Menu lock

Federal

Mar 30, 2016

5 comments

Our favourite new military acquisition — the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) — known affectionately as “the little turd“, and now the “jackass of all trades and masterful of none“, is the subject of a Senate inquiry in Canberra, following Canada’s withdrawal from the JSF program.

Australia bought into the program with nine other countries 14 years ago. It has not gone to plan (and that’s putting it nicely), but we’re still committed to spending $17 billion on the planes.

Labelled a “conspiracy of optimism” by senior defence analyst Andrew Davies during the inquiry, the ambitious project is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget — not to mention the overwhelming technical difficulties whereby the jet can’t actually fly, shoot or dogfight as well as it should. Oh, and then there’s the one-in-four chance the specially designed helmet will snap your neck if you weigh under 75 kilos.

Peter Goon is the head of Air Power Australia, an independent military and policy think tank, and was dismissive of the plan to acquire 72 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighters from the US, calling it a “Ponzi scheme”.

“When the product fails, recruit as many clients as you can, promote the product as loudly as you can, keep the cash flowing for as long as the market remains blind to its failure,” he told the inquiry.

So if PM Malcolm Turnbull decided not to hand over the $17 billion for the dud jets, which we may or may not get (and even if we do, they may or may not work) then what else is there that we could better spend this money on?

Here are just a few suggestions:

Indigenous Australians

In 2014, former prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a cut of $534 million from indigenous programs administered by the Prime Minister & Cabinet and Health portfolios.

So instead of fighter jets, we could give back the $3.5 million cut from the Torres Strait Regional Authority, or actually give the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples the $15 million that was earmarked for them, or the $9.5 million announced for the Indigenous Languages Support Program in the 2013 budget.

Public broadcasting

In November 2014, Malcolm Turnbull, then communications minister, announced the ABC’s budget would be cut by $254 million over the next five years, as well as cuts to SBS’ operating budget, which would be reduced by $25.2 million over the same period.

Foreign aid

Australia was the “World’s Most Generous Country” in 2012, according to the World Giving Index, but has since fallen back to 13th in the ranking, and now to 20th, following the budget announcement in 2014, which slashed AusAID to the lowest level it has been in Australian history. Australian foreign aid spending was cut by $7.6 billion over five years, and was further slashed in 2015.

But seeing as Julie Bishop wants to include the military deployments as a part of Australia’s overseas aid spending, perhaps the heavy price tag on the new fighter jets is actually a win for generosity, or maybe the government was just heeding the F-35’s in-flight safety briefing for when the oxygen mask drops: “Help yourself first before helping those around you.”

Federal

Jul 25, 2014

5 comments

Federal

Apr 24, 2014

5 comments

Now that former Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine has been farewelled with a state funeral in Hobart, honoured by past and current politicians, it is an appropriate time to detail his impact on the lives of women in developing countries.

As an ardent anti-choice campaigner, Harradine did everything he could in his 30 years in the Senate to undermine women’s right to safe abortion. In particular, he used his role as a balance-of-power senator to negotiate deals to undermine access to abortion with both the Keating and Howard governments. Tony Abbott’s ministerial ban on medical abortion pill RU486 had its genesis in a deal between the Howard government and Harradine for his support on the sale of Telstra. But far more damaging was another aspect of the Telstra deal: his successful attempt to stop Australian aid being directed toward family planning of any kind.

The “Family Planning Guidelines” agreed between Harradine and the Howard government in 1996, modelled on similar American guidelines that were overturned by the Obama administration, banned AusAID from funding organisations working in developing countries that provided any training, education or information about abortion. The International Women’s Development Agency estimates AusAID’s funding for family planning fell by 84% during the period in which the Family Planning Guidelines operated.

No access to abortion and unsafe abortions are a major preventable cause of death and injury to women worldwide, particularly in developing countries. In 2006, a World Health Organization paper estimated that 68,000 women died from unsafe abortions worldwide every year; millions more are left permanently injured or ill, and complications from unsafe abortions consume a substantial proportion of obstetrics and gynaecological funding in some developing countries. According to the WHO, legalising abortion is not sufficient to stop the damage caused by unsafe abortions. Safe abortion must be accessible, and women must know about it. But legalising abortion does not increase “demand”: rather, it helps shifts clandestine, unsafe abortions to safer ones. The WHO paper concluded:

“Although the ethical debate over abortion will continue, the public-health record is clear and incontrovertible: access to safe, legal abortion on request improves health.”

