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May 10, 2017


Last night’s federal budget announced further cuts to Australian foreign aid to help fund an expansion of the country’s counter-terrorism activities. There is no doubt that counter-terrorism is both necessary and expensive, but it is a failure of logic — as well as Australia’s commitment to international welfare — to conflate foreign aid with what amounts to intelligence, military, immigration and policing issues. 

Australia is already outside the top 15 aid donors, as a proportion of GDP. Of the world’s 28 aid donor countries, Australia’s aid budget has been cut more than any other in recent years, without including the loss of aid funds allocated to pay for its offshore asylum seeker detention program.

Aid is, however, a “soft” target for government cuts or re-allocations, playing to the popular misconception that Australia should spend funds at home before allocating them overseas. There are two problems with this proposition.

The first is that foreign aid is intended not only as a humanitarian gesture but is also to help circumvent potential longer-term problems of poor governance, instability and potential for conflict. The second is that governments that spend less abroad also tend to spend less on domestic welfare, so cutting one does not imply benefiting the other.

It is fair to say that much of Australia’s current aid budget, not including the significant allocation to Manus Island and Nauru, could be better targeted to focus on good governance and education. Countries that come out of poverty tend to do so by having good governance practices, higher education inputs and related, carefully articulated, long-term economic plans.

On the down side, an emphasis on good governance, in particular, can quickly descend into a box-ticking exercise, in which success is measured by somewhat artificial indicators. The “compliance” aspects of box-ticking good governance also reflect a type of bureaucratic authoritarianism that appears to be otherwise increasingly pervasive.    

Separately, there is little doubt that terrorism at home and abroad is problem that is both expensive and not going away any time in the foreseeable future. There is, in this, a disproportionate amount of money spent on counter-terrorism in dollar-per-loss-of-life terms; Australia’s road toll remains a much lower funded but far bigger killer.

However, the road toll has become acculturated as a relatively normal risk of everyday life; the threat of terrorism is not. Based on the trajectory of terrorist-type incidents to date, there is a belief in parts of the counter-terrorism community that it is only a matter of time before Australia sees more of the type of terrorism that has recently afflicted Europe. 

[The 2017 budget at a glance]

To that end, some in the counter-terrorism community are toying with currently unpalatable ideas. One question being asked is, at major events, would the Australian public be prepared to see the deployment of soldiers or paramilitary special operations police. Another is whether Australia should be more selective about its present non-discriminatory immigration and refugee intake.

It is doubtful that the Australian public would welcome the presence of soldiers on the streets, not least because they are not trained in policing methods. There are also constitutional issues with the domestic deployment of defence force personnel.

However, many Australians might be more comfortable with a more restrictive immigration policy. Even many of those who disagree with such a policy in principle, would be less roused by a problem that was not immediately visible, as opposed to one that was.

Regardless of whether there are changes to the parameters of Australia’s counter-terrorism profile, it is growing — and will continue to do so. With a cash-strapped government focused on cutting “bad debt”, recurrent expenditure is directly in the firing line and aid is front and centre of recurrent expenditure.

However, as with what should be a greater emphasis of the aid program — good governance, better planning and the education to make them work — Australia, too, could well benefit from focusing on these measures.

The tax cuts introduced under the Howard government as the mining boom rolled in were a short-term political gain that have proven to be unaffordable without a windfall income. That was poor long-term planning.

Shuffling money from one portfolio to another — in this case, from aid to immigration, border security and counter-terrorism by pretending they serve a common purpose — reflects a financial sleight of hand. This constitutes poor governance procedures.

And changes to education funding, especially higher education, shift the financial burden away from the government and towards students, in principle raising the bar to higher education. Perhaps that is just as well, though. A better educated public contributes to a more robust economy and society. But it is also creates a body of people more critically aware of its shortcomings.

*Damien Kingsbury is a professor of International Politics at Deakin University.                  


Dec 9, 2015


Government agencies need to learn to be innovative, agile and disruptive, according to our enthusiastic and optimistic Prime Minister, but what does that look like in the public service? Beanbags and table tennis tables.

