LABOR’S national president Jenny McAllister has told the Star Observer she is “horrified” by recent cuts to Australia’s overseas aid budget and funding must be maintained to HIV prevention programs.
McAllister, a NSW Labor Senator, spoke to the Star Observer from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where she visited a number of projects backed by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria – which Australia supports financially – including initiatives aimed at promoting LGBTI inclusion.
[showads ad=MREC]Coalition MPs Warren Entsch, Deborah O’Neill and Ken O’Dowd and Labor’s Sharon Claydon and Andrew Southcott also travelled to Vietnam.
McAllister said the Coalition Government had cut $11 billion in overseas aid since it came to power.
“I am horrified in the reductions in the aid budget and I think it is critical that the Australian government choose to do work with the most vulnerable communities and there is no doubt that in South East Asia the LGBT communities and people with HIV/AIDS are very vulnerable and continue to need our support,” she said.
In 2013, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced Australia would contribute $200m towards the Global Fund up until 2016, roughly the same amount pledged by Labor in the previous three years.
Since 2001, Australia has given more than $600m to the organisation.
However, in contrast to the UK, US, Canada and Japan, Australia failed to increase funding and contributes less to the organisation than countries with smaller populations such as Sweden and The Netherlands.
The Australian MPs met their Vietnamese counterparts and visited Life, a HIV prevention, care and support organisation that works with gay and trans* people.
McAllister said the stories she heard from young gay people in Vietnam, about discrimination and fear of rejection, were so familiar she “could have been an event in Darlinghurst”.
She said one story that particularly resonated was that of a gay men who at one point felt “all doors were closed” to him.
“He is now a peer educator, so he is working to reach out to other people in his community both about prevention and also about the possibilities of treatment and it’s just so obvious here were people who had some hope that previously had none,” McAllister said.
“A medical-only approach to treatment here would not be enough because these communities need support from one another and from people in authority.”
Entsch, who is the chair of the federal Parliamentary Friendship Group for LGBTI Australians and a vocal advocate of marriage equality, said organisations such as Life could also help in reducing levels of tuberculous which, according to the World Health Organisation, people in the developing world with HIV are 26 times more likely to contract than those without the virus.
“While they have a needle exchange and they have free condoms available through clinics there is still not enough work being done within the gay and transgender community [in Vietnam] to… educate and support them and this is why it is important to set up this network,” Entsch said.
The Leichhardt MP from far north Queensland said a greater focus also needed to be given to trans* people in Vietnam with medical care often found wanting: “I’m going to be suggesting to the Global Fund that they might like to extend their support a little bit further to see if we can’t establish some sort of counselling service and also look at treatment and medial support post transition.”
Julie Bishop told the Star Observer Labor was to blame for any reduction in foreign aid spending because of the party’s refusal to support alternative savings measures in the budget.
“Australia remains committed to supporting an effective, equitable and sustainable HIV response in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Bishop, pointing to support for the Global Fund and voluntary core funding to UNAIDS, the United Nations HIV program, of $4.5 million in 2015-16.[showads ad=FOOT]