On a recent trip to Stockholm, when Swedish politicians complained that aid had slipped from one per cent of Gross National Income to 0.8 per cent, I cringed with shame – then changed the subject.
To admit that Australia’s sitting on its lowest ever level of aid at only 0.22 per cent of GNI was just too embarrassing for words. Only six years ago we had a bipartisan agreement between Kevin Rudd and Julie Bishop to lift aid to 0.5 per cent.
How did we get so mean?
The Labor elders know this. Gareth Evans, Bob Carr and others have called on their party to restore humanitarian aid ahead of the ALP conference next week. They lamented the damage aids decline has done to Australia’s international reputation — and they are right to do so.
They know that a good aid program – one that turns today’s aid recipients into tomorrow’s trading partners – is crucial to influencing the increasingly dynamic geopolitics of the Pacific. They know that in cutting virtually all aid to Africa, still the epicentre of global poverty, we have checked out of our international obligations.
This move from Labor to put aid on the agenda next week is a ray of hope for those who won’t have a voice in the next election but whose lives depend on aid decisions.
And there’s more – during the drama of Federal Parliament’s last sitting day for 2018, with Labor waving through the encryption bill and the Coalition filibustering proposed changes to medical transfers from Manus and Nauru – more than 200 Christians from Micah Australia were quietly lobbying our leaders to restore aid.
And the good news? Those leaders were surprisingly receptive.
Among Coalition politicians, many were shocked that under their governance aid that had slipped to its lowest ever level in history. They were surprised that Australia had sunk to 19th on the OECD table of generosity and agreed we should be in the top half of that table at least, especially when according to Credit Suisse’s recent wealth report we now have the highest median wealth in the world.
Even Tony Abbot surprisingly agreed aid should be increased. His government’s first budget slashed aid by $11.1 billion, attempting to balance his books on the backs of people who have nothing. That budget crushed hope and cost lives, and Australia left the heavy lifting to the UK, Dutch and Scandinavian nations that honoured their promise of aid at 0.7 per cent of GNI. In the UK they made it law.
Last week, our leaders were reminded that aid was highest under the conservative Robert Menzies – at 0.5 per cent. Generous aid was a conservative value. Back in 1959, marking World Refugee Year, Prime Minister Menzies said:
“It is a good thing that Australia should have earned a reputation for a sensitive understanding of the problems of people in other lands; that we should not come to be regarded as people who are detached from the miseries of the world. I know that we will not come to be so regarded, for I believe that there are no people anywhere with warmer hearts and more generous impulses.”
Has the harsh attitude of recent years quashed our warm hearts and generous impulses? We must be wary of global shifts, particularly in the US, where conservatism is becoming synonymous with explicit self-interest.
I’m not so naïve to believe that there’s simply a sudden pivot towards compassion. A budget surplus on the horizon helps. As does our awareness, even fear, of China’s increasing influence in our region. Improving our international image can help Australia get things done in the diplomatic sphere – and generate income. When defence and security agencies start whispering that aid is soft power and cutting it has left us exposed, this government listens.
But will it lead to change?
Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, talked of increasing aid and making poverty history in his maiden speech. His announcement that the Pacific is ‘back at the centre of Australia’s foreign policy’ with $2 billion in infrastructure bank last month is welcome.
But how much is funded by the aid budget? Are we sacrificing women’s health, girls’ education, and clean water for bridges and roads? Are we adding debt to countries already in debt distress?
It’s time to take the foot off the throat of humanitarian aid, not only as a moral imperative in a world of gross inequities but as an investment in our region.
I hope the Labor elders’ signalling last week that aid would be included on the agenda will lead to some Christmas good news for the poor at the ALP conference?
Our national conscience is again being weighed in the balance.