This week, Malcolm Turnbull and Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne announced a $1.1 billion innovation agenda package, stating that government would be an “exemplar” in innovation through its investment in technology to deliver services. It’s still in the thought bubble stage as to how this will work in practice, but there are clues in a start-up-style project already underway at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In March, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop launched “innovationXchange”, a $140 million, four-year project that is already being pushed as “Silicon Valley in Canberra“. It is the result of $11.3 billion cuts to foreign aid and the merger of Australia’s aid agencies. It is guided by an “international reference group” made up of philanthropists, Seven CEOs like Ryan Stokes, and the controversial climate sceptic Bjorn Lomborg.

It was an idea Bishop came up with in 2014, and, according to the department, the centre is “responsible for developing new partnerships to ensure our aid program takes advantage of new approaches and technologies to deliver better outcomes for development impact”. The staff “meet with innovators, private sector organisations and entrepreneurs who offer new approaches to aid delivery”.

Bishop herself has described innovationXchange as a “gorgeous little funky, hipster, Googly, Facebooky-type place”. When pushed, the department couldn’t explain what the Foreign Minister meant by this definition, outside of stating it was “a new way of working that encourages creativity and innovation”.

In the (perhaps) appropriately named Walter Turnbull building, innovationXchange has an open-plan office separate from the rest of DFAT, with reportedly nine staff, headed up by first assistant secretary Lisa Rauter. The fit-out is very different to what you would find in DFAT, as explained in documents recently tabled in response to questions on notice from the last round of Senate estimates hearings.

InnovationXchange bought three bean bags instead of a couch for staff to use. The bean bags cost $590 each, which the department claimed was “cheaper, more practical and adaptable than a three-seat couch”. Crikey, this morning looking at various bean bag couch options online, struggled to find one over the price of $300. The department would not respond to questions from Labor Senator Penny Wong on whether the bean bags met OH&S guidelines, except to say they conformed with Australian standards.

There is also a “large conference table” that has been converted to become a table tennis table for the department, just to complete the start-up look.

What ideas does this exciting new innovation hub come up with? Last year there were four programs run by the centre, a global innovation fund, a seed fund, the Bloomberg Data for Health program, and DFAT’s “Ideas Challenge”.

Currently innovationXChange has put a call out for “innovators, humanitarian experts, designers, scientists, and academics” to submit innovative ideas about Australia’s humanitarian response in the Pacific region, with $2 million on the table.

Some of the projects produced by innovationXchange include funding for East Timor to trial a new app to deliver nutrition messages. The centre gained attention last month when Fairfax reported, several months after Crikey‘s sister publication The Mandarin, that one of the ideas from the Ideas Challenge for a “cloud-based” passport to remove the need for Australians to carry their paper passports when travelling to New Zealand would be trialled.

The department also revealed that innovationXChange had held a meeting in October with Coca-Cola Amatil about how the program runs, at the same time as DFAT has held two meetings with the company regarding the potential for the company to help with aid distribution in Papua New Guinea.

Aid is a somewhat eyebrow-raising choice for the government to focus as part of its innovation agenda, but according to Rauter, “innovation diplomacy” can help governments deliver economic diplomacy:

“Innovation is fuelled by collaboration — taking an idea, sharing with others, using their knowledge and creativity to improve the idea, building on it, testing it, adapting and testing again. This collaborative process aligns very well with the intent behind diplomacy — the act of a state seeking to achieve its aims, in relation to those of others, through dialogue and negotiation.”


Jun 2, 2015


Australians support same-sex marriage by a margin of about two to one, today’s Essential Report finds, but 40% of voters say it makes no difference to how they’d vote.

Fifty-nine per cent of voters support allowing same-sex marriage, the same level as in February, compared to 55% in December and 60% in June 2014; 30% oppose it, compared to 28% in February and 32% in December. Greens voters support it 93%-3%; Labor 70%-21% and Coalition voters 49%-38%. Women are more strongly in favour of same-sex marriage, 64% to 25%, compared to men — 54%-34%.

