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Cuts To Foreign Aid Are Also Cuts To Our Economy

Such cuts do not only make us a less generous nation.

23/05/2016 11:19 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Alex Ellinghausen via Fairfax
As Plibersek said on Saturday, a strong aid program "benefits Australia's economy when countries go from being aid recipients to trading partners".

On Saturday, Labor's Tanya Plibersek pledged that a Shorten Government would immediately reverse the Coalition's latest $224 million cut to the Australian aid program if elected. As a result of this promise, a Labor Government would ultimately deliver an additional $800 million towards aid compared to a reelected Coalition government.

The announcement comes following a sustained grassroots campaign by the Campaign for Australian Aid, calling on both major political parties to commit to a fair and effective aid budget, and sets up a point of difference between the major parties on Australian foreign policy.

Earlier this month, cuts contained in the Turnbull Government's first budget set Australia on course to become the least generous it has ever been since record keeping begun in 1960. If the cuts go through, only 23 cents in every $100 of gross national income will be going towards aid, setting us well below the global average -- something former DFAT officials tell me they used to try to resist allowing to happen.

The most recent cuts are not just at odds with Labor's new policy, which Plibersek said on Saturday seeks to "start rebuilding" the aid program, but are also seemingly at odds with the personal sentiments of the man who signed off on them: Scott Morrison, who used his 2008 maiden speech to speak in favour of raising aid.

Such cuts do not only make us a less generous nation however. They have a real impact on the lives of some of the most remote, vulnerable and socially marginalised people in our region. Aid, after all, raises healthcare standards, alleviates poverty, and ensures children have access to basic services such as education, water and sanitation. At the same time, our aid program also helps to reduce, and in some cases eradicate, the spread of terrible diseases such as malaria, polio and tuberculosis. For these reasons, Labor's announcement on Saturday is a welcome one indeed.

However, far from being just the right thing to do, Labor's announcement is also the smart thing to do. Too often we tend to view aid as a feel-good charitable endeavor, something we do when the times are good and something to be wound back on in harder economic times. Yet, as Plibersek rightly said on Saturday, a strong aid program "benefits Australia's economy when countries go from being aid recipients to trading partners". Countries such as China, Malaysia, and Thailand have all followed this path to become some of Australia's top trading partners.

It's pretty simple really. When children are healthy they grow up to become productive participants in their country's economy and potential future consumers of Australian goods and services. This is critical for a country with a relatively small population such as Australia, which largely depends on export-led growth to drive employment and where, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, roughly one in five jobs depend on international trade.

In addition to facilitating aid, supporting a strong aid program is also an investment in our national and regional security. As the Turnbull Government prepares to finance what is perhaps the biggest upsurge in military spending since World War II, for a fraction of this cost our aid program is arguably one of the best tools we have to prevent the violence currently gaining hold in various corners of the world.

For this reason, last month, Bono -- one of Scott Morrison's own personal heroes along with Desmond Tutu -- stood before the US Congress to call for an unprecedented scale up in aid not seen since the days of the "Marshall Plan -- history's greatest example of national generosity as national security," which transformed war-torn Europe.

Students of Pacific history know the impact such endeavors have. The ink had barely dried on the surrender agreement signed by the Japanese on the USS Missouri almost 71 years ago before America and her allies set about supporting the rapid post-war reconstruction of the Japanese economy. A similar effort would follow a decade later in South Korea.

Several generations later, the payoffs of these remarkable investments speak for themselves. Besides being the second and third largest export markets for Australia, both Japan and South Korea are themselves strong aid donors contributing towards regional peace and security through investing in poverty reduction and peacekeeping efforts in the region and beyond. Korean forces in particular have served alongside Australian forces in Vietnam, East Timor and now Afghanistan.

As we begin week three of the election campaign, eyes will be on the Turnbull Government to see whether they match Labor's commitment. Granted Labor's commitment does not go far enough. Little was said on the weekend about was to be done with the billions ripped out of the program under Tony Abbott. Nonetheless, it is an important first step in the right direction towards repairing the damage done to Australia's life-saving aid initiatives and is in keeping with Australia's long and proud history of helping to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world; a legacy that Australia is all the better off for.

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