There were no major winners in last week’s 2015 Budget but there was certainly one major loser: us. Though well telegraphed, the Federal Government went ahead with a $1bn cut to the 2015 Australian aid budget, trashing Australia’s once world-class aid program and our reputation as a generous strategic partner to the Asia-Pacific region.
The cuts put the lives of some of the poorest people in the world at risk while simultaneously undermining the future stability of our immediate region.
This brings the plunder wrought by Abbott–Hockey government to Australian aid to a total of $11.3bn since being elected. Not only has aid been singled out, but it has been unfairly targeted, suffering the biggest proportional cut of any sector.
More than 60% of the $1bn savings squeezed out of the aid program, which now barely accounts for 1% of government spending, will come from Asia-Pacific region.
Although Julie Bishop won the battle (and rightly so) to spare the smaller Pacific states from the cuts with Papua New Guinea copping only a 5% trim, the swoop of Hockey’s scythe across all our aid programs in Asia, including Indonesia, means our most immediate neighbours will now bear the lion’s share of this ludicrous policy.
Aid should always be about improving and saving lives but by its own rhetoric this Government has consistently claimed that our overseas development program can and should be used in support of Australia’s strategic interests.
Soon after taking office in September 2013, the Abbott Government announced that Australia’s development agency AusAID would be ‘merged’ into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was a powerful signal of the regime change taking place in our nation with the very deliberate de-prioritising of Australia’s international development efforts. At the time, it was presented as an opportunity to pool our soft power tools to enable a closer alignment of the aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda. There was much talk of ‘aid for trade’ by the new Foreign Minister and economic growth as the most effective driver of development.
It seems incredible then that the same Government should be so willing to undermine the stability and security of our own region, hitting the area of most immediate need and undermining our chances for future prosperity.
Last week’s aid cuts were also crude in nature. Myanmar received a forty percent cut in its bilateral aid program, despite its status as a fledgling democracy, and bilateral aid to Afghanistan was also cut by forty percent despite Australia’s rhetoric of a long-term commitment there.
The East Asia program was sliced by $386.8m. Almost every country and regional program was cut by 40%. The only exceptions were Cambodia which—thanks to its willingness to take on our refugees—stayed nominally the same; Timor-Leste, cut by $3.6m (5%); and Nepal, which has held steady due to the devastating earthquakes.
The largest single cut in any bilateral country program was to Indonesia at $219.5m (40%). Indonesia is now no longer the largest recipient of Australian aid, rather PNG—a position boosted further by the large package of ‘aid’ we committed to as part of the refugee deal we cut with the O’Neill Government.
Even further afield, the massive investment in mining suggests a 70% cut to sub-Saharan Africa is equally short-sighted in ignoring the possibility for the next big economic growth region after Asia. In humanitarian terms, this region is home to many countries with massive and immediate needs for basic health care and primary education. Over the life of this Government, Australian aid to Sub-Saharan Africa will have dropped from close to $225m a year in 2013–14 to just $31.8m in 2015–16 which will be spent on tertiary scholarships.
Even the alleged ‘good news’ of a Gender Equality Fund of $50m is not much more—by the Government’s own admission—than a rebadging of already committed funds and a consolidation of the existing Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Initiative with a few other gender initiatives in Southeast Asia thrown in for good measure.
It’s a small consolation that, while unable to stop the Expenditure Review Committee from shearing away a full fifth of the aid budget, Julie Bishop managed to protect the modest slice allocated for aid to be delivered by Australian Non-Government Organisations under a long-established framework. However, none of this saves the day for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable and the terrible blow dealt by this budget.