However, it makes no difference to 40% of voters what the position of a candidate or party is on the issue.

Coalition voters are the ones most unlikely to change their vote for pro-same-sex marriage candidates, while 46% of Labor voters are a little or a lot more likely to vote for a candidate or party supporting same-sex marriage. Just 15% of all voters say they are much less likely to vote for a supporter of same-sex marriage, and 19% of Liberal voters. This appears to discredit the argument put forward by hardline same-sex marriage opponent Cory Bernardi, who has warned that there would be “huge consequences” for the Liberal party if it backed same-sex marriage in opposition to the party base. In fact, barely a fifth of Liberal voters are likely to change their vote, and those opposed to same-sex marriage are unlikely to switch to Labor, the only voting choice where their vote is unlikely to flow back to the Liberals.

Tony Abbott has improved in the eyes of voters since February, according to Essential’s periodic leader attribute question. In the areas out of touch, erratic and a capable leader, Abbott has improved noticeably since February, though only back to his level in December. So, in December, 66% of voters thought Abbott out of touch; that rose to 72% in February but is now back to 65%. Fifty-two per cent thought Abbott erratic in December, 60% in February and 54% this week. Thirty per cent thought him trustworthy in December; 27% thought it in February, 31% think it now.

Bill Shorten, however, has drifted slightly lower overall — flat on arrogant (39%) and trustworthy (33%); lower on capable leader (43%), down on understanding the problems facing Australia (49%). However, he retains a lead over Abbott in nearly every attribute: he betters the Prime Minister by between 20 and 30 points on narrow-minded, intolerant, out of touch, erratic and aggressive, and more than 10 points on intelligent, understands the problems facing Australia and superficial.

On voting intention, the Coalition remains on 41% and Labor has picked up a point to 40%; the Greens remain on 10% for an unchanged two-party preferred outcome of 52%-48% to Labor.

Three weeks after the budget, we’re thus able to conclude that there’s been no budget bounce for the government in voting intention, but that Tony Abbott has recovered in the estimation of voters — back to where he was in December 2014, which leaves him poorly regarded. Nearly two-thirds of voters believe the Prime Minister is out of touch; 62% believe he is arrogant, while 38% think he understands the problems of Australia. If Coalition strategists think embracing populism and abandoning economic reform was worth it for a 4% 2PP gap and voter dislike, then good luck to them.

Essential also asked about foreign aid. In 2015-16, Australia will spend just under 1% of its budget on foreign aid. Asked how much they think Australia spends, 24% of voters said either less than 1% or 1%. But 14% think we spend 2%, 10% think we spend 5% of the budget on foreign aid and 9% think we spend more than 5%. More than 40% of voters say they don’t know. And 44% of voters think we spend too much on foreign aid, despite repeated cuts under both sides of politics in recent years; just 16% say they think we don’t spend enough. That compares to 42% and 16% in 2011. The Pacific and Papua New Guinea are voters’ priorities for foreign aid, with 66% and 65% saying aid there is very or somewhat important, compared to 39% saying Indonesia was important. African and south-east Asian countries rated as 50% important.


May 13, 2015


Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen

Despite a record $1 billion cut in international aid, the Abbott government has spared its partner in crime, Cambodia, alone in south-east Asia, from an swingeing, across-the-board 40% cut to the what is officially termed “overseas development assistance”. This will effectively hand an extra $20 million to ruthless dictator Hun Sen, increasing his bribe to take refugees from the Nauru detention camp under a sweetheart deal to a minimum of $60 million.

Had Cambodia joined Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar as a victim of the largest aid cuts in Australian history, it would have had a reduction of about $20 million from its $54 million aid package.

In the meantime, Cambodia’s neighbours and other ASEAN nations will have programs — designed to help tens of thousands of people live longer, live better, and have better opportunities via education — cancelled mid-way through their implementation.