Labor overturned the guidelines in 2009: despite supporting them, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd handed the issue to a caucus subcommittee, which recommended they be removed, though the Coalition opposed it. The Parliamentary Group on Population and Development, under Liberal MP Mal Washer and Labor’s Claire Moore, had worked hard for the removal. Washer called the guidelines “ridiculous and repugnant”:

“… we’re saying in these guidelines that if you go and have an illegal abortion where there is a 13 per cent chance of death on average and you happen to survive, we’re happy to give you counselling. Well, that’s good for those who didn’t die but for the 13 per cent, I think counselling dead people is pretty difficult.”

Under the guidelines, Australia helped maintain the conditions in which hundreds of thousands of women in aid recipient countries died from an entirely preventable problem. We don’t know most their names; their lives weren’t celebrated with a state funeral or honoured with tributes from politicians. But we know Harradine, with the complicity of the Howard government, played a role in their deaths because of those guidelines. And we can’t even be sure another government won’t do a deal with another anti-choice zealot, Senator John Madigan, to restore them.

For people in public life, it’s an important achievement to be able to say that they left the world a better place than they found it. With Brian Harradine’s passing, we should remember that his time in public life in Australia helped maintain death, misery and suffering for some of the must vulnerable people in the world.

Tips and rumours

Jan 22, 2014

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Qantas cuts come to finance. The Qantas cost-cutting continues — this time within its finance team. An insider reports that each and every finance employee across the business received a “Notice Inviting Expression of Interest” for voluntary redundancies. The employee writes:

“In the past if you were interested in expressing your interest, you would approach HR and they would come back to you sometime after with your payout figure. But yesterday, each finance employee’s letter contained their lump sum figure.”

A Qantas spokesman told us:

“This week, we have asked employees in our corporate finance department if they would like to put their hand up for a voluntary redundancy package. This is part of the accelerated $2 billion cost reduction program over three years that we announced back in December which included a reduction of at least 1000 of the 35,000 employees across the Qantas Group.”

Bureaucrats thrown out of first class. Is it true that an email has gone around all federal government departmental secretaries from a senior figure in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, telling them they can no longer fly first class? “Boo hoo you might say, but this includes removal of entitlements set by the independent Remuneration Tribunal (set up to avoid politicisation), by prime ministerial fiat,” our mole commented. They also wanted to know whether Tony Abbott and his ministers — and government lackies like business adviser Maurice Newman and audit commissioner Tony Shepherd — are flying first class on the taxpayer dime. We’d love to know more, so if you’ve seen a senior government figure on a plane recently, do tell us where they were sitting (here’s an anonymous form for shy types).

You can check out the secretaries’ flying entitlements here — not a bad job if you can get it.

Losers the winners in cricket. Remember the rather awkward cricket game between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the agency it recently subsumed, AusAID? Well, we found out who won: it was AusAID by five wickets. A morale-boosting victory, we hope. Meanwhile, from a non-cricket-playing AusAID employee: “Have you heard that the popular term now for one of the teams is WasAID?” How clever.

Tim Wilson on human rights. You’ve already read in Crikey today about how euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke was targeted by authorities at Melbourne airport, having his laptop etc confiscated and being made to hand over his passwords. Our very own Bernard Keane decided to ask new human rights commissioner Tim Wilson what he thought of it, and this was his response:

Well! Perhaps Institute of Public Affairs darling Wilson won’t be so bad in the new role after all?

When ministers keep mum. We now know that federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has issued a notice which exempts WA’s proposed shark cull from relevant federal legislation. We didn’t know it when Hunt actually granted the the notice on January 10, because he forgot to mention it publicly. The media first reported the decision yesterday, 11 days after it happened.

Hunt has issued five media releases since January 10 but none are about the shark cull. Nor did he tweet about the decision. “Hunt’s decision to approve it but not announce it, given the huge public interest, is awfully weak,” said our tipster who pointed us to the date discrepancy. Certainly it would be nice if ministers told us about all important decisions and developments, not just the ones that will be popular — but don’t hold your breath.

