They say that foreign aid doesn’t buy votes. That may be true, but it does buy you brownie points at the United Nations.

The government has decided to delay its commitment to raise the foreign aid budget to 0.5% of gross national income by 2016-17. It will save $3 billion over three years, helping deliver the wafer-thin surplus Labor has promised.

But delaying Australia’s aid commitments — which John Howard signed up to in 2000 — will further compromise the already tenuous bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, foreign affairs commentators claim.

“We rely on the votes of a lot of the African nations for that,” former diplomat Barry Everingham told Crikey, “and they’re the ones we’ll probably be cutting aid to. They haven’t really thought this through.”

The chances of Australia gaining a Security Council seat for the 2013-14 term — one of Kevin Rudd’s pet projects — are looking increasingly dim. But it’s unclear whether Australia really had a chance in the first place.

Critics claim Rudd let aspirations get in the way of good planning, pushing through Australia’s announcement to run for the seat at the last moment. Julia Gillard’s insistence on voting against Palestinian statehood at the UN, even though most other nations supported it, certainly didn’t help.

Bruce Haigh, another former Australian diplomat, thinks we were never in the game to begin with.

“They’ve got Buckley’s chance of getting a seat, it’s an utter waste of money,” said Haigh. “It was a folly of Rudd, and it was a misjudgement by Gillard to continue.”

Still, while Labor has delayed its commitment to raise Australia’s aid contribution, it looks as though the target will still be reached. That’s according to former Labor foreign affairs minister turned diplomat Gareth Evans.

“What is important is that the government has maintained the 0.5% target,” Evans told Crikey today. “It’s not a great result, but it’s the best we could reasonably hope for given the pressures to return a surplus.”

Evans is also sceptical that the changes to aid commitments will make a big difference in the quest for a Security Council seat: “There are a lot of other dynamics in play, but I don’t think this will be crucial as the 0.5% target is still there.”

Peter Fray

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