As Australian National University Professor Stephen Howes notes, if incremental cuts have to be made, they can be done by simply not renewing programs, minimising their effect. This is not so with an unprecedented cut of this size.

Cambodia, which has yet to take any refugees under the contentious and controversial cash-for-refuges deal, was promised $40 million for its co-operation in taking refugees by the Australian government, despite the fact it does not have enough jobs for its own citizens — who largely live in poverty with almost zero access to health care and social services. Yet even now, despite months of promises by the Immigration Department that this will be happening soon, not one refugee has made the journey from Nauru, the bribes on both sides are mounting.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop — who had the $1 billion aid cut forced upon her as part of the Mid Year Financial and Economic Outlook — has had to make the tough calls no domestic minister was asked to make. The Abbott government has now carved $11.3 billion from mainly forward estimates of the aid budget, another broken election promise. At the same time, the total costs of detention and compliance-related programs for asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat will be $2.30 billion in 2015-16.

Australian Churches Refugees Taskforce executive director Misha Coleman said, “using the latest figures from the Department of Immigration, which say there are 1707 people locked up in Nauru and Manus Island, this equates to a cost of $475,000 per asylum seeker per year”. The estimated costs also appear to have blown out. This time last year, offshore processing was supposed to cost $827 million, but the price tag has come in at $913 million, according to the budget papers.

Rather than doing the hard yards on trimming Australia’s bloated public service, the Abbott government has opted for its spineless policy of “fairness” — to Australians only, we now know — in the desperate hope of winning an election. (For what? More of this?) At the same time, it has been utterly unfair to those who are most vulnerable, the citizens of neighbouring countries who subsist at levels most Australians could not imagine.

South-east Asia bore the regional brunt of aid cuts and will receive $688.6 million, down from $1.08 billion in the current year. Impoverished people in Africa, whose aid was lifted under former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s political agenda of securing a seat for Australia on the United Nations Security Council, will also suffer. Aid to Africa and the Middle East was shredded by almost 75% — from $143 million to $52.9 million.

Bishop opted to make no cuts to aid for dependent Pacific nations, as well as nascent south-east Asian nation East Timor, and to snip just 5% off the aid package to Papua New Guinea — now the clear recipient of the largest annual cheque from Australia, worth $477.3 million next financial year. No aid was cut from Nauru.

Unsurprisingly, it was Australia’s other closest neighbour, Indonesia, that took the greatest hit with its aid package — hacked from $545 million to $323 million. It will become clear in coming months just which people in Indonesia will be affected, but it will not be pretty. (For deeper country-by-country analysis see here.)

In the weeks since Tony Abbott linked Australian aid to the failed clemency bid for the Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, Indonesia has been increasingly vocal about not having asked for aid from Australia and declared it did not need Australian money.

Treasurer Joe Hockey denied there was any retribution involved but, even here, the government’s tin ear on Asian matters is on display. How easy would it have been to hand Indonesia back, say, 10-20% as a “special friend” in a peacemaking offer. Instead, it is now an open sore in what Abbott himself has described as our most important diplomatic relationship. Nice work.

Rudd splashed out on Papua New Guinea and Nauru as incentive for those countries to house Australia-bound refugees in direct contravention of international law — and now Abbott and Bishop have directly linked Australian aid programs, using taxpayer dollars, to its domestic political agenda. In this case, it’s “operation sovereign borders”.

The fact that these capricious cuts have not been matched domestically, sends an increasingly confused and compromised message to the region, and the world — one driven by short-term political considerations on both sides of politics and absent any apparent strategic strategy. They also come as the scale of the humanitarian crisis from northern Myanmar and Bangladesh unfolds. More than 100,000 people have already fled, a number that could double in the next 12 months. Australia will attend a meeting on this in Bangkok on May 29, the Thai government announced last night.

Protecting Cambodia from aid cuts is a major ethical bypass. Australia has rewarded an effective dictatorship while penalising countries like Indonesia, now south-east Asia’s most functional democracy, and Myanmar, which is making early efforts towards eventually becoming one.