Hinch in the slammer. Broadcaster Derryn Hinch is in the big house for refusing to pay a fine relating to breaching a suppression order in the Jill Meagher murder case. He was recently taken to jail for 50 days. According to his Twitter account this morning, the prison mattress is not quite to standard (that’s his assistant Annette Philpott tweeting for him) …

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Tips and rumours

Jan 21, 2014

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

DFAT and AusAID: a difficult marriage. The tricky process of integrating AusAID and the Department of Foreign Affairs continues, with mixed results. Public service spies tell Crikey that while some sections have integrated well, others are less happy. The integration taskforce runs regular briefings so that staff at DFAT Barton can learn about aid and development issues, and staff at DFAT Civic (the “AusAID” moniker has been banned) can learn about foreign policy and trade issues.

At a recent development 101 session, the DFAT Barton staff seemed bemused by the administrative burden imposed on DFAT Civic staff. One questioner reportedly asked: “How much of your budget is actually spent on aid?” The answer: “We can’t specify, but as an exercise, we looked at the World Bank meeting in New York. This was a very important meeting, with as many as 20 bilats and a great chance to make an impact on World Bank decisions … blah blah blah … 285 staff days to prepare the briefings.” As the audience gasped in disbelief, he added: “And 40% was in clearance time.” Our aid dollars at work.

Meanwhile, we’re told AusAID staff get a $400 “healthy living” allowance per year for bikes, gym membership, etc. “Makes up for DFAT staff getting a better overtime allowance — because we actually have to work overtime,” a mole reports.

A Hottest 100 party in the nude. Elsewhere in Canberra … The music is pumping, the drinks are flowing (in moderation), the food is on and the clothes are off. The ACT nudist club is making it known that Triple J’s Hottest 100 is set to be the centrepiece attraction of late-January nudist attractions in the capital territory. To come one simply needs to bring a towel to sit on and $5 for entry; in this case no shoes, no shirt does not mean no service. Entirely to the contrary.

People should be ready to bare it all in one of the more interesting places for a Hottest 100 party this side of Das Basement in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Clothes are not optional, but if the weather turns there’s always a heater and sauna or Hottest 100 Twister set. It’s billed as an all-ages, family-friendly event, with music, food and a pool. Pets must be kept on a leash, and no weapons or glass is allowed on site.

A cold night for Bishop in DC. Speaking of parties, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is expected to face a chilly reception at an Australian embassy knees-up in Washington …

The ABC’s DC correspondent reports there’s a big snow storm expected, and while there was no specific mention of snow boots, the embassy “wants guests to know the reception goes on — no matter the weather”. We hope Bishop packed the thermals.

Queensland whistleblowers: watch your back. “Never willingly give information to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission,” says one anonymous tipster. “Quick way to lose your life.” We’re not sure what that’s about, but we’re pretty concerned …

Hard to cancel a subscription. We’re not suggesting newspaper publishers are rorting circulation — certainly not. But some of them keep sending papers to people who don’t want them. An Adelaide correspondent writes:

“I was a subscriber to The Sunday Mail in Adelaide for all of about three months before I cancelled, yet the papers kept arriving. I rang and confirmed cancellation twice more, all while the papers kept arriving. Eventually I gave up, so I kept collecting the free paper each week off my lawn as I wasn’t being charged.”

And from Sydney:

“I moved four months ago and asked The Sydney Morning Herald to change the delivery address. My Herald is still being delivered to both addresses despite calls to the subscription department and promises to fix it. No wonder they’re going broke.”

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips tboss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Tips and rumours

Oct 25, 2013

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

NSW Health workers spruik funeral parlours. In an spooky echo of the 1995 Victoria Police shutter scandal (minus the cash payments, presumably), NSW Health has issued a strongly worded memo warning staff against recommending funeral directors to the families of deceased patients in government facilities. On some occasions, “members of the public” were ushered in to NSW Health facilities to sell death services. Not a good look, dudes, and against the Code of Conduct.

Public servants gunned down. Moving AusAID into DFAT was one of the first decisions of the Abbott government, and some public servants are smarting, as this frontline report from a peeved aid mandarins reveals:

“So AusAID had its first address from their new boss (DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese). In case having to bus over to his territory en masse wasn’t bad enough, staff had to endure the humiliation of standing on the ground floor of the atrium, while being looked down upon, literally and figuratively, by the DFAT staff on levels 2 and 3. Indeed, at one point, one ‘diplomat’ was seen to be motioning machine-gunning the AusAID staff below. Notwithstanding the fact that nobody at AusAID wants to be subsumed by DFAT, it’s a bit rich to treat your new colleagues this way when they outnumber you in staff (by 50%) and budget (by 500%). Thus far, an appalling case of integration that resembles, on all levels, a KKR-style hostile takeover.”

