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Eighty per cent of Australians do not support any further spending on foreign aid, a government minister has told an overseas audience after being repeatedly asked about Australia's massive foreign aid cuts.
Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells revealed the government polling as she called for Britain to partner on infrastructure development in the Pacific.
The request is widely being seen as an attempt to try and counter to China's rising influence in the region, which Labor says has been left vulnerable to Beijing's advances because of Australia's aid cuts.
The issue has been back in the spotlight following Fairfax Media's revelations last week that China wants to build a military base in Vanuatu.
During an appearance at the Overseas Development Institute on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) Senator Fierravanti-Wells was confronted twice by representatives from aid organisations Water Aid and Micah.
She said the aid budget would be fixed at $4 billion (US$3 billion) for the next two years and would not be increased until the "economy was back on a sustainable footing. “Even then, she signalled it could be politically difficult to increase aid spending because the issue had become "one of taking your public with you”.
“In Australia we had some research done where it showed that about 80 per cent of Australians believe that we should not be spending more on foreign or that what we spend is about right,” the minister said.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells said the government polling had exposed a “big schism” between the community and those working in the aid sector who think “the complete opposite.”
“You do have to take your public with you,” she said.
Water Aid's executive director Ken Caldwell told Fairfax Media he was unimpressed with the minister's answer and called on her to show leadership instead of following opinion polls.
“The challenge is about building the political leadership required to persuade Australians that a strong aid budget is in their interests," he said.
“Quite a number of countries have shown this can be done – that if the politicians take the leadership, you can take the public with you."
Roger Burton from Micah, a non-profit working to promote social justice, also said the minister's answer was unsatisfactory.
He called on her to follow the UK's lead in enshrining aid targets into law to protect foreign aid from becoming a political football.
“The public debt in the UK is four times that in Australia and yet they have ring-fenced their aid commitment to 0.7 per cent of GNI (gross national income),” he said.
Burton said it was the previous Conservative government, led by David Cameron, that had stepped up to protect foreign aid.
But Senator Fierravanti Wells said it was not the Australian government's intention to commit to any spending timetable or target.
Labor believes Coalition cuts to foreign aid have allowed China to move into Australia's backyard by showering poorer Pacific Island nations with aid and cheap development loans.
Research conducted by the Lowy Institute shows Chinese aid in the Pacific has grown substantially, with China committing more than $US1.7 billion (AUD$2.1 billion) to eight Pacific Island countries.
OECD data released last week show's Australia's aid, as a proportion of GNI fell a further 16 per cent last year. At just 0.23 per cent of GNI, it puts Australia 19th in the OECD. This was well below the OECD average of 0.31% of combined GNI.
British Prime Minister Theresa May stared down a populist push to wind back Cameron's laws last year and the UK met its target in 2017.
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