This stands in stark contradiction to the narrative that comes from the government about why Australia needs to send troops to the Middle East: to keep Australia safe and promote democracy. Propping up dictators and pulling the rug out from programs that help underpin fledgling democracies like education and health is a curious way of doing that. Education in a country like Indonesia — where vulnerable youth are at risk of radicalisation — is a far more powerful long-term policy than the proven sinkhole of sending money and soldiers to the Middle East

But ethical reasons aside, aid, spent in the right way, is also good economics. Healthy and educated people have a better chance of becoming the business people and long-term consumers that underpin economic growth. These self-evident truths seems to have been missed by a government that is proving to have a very shaky grasp on the complexities of developing economies, and almost no feel for how to engage with the region. This point was expertly made by former China Ambassador Stephen FitzGerald in a recent blog post.

With these aid cuts, Australia has sent itself to the bottom of the OECD’s “generosity index”, according to analysis by ANU’s Howes and Jonathan Pryke.

The poor economics and worse diplomacy of the aid cuts aside, what happened to the Good Samaritans of what is by far the wealthiest country in the region?


Mar 24, 2015


One of the most enjoyable games in Canberra currently is trying to work out who was behind, and who benefits from (two separate questions) the leaks that regularly drip from this shambles of a government. Yesterday someone decided to ruin Julie Bishop’s carefully prepared “innovationXchange project” announcement, for which she’d co-written an op-ed for The Australian, by telling Tony Abbott’s close friend Greg “George W. Bush will be judged one of the great presidents” Sheridan that her foreign aid budget was going to be cut.

Continue reading “What Joe should tell his colleagues about his budget”


Jun 25, 2014


Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has promised to deliver a dramatically different “new aid paradigm”. But it’s little more than an ideological repackaging of Labor-era aid programs that provides a questionable boost to the private sector. It blatantly aligns aid with Australia’s commercial interests at the expense of genuine poverty eradication measures.

Ultimately, it fails to address the hard questions on aid effectiveness.

Bishop’s policy, unveiled last week, is based on heavy involvement from the private sector, facilitating public-private partnerships, and creating a favourable environment for business. Bishop has also prioritised the Indo-Pacific region. This represents little change from the past, with countries like PNG and Indonesia long being primary aid recipients (though there’s a significant reduction on aid to sub-Saharan Africa).

These developments are hardly surprising after the government last year abolished AusAID as an executive agency and folded it into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The greater policy coherence the government is aiming for has proven to be a euphemism for aid becoming subservient to foreign policy objectives.

The Government’s linguistic somersaulting has led to Bishop’s critical assessment of PNG’s “failure” to meet development targets attributed to past aid policy that didn’t work. Her solution? A “new approach” that continues along the well-worn path of using Australian aid to push economic growth and private sector investment.

Bishop’s increase in “aid for trade” funding — projected to reach 20% of the total aid budget by 2020 — has been billed as new. It isn’t. It was introduced under the Howard government — and is controversial overseas due to the disproportionate benefit for the donor country.

Increased “aid for trade” funding reflects an ideological commitment to economic growth as a panacea for poverty. Yet, as Bishop notes, most of the world’s extremely poor people now live in middle-income countries. A report by the United Nations Development Program cites increases in inequality as being mainly due to trade and financial globalisation. There is a correlation between sharp increases in economic growth and income inequality in China and India. Most households in developing countries — more than 75% — are living in societies where income is more unequally distributed today than it was in the 90s.

“This aid policy isn’t an overhaul, it’s business as usual.”

“Aid for trade” paves a way to further Australia’s commitment to trade liberalisation in the Pacific region. The PACER-Plus free trade agreement is presented as a helping hand to Pacific island countries. The reality is Australia is aggressively pursuing an agreement that sees Australia and New Zealand overwhelmingly gain, with nothing of value for Pacific island countries on the table. Except aid.