Tory shock jock on the way out? Drive host Gary Hardgrave, a former Liberal MHR, will leave Fairfax Radio’s 4BC station in early December after three years imitating the likes of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley in the deep north. There’s talk management told Hardgrave his contract would not be renewed for 2014. His Drive session did poorly in Survey 6 ratings — he ranks well down overall and third in the AM talk group. He had 60,000 listeners in the latest survey, down 11,000.

ATO MIA on FBT. The Australian Tax Office hasn’t exactly been leaping into action policing fringe benefits tax rorts, if this tax insider is to be believed:

“I attended a Corporate Taxpayers Association conference last week and after talking with tax managers from most of the largest companies in Australia, discovered that none of them have seen or even heard of a ATO Fringe Benefits Tax (FBT) audit. These managers have an average of 25 years-plus tax experience. The inside word from friends at the Australian Taxation Office is that the budget has been so tight there for the last decade, that they have next to no staff devoted to policing the FBT legislation. I’m told we’re talking less than five ATO full-time staff in Australia with none based in a capital city. So it appears if you’re a large corporate out there, you can basically get away with anything in relation to employee fringe benefits and cut your corporate tax bill.”

Which perhaps explains why some corporates have indeed been getting away with anything …

Thodey thoughtlessness. Clanger of a typo in one of The Courier-Mail‘s editorials today. Who is Ian Thodey? Is it just David Thodey with a fake moustache in an attempt to draw two salaries? Where is ASIC on this? To compound the pain with News chief Rupert Murdoch in the country, that Thodey typo also appeared in the Daily Telegraph (p. 9), Cairns Post (p. 4), Gold Coast Bulletin (p. 23) and the Hobart Mercury (p. 16).


Warm weather makes for hungry possums. On Wednesday, we told you the bogong moths were back in Canberra. Well, the number one bogong moth-eater (no, not experimental Canberra cafe-goers), the endangered mountain pygmy possum, normally awakens from hibernation in time with the moth migration to feast on the arrivals. But this year’s unusually warm conditions woke the possums early, leaving them hungry as they waited for the moths to arrive. CSIRO fellow Ted Edwards told Crikey that climate change could be a factor.

This year’s moth season began 10 days earlier than the average date, but “this is a fair enough time for it”, according to Edwards. The moths seem to be around in bigger numbers than before. “My impression is there’s quite a few this year, a good deal more than last year,” said Edwards. Scientists have reported the de-synchronisation of ecosystems to be one of the many effects of climate change.

Mona Foma lineup. Crikey is stoked that queercore shriek specialists The Julie Ruin are playing David Walsh’s Hobart Mona Foma festival in January. Here’s a trademark Kathleen Hanna smackdown to celebrate, courtesy of legendary punk label Dischord Records.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Asia-Pacific

Oct 24, 2013

5 comments

They are the refugees Australia has forgotten. Displaced by years of bloody conflict, more than 100,000 Burmese are still living in Thai-Burmese border camps, as they have for decades, relying on help from outside. But that help is now drying up, with an AusAID decision to withdraw funding from a medical clinic that serves refugees.

Around 75% of the Burmese population worked in agriculture. When they fled the conflict, their land was confiscated, which meant losing their household registration inside Burma, a status that determines citizenship and access to basic services such as health and education. Even those who were displaced but remained within Burma lost their registration, and many now rely on services provided by NGOs across the border in Thailand.

One of the core respondents to this crisis has been the Mao Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand. Founded by Dr Cynthia Maung in 1989, the clinic provides free healthcare to those in the refugee camps and the many thousands more internally displaced people who make the perilous journey across the porous border into Thailand each year. The clinic directly assists more than 100,000 people annually.

For the past three years, around a quarter of the clinic’s budget came from AusAID. But in July this year AusAID informed the clinic that its $500,000 annual funding would not continue past the current agreement, which ends in December. AusAID was the clinic’s second-largest donor.

Maung says AusAID’s decision was a surprise.

“These are essential services for the vulnerable population. There are still people coming across the border into Thailand to access our services.

“The current health system is not accessible to the Burmese population who are mostly living in the rural areas. Infant and maternal mortality is one of the worst in the region. Even people who are working as migrant labourers [in Thailand] — less than 10% of that population have legal documents, which means they can’t access the Thai health system.”

