Playing the pea-and-thimble with foreign aid

Cutting aid budgets to pay detention costs is a new low.

Cutting aid budgets to pay detention costs is a new low.

WHAT kind of cock-eyed outcome is this, when at least $375 million earmarked for aid overseas is to be routed to pay for the detention of asylum seekers on our own shores? What kind of mean-spirited approach is that?

Here we are, one of the most prosperous nations in the world, with an economy whose sustained growth is the envy of industrialised nations, endowed with an abundance of food and mineral wealth, with safe policing in our streets, a robust democracy and good governance systems to protect it. And yet for the sake of a political promise - to wit, a fiscal surplus - we will cut overseas aid transfers by hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for the detention of refugees here.

Shame on every person in the Gillard government who devised and approved this sneaky money shuffle. Shame on Brendan O'Connor, the Minister for Social Housing and Homelessness, who says he sees no difference in aiding refugees camps overseas and paying for their detention here.

Shame on Bob Carr for arguing the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development considers it an acceptable diversion. "The fact is the OECD guidelines provide that if you're spending money on refugees on your own soil, it can be counted as if you were spending money on refugees in refugee camps around the world," he says.

That does not make it right. This government does not need to siphon foreign aid funds to meet the Immigration Department's cost of handling asylum seekers onshore or in Nauru and Manus Island. Leaving aside for the moment the merit of indefinitely detaining people who seek refuge, which The Age considers unprincipled, harmful, costly and ineffectual, we find this latest move is unworthy. It diminishes us as a nation. It is a fiscal contrivance.

Australia's overseas development aid budget stands at $5.2 billion, or 0.35 per cent of our $1.43 trillion gross national income (GNI). That certainly is above the OECD average of 0.31 per cent and the G7 countries' average of 0.27 per cent. But in May the government forecast foreign aid would rise to more than $8 billion by 2016-17, pushing out by one year its promise to set aside 0.5 per cent of GNI. Shuffling more than $375 million - and maybe as much as $500 million - into picking up the Immigration Department's tab is a departure from the aid commitment.

All this occurs as Prime Minister Julia Gillard presides as a co-chairman of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals advocacy group. It aims to end extreme poverty and hunger - an impossible task in any millennium; ensure by 2015 all children can get primary education - as the UN says, hope has dimmed on this one; cut infant mortality rates and deaths in childbirth; curb the spread of HIV-AIDS; and improve natural environments.

Aid to overseas causes is not always about refugees. In most countries, it focuses on sustaining people where there are, because that is where they want to stay. It is about helping people survive in dire circumstances, building new systems around them, reinforcing those systems and pushing harder to assure them of a future. It is about treating complex health needs, such as dysentery, malaria, respiratory diseases and HIV-AIDS, so all generations have a better chance of looking after themselves. It is about providing women with proper care before, during and after childbirth. That money could have been used to shelter displaced families, or to provide clean water, sanitation and healthcare, food supplies, emergency relief in disasters, schooling for children, safety for abused women. The list goes on. If you want to help the disadvantaged in the world - so they can build sustainable communities - that is where it starts, in their home country.

Mr O'Connor says the government is "investing in this way because we believe we have every right for people to get basic entitlements". Yes, that is the government's duty. That does not mean it should rob from one bucket of basic entitlements to feed another.

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