Bishop’s “new” policy elevates the role of the private sector to that of benevolent development partner; a “force for good”. The private sector has long benefitted from the aid budget through “boomerang aid” — private contractors and companies overwhelmingly win. The Australian Extractives industry is bolstered, using foreign aid to subsidise the cost of their corporate welfare programs and whitewash their image through the promotion of “sustainable mining”. The aid-funded Cambodia Railways Project that led to forced evictions and further impoverishment of over 4000 families directly benefitted an Australian company.

Such an uncritical approach to business suggests a failure to adequately negotiate the role that many corporations have played in human rights abuse, breaching labour standards, and environmental degradation.

This is the role of big business that is most readily identified by those on the receiving end of foreign investment. Many have pointed out that the most important role big business can play is ensuring that the private sector conducts itself in accordance with human rights and environmental standards. And the most important role the government can play is holding them to account for their penchant for breaching these standards.

The language of economic partnership and mutual obligation, along with a stronger focus on Australia’s national interest, and stringent performance benchmarks, signal a return to tied aid. Programs deemed ineffective can be cut after one year. Tied aid is a controversial tool that is often used to advance the interests of the donor country by making aid conditional.

Aid was formally untied in 2006 though it continues to be a bargaining chip. Need to build a lock-up for refugees on Manus Island? Offer PNG an increase in aid allocation amidst widespread cuts.

Australia is a signatory to the Paris Declaration of Aid Effectiveness which acknowledges that aid should not be driven by donor priorities; so aid policy shouldn’t be based on Australia’s commercial or domestic considerations.

Given the government’s focus on the Indo-Pacific, the complete omission of action on climate change is out of step. The very existence of many Pacific island nations is threatened by climate change. Climate aid funding was cut months ago and hasn’t been reinstated.

This omission is in stark contrast to the addition of a focus on girls and women across 80% of the aid budget. This development has been largely welcomed, though there has been little indication on how this will translate to effective programs targeting gender inequality. More likely this will signal a token acknowledgement of the experiences of women in programming, known as “gender mainstreaming”.

The government’s ideological repackaging of a substantially similar aid policy means that there is little space to have a meaningful debate about what isn’t working. There is no engagement with questions about the global economic and political structures that perpetuate poverty. Unjust trade rules, the wealth disparity that arises from unfettered economic growth, the devastation of local industry and cultural practices through foreign investment — these are just some examples of the issues that impact on the persistence of poverty which are not taken into account.

This aid policy isn’t an overhaul, it’s business as usual.

* Thulsi Narayanasamy is the Director of AID/WATCH, Australia’s independent monitor of foreign aid and trade


May 14, 2014


When a government cuts spending, its non-voting constituents are always going to fare worse than those who do vote. Whatever residual anger might come at the next federal elections, Australia’s aid recipients won’t be a part of that vote.

As compared to budget cuts of $7.6 billion over the next five years, or a little over $1.5 billion a year, the government’s trimming of just $107 million from the $5 billion aid budget in January looks positively generous. An earlier bipartisan commitment to lift Australian aid spending to 0.5% of gross national income, delayed until 2017-18, now appears entirely gone.

Australia has an international obligation under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on foreign aid by 2020. That also appears to be no longer within the realms of foreseeable reality.

The Coalition’s had a pre-election commitment to grow the aid budget in line with inflation. But, riffing off former prime minister John Howard’s “core” and “non-core” promises, that appears to have joined the substantial list of “non-significant” promises.

Yet Australia’s aid budget, and the uses to which it is put, is the better face of the “white tribe of Asia”. Moreover, some regional governments only marginally concerned with cuts to Australian aid will measure this spending reprioritisation against Australia’s defence build-up. An 11% increase in the defence budget stands in stark contrast to the aid cuts, and sends a less benign signal to our neighbours.

Even Crikey’s sober readers, considering aid cuts set against wider cuts, might be saying, “So what?” Australia’s aid budget has been, overwhelmingly, aimed at the Asia-Pacific region. In this area, there are 757 million people in extreme poverty, usually defined as living on less that $1 a day.

Australia cannot fix this problem by itself, and regional governments do need to lift their respective games. But, to the extent that Australia has committed to assist, that promise has been broken to more than just ourselves.