Kate Lee, executive officer of Mae Tao’s Australian Partner, Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA), says AusAID’s decision not to renew the funding will have a major impact on the clinic. Of the 100,000 people the clinic treats each year, around 45,000 directly benefit from AusAID’s funding.

“The funding directly assisted the treatment of beneficiaries with essential healthcare, including maternal health, eye care, prosthetics for land mine victims, child health, vaccinations, HIV services and counselling and the training of medics,” Lee said.

An AusAID spokesman said the organisation had been unsuccessful in securing funding “for a new program of support” for refugees living on the Thailand-Burma border.

“APHEDA’s proposal, which was to fund the Mae Tao Clinic, was unsuccessful because it did not meet the selection criteria. AusAID will continue to fund the placement of Australian volunteers at the Mae Tao clinic,” the spokesman said.

Crikey understands that the selection criteria was geared towards organisations looking to assist in moving refugees back into Burma, even though this has been described by many organisations, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, as “premature”.

A UNHCR representative recently told The Irrawaddy: “There is no permanent ceasefire in many potential areas of return, and there are still problems like landmines, land disputes, and a general lack of services and infrastructure. We feel that at the moment, not all the conditions are in place for organised returns to take place in a safe and sustainable way.”

AusAID has redirected funding within Burma’s borders; however, the scale of the changes needed in Burma will take time to be implemented. In the meantime, those without household registration both inside and outside the border remain reliant on the Mae Tao Clinic.

With Muang due in Sydney to accept the 2013 Sydney Peace Prize in November, many are hoping AusAID will reverse its decision to take funding away from one of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

*The City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture will take place at the Sydney Town Hall 7pm Wednesday, November 6, featuring Lior, Burmese Karen dancers and Dr Cynthia Maung in conversation with Mary Kostakidis.

Asia-Pacific

Sep 24, 2013

5 comments

The face of the Australian aid program is sure to change dramatically over the coming years.

The Coalition has long been clear on its intention to reform the $5 billion international aid program, taking AusAID further down the path of operating primarily in the national interest. Days before the election the Coalition announced it would slash the aid budget by $4.5 billion dollars. On the day the new government was sworn in, it announced that AusAID would be subsumed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) — yielding a chorus of dismay from aid agencies.

What will happen to the budget and the department?

Six hundred million dollars is set to be removed from this year’s aid budget. After that, the budget will only increase by the Consumer Price Index across the next four years of forward estimates, which means forgoing the international commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid. (There had previously been a bipartisan consensus on increasing the aid program to at least 0.5%; currently, aid sits at 0.37% of GNI.)

The Canadian department of aid, CIDA, recently subsumed its aid program into foreign affairs. The Abbott government appears to be following suit, as CIDA has also emphasised private sector development and economic growth, and heavily involves private enterprise in delivering aid.

Despite the sizable cut to Australia’s aid budget, greater ramifications will come from the planned amalgamation with DFAT, “to ensure the alignment of our aid, foreign policy and trade objectives,” which is set to further blur commercial and development interests. This can already be seen in programs which have clearly served Australia’s commercial and strategic interests, such as the Mining for Development Initiative, which promotes mining as a vehicle for “sustainable” development overseas. The diversion of $375 million of aid to cover the cost of funding the asylum seeker policy, as well as money to Sri Lanka and PNG to assist domestic policy objectives, show aid has always operated this way.

What will these changes mean?

There will be a marked ideological shift for the aid program. “DFAT will have a clear focus on promoting the economic interest of the Australian people and Australian businesses,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop. It’s a far cry from poverty eradication for the world’s poor.

AusAID’s objectives have traditionally been to further Australia’s national interest, poverty reduction and economic development. Though these have regularly been in tension, the separation between AusAID and DFAT was generally agreed as necessary for aid to maintain a degree of independence and to de-politicise aid projects.

“NGOs in Australia are set to receive a larger chunk of the pie, though … it will be a scramble for NGOs to quickly fit their programs into new frameworks.”

Critics of the merger are concerned blatant alignment of foreign policy objectives with aid would de-prioritise the goal of poverty alleviation, and reduce the integrity of the work. With a probable refocusing of the objectives of aid to primarily assist foreign policy,  programs and projects likely to be cut will be those which have had a strong development mandate, with programs directly benefiting Australian interests remaining (and potentially increasing).

