Tony Abbott has today announced what he would propose to cut in order to fund disaster relief and reconstruction in Queensland without using a levy. I’ll let others comment on the merits or otherwise of his suggested domestic cuts – a lot of money taken out of schools, a lot of spending “deferred” on water buybacks in the Murray-Darling basin, money withheld from the automotive industry, and so on…
The whole list of what the Coalition would like to axe (and what it costs) is here (pdf).
I’ll only comment on the proposed cuts to Australia’s overseas aid. Tony Abbott admits that cutting Australian aid to Africa was “vigorously discussed” – which I take to mean that he pushed hard to gut the program – but was not added to their list of savings. There’s a bit more detail about how, exactly, the Bishop camp prevailed on this matter here.
So that’s the good news on aid. The bad news is that if he were Prime Minister (and, of course, he’s not but his plans give some indication of what the Coalition’s priorities would be if they did form Government) Abbott would defer – “subject to review” – a 4-year program to build schools and provide training and support for teaching and school management in Indonesia. The annual cost of the program is roughly $110 million. You can find out more about the program at Ausaid’s website.
So, the answer to yesterday’s question about what he would cut is, “The building of schools to provide basic education for poor Indonesian children, and the training of teachers, principals and school management groups to improve the quality of education for those children.”
He offers the expected “charity begins at home” nonsense to justify this. Now, I don’t think that an Opposition leader, an alternative Prime Minister, should be equating disaster relief and reconstruction with “charity”. Surely It’s a fundamental obligation of government. This is not to say that budget cuts might not be necessary to fund the disaster response – but it is not a charitable act by Government to help out its own citizens when disasters strike.
He’s on stronger grounds suggesting that overseas aid as currently construed is more a charitable gesture. There is no way a government can be required to give aid. But here, too, I think we have fundamental human obligations of solidarity and support to help fulfill the legitimate rights, needs and aspirations of all people wherever they happen to live.
Recognising this, Australian Governments of every persuasion have repeatedly committed to giving 0.7% of our national income in aid to support poverty reduction and development in poor countries. (Though the bipartisan commitment is to reach 0.5% of GNI by 2015). It is poor form for the Shadow Cabinet to be even considering delaying the achievement of this bipartisan goal.
And it is just not necessary to cut this program. Australia has a $1 trillion a year economy. Annual government expenditure is around $350 billion. The total reconstruction costs for Queensland from the flooding and cyclone will be upwards of $5 billion. Cutting this program will provide an annual saving (“saving” for the Australian budget, but “loss” for Indonesian children) of only $110 million.
The flood figure of roughly $5 billion of direct costs for the Australian Government comes from early estimates, and is no doubt now on the low side because of the further impact of Cyclone Yasi. However, it gives you an idea of the size of this cost relative to Government expenditure.
So whether the disaster relief and reconstruction is funded by a levy, by deferring the return to budget surpluses (shock! horror!) for a year or two more, or by other budget savings… Australia can afford to fund the cost of disaster response without cutting or deferring any part of its overseas aid program.
Tony Abbott said that this “deferral” of spending on education support for Indonesia is “subject to review”, so now would be a good time to get in touch with your Parliamentary representative and tell them to leave the aid budget alone.
And don’t let the Government off the hook either. Though the PM rejected calls to cut the aid budget in the wake of the flooding, with Cyclone Yasi, further flooding and now fires in WA, the Labor Party, too, will be looking for budget savings to fund the disaster response.