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The Aid Budget Is Not An ATM

This piece first appeared in New Matilda.

The budget confirmed what many feared – Australia will continue to fail to honour its commitment to alleviate global poverty. The Gillard Government further slashed aid funding, prioritising instead domestic priorities.

Labor and the Coalition have broken many commitments to increase Australia’s aid budget. Back in 2000 it looked like real progress was being made. It was then that John Howard signed up Australia to back the Millennium Development Goals and increase overseas aid to 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) by 2015.

In November 2011 Labor and the Coalition voted in the Senate for a Greens motion calling for the aid budget to increase to 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015.

In the 2012 budget Labor pushed back its commitment to increase aid by 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) by a year. In December last year Bob Carr then decided to divert $375 million from the aid budget on onshore immigration detention, forcing the closure of women's rights, education and health programs across the region.

The Coalition’s current position is that they support 0.5 per cent GNI contribution to the aid budget but they will not give a year by which this should be achieved and have not ruled out using this money for offshore refugee processing.

And now the knife has again been taken to overseas aid. In this year’s budget the Gillard Government again delayed the promised scale-up to 0.5 per cent GNI by one year, ripping $1.9 billion out of the forward estimates. Not only is it embarrassing that we are plundering money from the world’s poorest for our own self interests, it is a failure of our role as a wealthy nation to be part of a solution to global poverty.

The Greens reject the Government’s rubbery claim this week that the aid budget has increased in real dollar terms by $517.8 million. In truth, a total of $4.8 billion has been taken from the aid program across the forward estimates, as a result of the Government delaying its promised scale up to 0.5 per cent GNI. In last year’s budget they deferred the commitment to reach 0.5 per cent GNI, which cut $2.9 billion from the aid budget, reaching a total $4.8 billion cut from the aid budget.

Further, the Government’s proposed cap on spending on onshore asylum seekers, which now stands at $375 million per year, will amount to another $1 billion coming out of the aid budget over the forward estimates. To claim a real dollar increase in the aid budget the Government subtracted $375 million from the total aid volume for last year. This gave them a total figure of $4.7 billion last year and $5.2 billion this year, leading them to claim a $517.8 million increase.

This claim rings hollow for the world’s poor who have missed out on $4.8 billion in promised aid. In redirecting $375 million in aid money to manage its domestic asylum seeker policy, Australia has become the third largest recipient of Australian aid after PNG and Indonesia.

The Howard government also used aid money to implement its domestic asylum seeker policy. While in Opposition, then Labor Shadow Minister for International Development Assistance Bob McMullan heavily criticised the Howard government for spending $27 million in aid money on detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island.

The Greens have consistently advocated for the rights of asylum seekers and will continue to do so as long as our policies remain cruel, discriminatory and unjust. Raiding the aid budget to pay for the government’s failed asylum seeking policy is bankrupt policy.

The government continues to use the aid budget like an ATM to feed what it considers to be more pressing domestic policies. During last year’s Senate estimates I revealed the miscategorisation of $190 million defence spending as foreign aid. Defence Deputy Secretary Brendan Sargeant apologised for "this error and any inconvenience it has caused". Inconvenience is a mild word to describe this misappropriation of aid money for defence purposes.

Australia’s aid contribution already lags well-behind other OECD countries, including the debt-laden conservative British government which this year met the target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid. Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark and the Netherlands have also given their commitment. To shine the spotlight on what should be Australia’s priorities, we have launched a bill to legislate a timeline for Australia to meet this 0.7 per cent target by 2020.

The bill excludes dipping into the aid budget for onshore processing of asylum-seekers and military objectives  and establishes a Commissioner on Aid Effectiveness to act as an independent watchdog to ensure aid is spent effectively. Costings from the Parliamentary Budget Office show that meeting this goal would cost $2.6 billion over the next four years – money that could be raised if Labor included gold in the mining tax alone.

We are a country of generous people. It is time our leaders stop insulting this genorisity and showed Australia as a generous donor willing to pull our weight when it comes to poverty alleviation.

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