as you know, in MYEFO the aid budget was reduced.
Senator LUDLAM: It was.
Mr McDonald : The government had to make decisions around the allocations. What I have said is a humanitarian area, which is what we are talking about now in terms of the response, was preserved in that and had a small reduction, as I said earlier, from $338 million to $328 million. As part of that UNWRA, which we provide core funding to, which is the most effective form of funding, as you know, for humanitarian agencies, we reduced that by $1 million next year.
Senator LUDLAM: The foreign minister of Germany recently called for the lifting of the blockade. Has the Australian foreign minister made any representations to this effect?
Mr Innes-Brown : In response to those comments by the German foreign minister?
Senator LUDLAM: It is worth making the distinction. Either in response to those comments from the German
Mr Innes-Brown : Not in response to those particular comments.
Senator LUDLAM: So that is clear. Has the Australian foreign minister or any other official made any representations to the effect that the blockade be lifted?
Mr Innes-Brown : I will have to take on notice what discussions we have had about that over recent years. I do not know.
Senator LUDLAM: I would appreciate that. Are you familiar with the report released by the World Bank on 21 May that indicated that Gaza’s economy is on the brink of collapse, it has the world’s highest unemployment rate, 80 per cent of its citizens are relying on international aid and only one-quarter of the funds pledged have been honoured? You referenced that latter point in some of your earlier remarks, but are you aware of that report by the World Bank?
Mr Innes-Brown : I am aware of the headline conclusions, the headline points of it. I do recall reading it.
Senator LUDLAM: You read the headline conclusions or the document itself?
Mr Innes-Brown : I do not actually recall, but I am aware of the general conclusions, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: So you are aware that the general conclusion was that recovery of the shattered economy of that part of the world is only possible, says the World Bank, ‘with the easing of the blockade to allow sufficient reconstruction materials in and exports out’? Effectively the economy is being starved.
Mr Innes-Brown : I will have to read the full report.
Senator LUDLAM: Is that an undertaking that you are making to us?
Mr Innes-Brown : Sure.
Senator LUDLAM: Only if you think it is worth your time.
Mr Innes-Brown : I am happy to.
Senator LUDLAM: I might leave it there on Gaza. You have given us some general undertakings around security checks for materials entering the Palestinian territories and you have said that you are not aware of any specific issues. I find that really difficult to believe, so I ask you to take on notice to find out from our partners, whether it be UNWRA, World Vision, APHEDA or any of the other groups that we have relevant linkages with, whether they are reporting—if you are able to actively check for us—
Mr Innes-Brown : Sure.
Senator LUDLAM: any difficulties in delivering aid to a part of the world that desperately needs it.
Mr Innes-Brown : Will do.
Senator LUDLAM: I would greatly appreciate that.