The Coalition’s mismanagement of foreign affairs has serious consequences for Australia, as Alan Austin reports.
FOR DECADES, advocates have claimed foreign aid is critical to Australia’s defence and foreign affairs preparedness. They have warned that cutting aid – which all coalition governments have done since the Fraser years – trashes Australia’s global image and risks regional security.
Now it has actually happened. The Government of China is snatching from Australia the mantle of the strong, protective regional power partnering with our Pacific neighbours.
The Solomon Islands Government signed a security pact with Beijing late last month, generating shock and dismay in the USA and beyond.
“China has seized opportunities to expand its influence at a time when the U.S. and other countries have not been as engaged economically in the Pacific islands.”
For “other countries”, read Australia. Australians should be particularly concerned, as the Solomons are close neighbours. Townsville is closer to the capital Honiara than it is to Canberra. Honiara to Beijing is four times the distance to Townsville.
In the event that the Solomon Islands become a location for a strategic naval or airbase, it will now be China rather than Australia and its allies who will operate it.
This is what comes of appointing a succession of defence and foreign affairs ministers with no experience or aptitude for the role, each of them less competent than his or her predecessor.
Selling out Australia’s security for a pittance
The Coalition’s neglect of our Pacific neighbours is evident most starkly in the appalling decline in overseas aid allocations since it gained office. See blue chart, below. This shows dollars spent for each year, not adjusted for inflation.
The Whitlam Labor Government demonstrated the strongest commitment to supporting developing neighbours. It has been disgraceful ever since, with no government restoring Whitlam’s generosity. See grey chart, below, for aid allocations as a percentage of gross national income (GNI).
In 2014, then Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, arguably Australia’s second-worst incumbent up to that point after Alexander Downer, promised that aid would continue to increase in line with inflation. That signalled an increase in 2015 of 1.5%, or an extra $75 million. This would have saved thousands of unnecessary deaths if allocated wisely.
But when the next budget rolled around, the craven Coalition slashed 16% from the 2014 allocation, a staggering $818 million.
Condemnations from far and wide
Reactions from the aid sector and elsewhere were scathing.
“The scale of these changes is unprecedented... How can anyone plan for the future when the key determinants of that future are constantly chopped and changed by Government whim with no regard given to promises made?”
World Vision’s Rev Tim Costello wrote:
‘By again cutting into what is a small proportion of the total Federal Budget, the Government is making an active choice to retreat from complex global challenges.’
The Coalition took no notice. They slashed another $176 million in 2016 and even more since. The quantum announced for the coming financial year will be the lowest relative to GNI on record.
The Parliamentary Library asserted last June:
‘...the data confirm a longer-term trend that has seen Australian aid fall by 31% between 2011 and 2020, while globally aid has increased by 26%.’
The amounts the coalition governments have cut from the aid budget are minuscule compared with Australia’s vast wealth and income. Just one big foreign tax-dodging mining company paying a fair rate of tax on its mega-profits would easily make up the aid cuts since 2013.
Coalition contempt for the Solomon Islands
Through the Labor years, aid sent to Honiara averaged $234 million per year. This supported a range of effective humanitarian and governance programs. Joe Hockey cut this in his first budget to $189.5 million.
Two years later, Scott Morrison’s first budget cut it to $155.2 million. Morrison slashed it again in 2017 to $141.8 million, despite needs having increased rather than reduced. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has now reduced it to a miserly $103.1 million. No wonder the Islanders prefer a relationship with China.
Other regional island nations to have suffered similar savage Coalition aid reductions include Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Kiribati. This would explain why Morrison takes his holidays in American Hawaii.
Morrison’s nauseating hypocrisy
This is particularly devastating for aid agencies like World Vision and Care Australia, whose workers were heartened by Morrison’s 2008 maiden speech. Back then, he deplored the reality that Africa “is a humanitarian tragedy on an unimaginable scale” and “in Africa, 6,500 people die every day from preventable and treatable diseases”.
He then said this:
“The Howard Government increased annual spending on foreign aid to $3.2 billion. The new [Rudd Labor] Government has committed to continue to increase this investment and I commend it for doing so. However, we still must go further... It is the Australian thing to do.”
The Australian thing to do now is recommitting to helping the regional poor and rebuilding Australia’s national security by restoring aid to at least 0.33% of GNI.
So we must banish this hypocritical, incompetent and corrupt administration forever. It is the Australian thing to do.
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