Australian Election 2022: Labor’s return with a renewed development focus

Australian Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese came out on top as Prime Minister in Australia’s election on May 21, 2022, ousting Liberal Party incumbent Scott Morrison, who has served as Prime Minister since 2018. While Albanese was sworn in as Prime Minister on May 23, 2022, with the full Labor Ministry following suit last week, the results of the election show a modest victory for the party, achieving only 32% of the primary vote – down 2% from 2019. The Labor Party will have a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, with the party holding 77 seats, just above the 76 needed. These narrow victories were largely the result of waning support for Morrison and the Liberal Party, but also an increase in both Green and “teal” (moderate independents who favor greener policies) support, particularly in Australia’s urban areas. This green and teal wave could signal a greater push in parliament for increases to the ODA budget. Slim margins aside, the results of the election underscore a stark shift away from nine years of conservative rule, signaling more progressive approaches, including for international development. 

Prime Minister Albanese appointed Senator Penny Wong to be the new Minister for Foreign Affairs. Her responsibilities include managing Australia’s ODA program. Based on her background as Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Wong advocated for a 'first nations' approach to foreign affairs, a stronger projection of soft power, and greater collaboration and multilateralism among partners. These themes are likely to extend into her thinking as Minister for Foreign Affairs. 

Under Wong, Pat Conroy is the new Minister for International Development and the Pacific, who provides direct oversight of Australia’s international development and humanitarian assistance policies as administered through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). He will also take on the role of Minister for Defence Industry, providing oversight for defense procurement and equipment and supplies for the Australian Defence Force. Before the election, Minister Conroy indicated that he would rebuild overseas development expertise within DFAT and promised an Australian assistance program with a broad lens, touching on climate change, gender equality, economic recovery, global health, and education.  

Predicting the direction of Labor’s ODA and development policies 

In the run-up to the election, the incoming Labor Government’s election platform indicated Australia’s ODA/GNI ratio would be increased in every annual budget. This is generally assumed to be 0.01% ODA/GNI per year. Under this policy, that would be an increase of approximately A$220 million (US$163 million) every year to the development budget. This marks a significant course correction for Australia’s ODA budget, which has steadily declined since its peak in 2013/14. This increase is part of a longer-term plan by Labor to reach 0.5% ODA/GNI, which has not been achieved since the 1980s, but no timeframe has been announced. 

When looking at specific commitments made by the Labor Party during the election campaign, the total amounts to roughly A$1 billion (US$741 million) over the next 4 years, including: 

  • Additional funding for assistance to Southeast Asia of A$470 million (US$348 million); 

  • Additional funding for the Pacific of A$525 million (US$389 million); and 

  • An increase of A$32 million (US$24 million) for NGOs. 

At the QUAD Leader’s Meeting in Tokyo in late May 2022, Prime Minister Albanese reemphasized his plans to bolster Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia through the A$470 million (US$348 million) in funding to the region over the next 4 years, but also by appointing a new envoy to the region, creating an Office of South-East Asia within DFAT, and developing a closer working relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In a further show of his commitment to the region, he traveled to Indonesia for his first bilateral visit last week. During the visit, he discussed closer ties with Jakarta, as Indonesia is a close neighbor and seen as an emerging economic powerhouse in the region. He also discussed economic support to Indonesia for COVID-19 pandemic recovery and maritime safety. Labor has previously promised a A$200 million (US$148 million) climate and infrastructure partnership with Indonesia. 

Speaking with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Fiji, Minister Wong outlined Australia's priorities in its relationship with the Pacific region, promising an era of renewed engagement. Australia plans to expand opportunities for Pacific islanders to work in Australia and will emphasize greater maritime cooperation. Australia will provide A$525 million (US$389 million) in ODA to the Pacific region over the next 4 years, with a particular emphasis on recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Wong also emphasized the role women would play in the recovery and subsequent economic development of the Pacific region.  Additionally, she announced the Australia-Pacific Climate Infrastructure Partnership, which will assist with energy projects and other climate-related infrastructure in the Pacific and Timor-Leste, a cornerstone project for future climate-focused assistance to the region. Further discussion on Australia’s support for the Pacific will come when Prime Minister Albanese travels to the Pacific Islands leaders’ meeting next month. 

This emphasis on Southeast Asia and the Pacific is in line with Wong’s focus on improving diplomatic ties in those regions and expanding development priorities within DFAT. This is seen as a direct response to a reduction of development expertise and oversight due to the merger in 2014 of the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) into DFAT. The above commitments are a boost for the faltering ODA budget, but they do not match the scale of growth implied by a 0.01% increase every year. Costed additional commitments so far have only been around A$1 billion (US$741 million) over 4 years, far short of the $2.2 billion (US$1.6 billion) needed. More clarity on budget increases will come once the October budget is delivered. 

While these increases show regional and multilateral investments, the sectoral focus of this increased ODA has not been specified and no commitments have been made toward specific multilateral organizations, despite Labor’s historic support for UN agencies. Labor’s general priorities are focused on a wide range of sectors, including poverty reduction, health, education, climate, agriculture, food security, and gender equality (with a target of 80% of Australian ODA addressing gender issues). However, climate issues may be pushed to the forefront given the sharp rise in support for the Greens and climate-focused independents. Ultimately, the Labor Party seeks to reenergize DFAT with stronger leadership, improved ties with bilateral and multilateral partners, more concentrated expertise within the Department, and clearer roles and responsibilities to advance the future of Australian foreign and development policy. 


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Additional reading

Budget review – Parliament of Australia 

Election results – ABC News 

News article – ABC News 

News article - BBC 

News article - Devex 

News article – The Sydney Morning Herald 

Speech – Pat Conroy’s speech to the 2022 Election Policy Forum on Aid and Development