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it made little sense for diplomacy to be steering foreign policy in one direction with aid working in another, indicating an understanding that Australia’s foreign policy can be damaging to the world’s poor and contrary to AusAID’s development mandate.

NGOs in Australia are set to receive a larger chunk of the pie, though with a change in performance indicators and ideology for AusAID, it will be a scramble for NGOs to quickly fit their programs into new frameworks.

Bishop has signalled aid to multilateral organisations like the UN, Asian Development Bank (ADB) will be significantly reduced. Multilateral organisations and institutions have long been criticised for being ineffective, costly and lacking in accountability, as evidenced by the AusAID and ADB Cambodian Railways Project. There seems to be a broader policy of preferring a bilateral approach.

Bishop says aid for trade will be a trademark of the aid program. Aggressively pursuing free trade agreements (FTA) appears to be crucial. The Coalition said the Pacific FTA agreement, PACER-Plus wasn’t moving forward quickly enough so a bilateral approach would be taken, with other Pacific nationals able to opt in later. “Foreign policy will be trade policy, and trade policy will be foreign policy,” Bishop said.

Infrastructure projects will gain a larger chunk of aid spending with Bishop determined to ensure that Australia gains greater recognition for assistance — larger billboards, Australian flags. AusAID staff at embassies will be fully integrated into the diplomatic network, as AusAID staff in Canberra will be subsumed into the existing DFAT staff.

This will impact program effectiveness on the ground. This has been demonstrated through militarising aid, such as in Afghanistan, with aid work being rendered ineffective and even dangerous for those involved when the aid is seen as linked with foreign political and military objectives.

What will remain the same?

The Coalition has committed to honouring previous deals made with the PNG government in return for continuing with a regional processing centre for asylum seekers and resettling refugees. Maintaining this hefty payout will require cuts in other areas of the aid budget. Using the aid budget to cover costs of the refugee policy at home isn’t new, though may point to an ongoing commitment to divert aid back to Australia for in-country costs of the policy.

Another initiative that will be maintained or expanded is the seasonal worker program. This allows Australian horticulture businesses to employ people from the Pacific during harvest — construed by the government as a commitment to the economic development of the Pacific through remittances. While remittances are important sources of income for communities, the program is supporting Australian business and industry interests by filling a labour gap, and the sustainability of the work is not guaranteed.

*AID/WATCH is an independent, membership-based monitor of Australia’s aid, trade and investment

Federal

May 16, 2013

5 comments

The federal budget shows the foreign aid program is increasingly being used as a slush fund to pay for the government’s political priorities and pet schemes — from sending asylum seekers back home to managing concerns about animal cruelty in the live export trade.

The budget papers show that $415 million will be cut from existing AusAID programs overseas, despite Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s statements that spending on aid will continue to increase. It is unclear which overseas development programs will be hit, but from refugees to mining, what is clear is that aid designed to meet Australia’s “national interests” has remained unscathed.

The cuts to AusAID are happening because the government again deferred its promise to lift aid spending to 0.5% of gross national income. This latest deferral saves the government $1.5 billion over three years. This comes on top of the $447 million in cuts for 2012/13 made in last year’s budget.

As a result of Defence’s admission it had misreported $190 million of its military work in Afghanistan as “aid” over the last few years, this year’s budget forecasts aid spending by Defence to fall to only $0.4 million next year. This is welcome news, but it masks a significant increase in aid delivered by government departments outside of AusAID that have no development mandate, from $506 million in 2011/12 to $834.6 million this year.

This is largely the result of the already announced “diversion” of $375 million in aid spending to Australia’s onshore refugee program. Counting the costs of processing asylum seekers within Australia as aid has been heavily criticised by aid groups and refugee advocates. The Australia Institute pointed out that this change alone made Australia the third largest recipient of its own aid.

While the government has spun this as a “cap” to ensure funding for other aid programs, what is significant is that in the context of aid cuts, spending for refugees has been entrenched over the forward estimates (i.e. the next four years). Even more aid has been allocated to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to support its punitive approach to refugees in this budget. It will receive an additional $65 million to “combat people smuggling”.

“… the budget papers flag that removing people from Australia against their will can now also be counted as aid.”

Recently, the federal government has been forcibly returning more asylum seekers home, particularly to Sri Lanka, ostensibly to send the “deterrence” message advocated by the government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. As well as funding the costs of community detention, the budget papers flag that removing people from Australia against their will can now also be counted as aid.

