CANBERRA -- Federal politicians have launched a last-minute effort to make foreign aid a budget issue, with the federal government expected to lock in cuts and the opposition keeping quiet on the issue.
Competing proposals from the Greens and independent senator Jacqui Lambie have emerged in the last 24 hours. Greens overseas aid and development spokesperson Senator Lee Rhiannon wants to more than double Australia's foreign aid budget, while Lambie wants to slash aid by half and use the leftover funds to boost aged pension payments.
The government has so far kept mum on how foreign aid will be distributed in Tuesday's budget, but cuts locked in by treasurer Scott Morrison's predecessor, Joe Hockey, will reportedly see aid slashed to just 0.22 percent of gross national income next year, to a total of $3.8 billion a year. In 2014, it was announced that $11 billion would be cut from foreign aid over the next five years, as part of savings measures to pay for defence and national security spending, and help return the federal budget to surplus.
As part of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, Australia committed to raising foreign aid to 0.7 percent of gross national income by 2020. At 0.22 percent of national income by 2017-18, the foreign aid budget will amount to 0.9 percent of the federal budget, and Rhiannon fears further cuts are coming.
"If the cuts are not reversed, our record is deeply shameful," she said.
"This budget is an opportunity to get Australia back on track with a decent and fair approach to aid to disadvantaged counties."
As part of cost-saving measures in past budgets about $224 million is set to be cut from Australia's aid budget next financial year.
Rhiannon said the Greens had a plan, which they would reveal "shortly," about how to increase Australia's aid budget to 0.7 percent of national income, but did not elaborate on the plan.
"The impact of climate change on low income countries in the Asia-Pacific region is a stark reminder of why our aid program should be increased. We are a wealthy nation and can well afford to contribute to poverty alleviation in developing countries," she said.
Meanwhile, Tasmanian senator Lambie wants to cut the foreign aid budget even further. Lambie wants to see Australia's foreign aid budget cut in half over the next decade -- from what she estimates to be about $50 billion, with $25 billion directed to support pensioners.
Australia spends about $5 billion a year on foreign aid.
"This will amount to a modest increase of approx. 5.8%, but it’s a start and $25B more than any other political party is advocating for the people who made our nation great," Lambie said in a statement on her website. She claimed such changes would give an aged pensioner couple an extra $76 per fortnight.
Lambie made similar calls before the 2015 budget, calling for foreign aid to be slashed and funding to be redirected to childcare,
A survey released by the Campaign for Australian Aid last week found Australians vastly overestimate how much the country gives to foreign aid. A total of 1500 people were asked how much they thought Australia spent on foreign aid, with the average answer being 13.28 percent of the federal budget. As mentioned above, foreign aid is 0.9 percent of the federal budget. The research, undertaken in February and released on Friday, found less than one-fifth of people estimated Australia spent less than one percent of the budget on foreign aid.