With some regional governments being miffed, Australia will lose diplomatically from this budget. But the real losers from Australia’s aid parsimony will be those whose existence is just this side of total calamity and, for want of a few cents a day each, may now slip to the other side.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University. He is co-author of International Development: Issues and Challenges, second edition 2012.


May 13, 2014


Treasurer Joe Hockey expects unemployment to rise and business investment to fall. He plans to shed 16,000 public sector jobs into a labour market that Treasury says is softening. Indeed, Treasury states that the proportion of people who are employed or looking for work will continue to fall, “reflecting the expectation that employment growth will not be strong enough to entice discouraged workers to resume their job search”. That’s Treasury code for “people will stop looking for jobs because there won’t be many to look for”.

So what’s a Treasurer facing a softening labour market and rising unemployment to do? Make life hard for the unemployed, of course. Unemployed people under 30 will bear the brunt of the budget pain, being forced to wait six months to apply for Newstart (i.e. the dole). Rather than accept responsibility for rising unemployment, the Abbott government is clearly setting out to shift the blame onto the victims.

As the mining boom begins to fade, Treasury is also predicting a steady decline in the price we get for our exports, aka the terms of trade. As the miners stop building new mines, the car companies head offshore and the foreign tourists continue to think of Australia as a high-cost destination, it’s not clear where new investment and job creation is going to come from. It is clear from the budget papers, however, that the Treasurer has no real plan.

The “big idea” in the budget is to spend billions of dollars on new roads. While there is no doubt such spending would create some great opportunities for Abbott to cut ribbons and sit in excavators, in reality spending money on roads is one of the least effective way to create jobs, as the process is so capital-intensive.

In his speech Hockey tells us that “shovels will start moving within months”. I’m not sure if he has seen many roads being built from the window of his comcar, but there aren’t many shovels, or jobs, involved in modern road construction.

Per million dollars spent, investment in teachers, nurses and aged-care workers creates nearly 10 times as many jobs as investment in the kinds of infrastructure that the Abbott government prefers. But the need to build roads has nothing to do with job creation and everything to do with population growth. Last year Australia’s population grew by 400,000 people, more than the entire population of Canberra, but like the recent Commission of Audit, the budget was silent on the cost to government of our rapidly expanding population.

The budget speech was silent on a few other macro issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change has moved from the greatest economic challenge facing Australia to the problem that dare not speak its name. Taking its lead from the Commission of Audit again, the budget speech makes no mention of climate change or the Direct Action scheme, of which the Prime Minister was once so proud.

Similarly, despite Treasury forecasting that the cost of superannuation tax concessions will balloon from $35 billion this year to $50 billion in 2017, there wasn’t a peep out of the Treasurer about the need to make this biggest, and fastest-growing, of spending programs “sustainable”.

Despite all the rhetoric about spreading the pain, business got their tax cut, the miners kept their fuel subsidies and wealthy superannuants hung on to their tax-free income. Meanwhile foreign aid got slashed, the pensioners lose their utilities allowance and the sick get to pay into a medical research fund to help other people get better medicine in the future.

The biggest story in the budget revolves around something the Treasurer didn’t say. While he didn’t declare “mission accomplished”, it’s clear that we can all stand down from high alert. The budget emergency is clearly over. We don’t have to sell the family silver to pay our rent; instead, it seems we can afford to sock away $20 billion into a new health research fund.

The budget papers make clear that Australia has low levels of tax, low levels of public spending and low levels of public sector debt. Having invented a budget crisis, the budget speech was the first real step towards pretending that it’s been solved. But while the government can gradually shift the adjectives it uses to describe the state of our public finances, it will find it a lot harder to shift the upward trend in the unemployment rate.

The economy is slowing, unemployment is rising and the government is cutting spending. Economic history suggests that such cuts make things worse. Coalition ideology suggests it will make things better. One of them is going to be wrong.


Apr 24, 2014


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.


Oct 24, 2013


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.