Aid is also being misused to address another problematic policy area — live animal exports. As part of the $10.2 million allocated to the Agriculture Department, aid will fund the Improved Animal Welfare program, which is described as helping ensure better livestock transport, feedlot handling and slaughter of animals. The program will operate within Australia’s key trading partners for live animal exports (including Egypt and Indonesia) that have featured in media stories on animal cruelty.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, overseas development assistance must be primarily for the “economic development and welfare of developing countries”. It is hard to interpret this spending as anything other than an attempt to salvage Australia’s live animal export industry and take some political heat off the government.

Other government departments are not the only way aid is being used to promote Australian interests. AusAID itself will fund the Mining for Development initiative, worth $127 million over four years. The initiative is promoted in the budget as one of the key ways that aid “engages with Australian business”, due to the growing amounts of foreign direct investment pouring into mining around the world, particularly Africa.

The history of mining in developing countries shows that economic growth from the mining sector rarely translates to improvements in income or basic services for the poor. AusAID claims it the program will make aid more “sustainable”, and this year will target Afghanistan, Burma and Mongolia. The program will likely only manage to spread the resource curse, which leaves a legacy of social inequality, political corruption and ecological damage.

These examples of aid being misused dwarf the cuts to AusAID programs. In many ways, this year’s budget marks a return to the Howard years, when aid was used as a slush fund for the government’s political and commercial priorities.

*AID/WATCH is an independent membership-based watchdog, which acts as a monitor of Australia’s aid and trade

Asia-Pacific

Mar 27, 2013

5 comments

AusAID has recently suspended its scholarships program in Afghanistan, pending investigation of fraud allegations in the program. GRM International, one of the largest private managing contractors in the world, was stripped of its management of the program, and the new contractor, US-based International Relief and Development, is facing fraud allegations in a separate $498 million program with USAID.

Fraud in the aid program can only be expected to increase as AusAID puts more and more money through third parties.

The AusAID scholarship program has always been an awkward fit for the aid program. It emerged out of the Colombo Plan in the 1950s, an initiative of the Cold War to promote co-operation between the West and developing countries in Asia, as well as a way of combating communism. It is now one of AusAID’s largest programs, with more than $331 million budgeted for 4300 students in 2011-13. This represents more than double the number in 2008-09.

The program has struggled to prove its effectiveness, with little evidence of its impact beyond anecdotal evidence of individual success stories and self-serving indicators (such as completion of a degree as an indicator of success). There is no evidence the program has been particularly successful in targeting those who can’t afford or have limited access to overseas educational opportunities, such as people with disabilities, rural populations or those living in poverty. For the amount of money spent on scholarships, its development outcomes are disappointingly small. A review of the Africa program in 2011 found:

“Providing opportunities to study in Australia is not the most immediate way to reduce poverty. Scholarships generally do not target the poor and they directly affect a very small number of individuals.”

Although there has been some laudable support of co-operation, such as the Malaysia-Australia Educational Facility for Afghanistan, the vast majority of this money ends up in elite Australian universities, such as Sydney University, Melbourne University and the Australian National University. In recipient countries, mostly foreign-based private contractors are appointed to manage the program. AusAID refuses to release the details of profit margins within contracts under commercial-in-confidence clauses, but a review of the Cambodian program released in 2012 estimated $1.4 million in managing contractor fees (including English language pre-departure programs) to administer 55 student scholarships in 2011.

As the aid program grows but its staffing budget doesn’t, AusAID has chosen to rely on managing contractors, primarily for-profit consulting companies. The Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness strongly criticised this practice, as well as the reliance on consultants, in 2011. AusAID responded by taking concrete steps to take more ownership of the program as well as putting ceilings on consultant remuneration. Under the current Foreign Minister Bob Carr, this trend has been reversing.

The reliance on private contractors underlies a key contradiction in the aid program. While AusAID staff have an obligation to reduce poverty at low cost to the Australian taxpayer, the obligation of private contractors is primarily to their shareholders or owners. In many cases, payments to private contractors are only made when certain “milestones” have been achieved. It is therefore in the contractors’ interests to ensure programs are implemented as designed to meet the trigger points, regardless of concerns around impact, results or sometimes over corrupt practices to facilitate outputs.

Fraud is just one symptom of an underlying accountability problem in the aid program. If the Australian government is serious about having a large and responsible aid program, it needs to retain real oversight and not be an agency simply about signing cheques. If not, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more and more instances of fraud from contractors that put profit above principle.