Abbott's 'good global citizen' needs a priorities rethink

In a speech to the UN late last week, the Prime Minister said Australia can 'step up' to make the world a better place. But are his and the globe's priorities driven by emotion or calculated logic?

The latest outbreak of the Ebola virus has now killed 3133 people according to the World Health Organisation.

With all the concern about terrorism at present, it is important to note this is more people than died during the 9-11 attacks by Al Qaida.

More importantly the World Health Organisation warns that infections are growing exponentially. To illustrate what this means, the rate at which deaths have accumulated is illustrated below for each west African country suffering the outbreak, up to September 5. Things start slowly but then relatively quickly the line shoots up towards a vertical line.

Cumulative Ebola deaths – up to September 5

Graph for Abbott's 'good global citizen' needs a priorities rethink

According to the WHO, the number of infections is expected to double every 3.3 weeks. By November 2, they project there may be as many as 21,000 people infected. Around 70 per cent of those infected under the current Ebola outbreak die. If actions weren’t taken to contain infections, the US Centre for Disease Control extrapolates that you could see between 550,000 to 1.4 million infected. At such point you can imagine it would very hard to prevent this disease spreading well beyond West Africa.

So why is an energy and climate change journalist writing about this?

Because it provides a lesson in government prioritisation of risks.

Now, if action is taken to quarantine those infected with the disease from contact with others, health experts expect the disease would be rapidly brought under control. But the west African nations involved have inadequate resources and poor governance – they need help. The sooner it comes the easier the task will be.

Yet help has been far too slow coming.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech to the United Nations on September 25 where he spoke about Australia, “when leadership is needed, we step up”. In his speech he argued that we are a “good global citizen” that strives to “work for the betterment of mankind, not just at home but wherever we can lend a helping hand”. While we might have a relatively small population, he noted, we also happen to be the world’s 12th largest economy and possess global reach. According to Abbott, while we might not be able to change the world singlehandedly we are “strong enough to be useful”.

As evidence of this leadership he cited that Australia had donated $8 million to support efforts to contain Ebola. In addition, a range of other nations have pledged a range of funding and direct support. Yet the United Nations says what has been pledged is not nearly enough, and it needs a further $1 billion to address the Ebola outbreak.

Meanwhile, Australia is also volunteering to help the globe by providing Superhornet fighter jets and 600 troops to fight ISIL in Iraq. The Lowy Institute estimates the cost involved is around $400 million per annum. The entire military commitment from the United States is estimated by some experts to cost in the realm of $1 billion per month.

According to Abbott such a commitment is required because ISIL represents an extremely serious threat to our safety. Evidence includes an apparently foiled plot of several men in Australia to undertake a random beheading of a member of the public. In addition two policemen were stabbed in Melbourne by a young man suspected of having ISIL sympathies.

Abbott told the Seven Network: “The regrettable reality is that to mount the kind of attacks which ISIL in Syria and in Iraq has in mind for Australia, all you need is a determined individual who will kill without compunction, a knife, an iPhone, and a victim.”

To emphasise the reality of the threat for Australia, Abbott notes at least 60 Australians are currently fighting with ISIL and other terrorist groups, at least 100 Australians supporting them, and over 60 suspected of wanting to join ISIL.

Now, I’m sure the security agencies wouldn’t make things up when they say they have strong evidence to suggest a terrorist act is likely.

But if we’re talking about killing people via beheadings and the number of people we have to worry about is in the realm of 220, I wonder whether it might be worth dedicating more attention and resources to threats like Ebola and less to ISIL. This goes more broadly for the globe, not just the Abbott Government.

Yet the thing is that a beheading acts to chill someone to the bone. It is such a deliberately ruthless and barbaric way to kill someone that it evokes incredibly strong emotions of fear, repulsion and outrage. You can imagine how horrible it would be for you personally or someone you know to die that way.

On the other hand Ebola is a natural phenomenon. It doesn’t seem to invoke the same strength of outrage and fear among those distant from the outbreak.

Now, if it’s difficult to get people focused on the threat of Ebola, it is even harder with global warming.

Yet the numbers of people seriously threatened is vast. The World Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, noted that even under moderate warming “we could witness the rolling back of decades of development gains and force tens of millions more to live in poverty”. While our current emissions path, of 4 degrees of warming, he labelled a “calamity”.

Abbott in his speech also emphasised the importance of alleviating poverty. So why would it be such a bad thing for Australia to demonstrate leadership on lowering our emissions? If we prioritised our contribution to international affairs on the brute numbers, this problem trumps most others. 

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