Kevin Rudd lost his prime ministership when he abandoned efforts to combat climate change. It was a move that left voters scratching their heads. How could Rudd describe climate change as “the greatest moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”, only to subsequently abandon the cause?
Scott Morrison made his own moral U-turn when he delivered the budget earlier this month – this one in relation to foreign aid. Fortunately for him, few seem to have noticed.
The Treasurer has been a passionate advocate on foreign aid in the past, writing an article on its importance in the Australian Christian Lobby’s Viewpoint magazine in 2009.
In his maiden speech to parliament, Scott Morrison stated that:
“The total world budget for global aid accounted for only one-third of basic global needs in areas such as education, general health, HIV-AIDS, water treatment and sanitation. This leaves a sizeable gap. The need is not diminishing, nor can our support. It is the Australian thing to do.”
Morrison went further. He went on to characterise the challenge of addressing poverty in Rudd-like terms, “a true moral crisis that eclipses all others”, and one deserving of our attention and efforts, both at the level of government and the individual household.
That was then. This is now. Who would have guessed in 2009 that Scott Morrison would preside over the least generous foreign aid budget ever, and at a time of economic prosperity.
Morrison’s first budget cut Australia’s foreign aid program by 7.5 per cent in real terms, reducing aid to its lowest level in history as a proportion of government spending. The government now spends less than one cent in every dollar on foreign aid.
The cuts also reduce foreign aid to its lowest level as a proportion of Gross National Income, an established measure of generosity used internationally.
These are in addition to cuts made in previous years under the leadership of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Combined, the Coalition since 2013 has presided over the greatest ever reduction in Australia’s foreign aid program, amounting to 30 per cent of the entire aid budget.
The true extent of these cuts were not foreshadowed prior to the Coalition’s election. As shadow foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop never mentioned the (incredibly disruptive) prospect of doing away with AusAID and administering the aid program through DFAT.
Malcolm Turnbull, who as chair of the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet would also have been central in approving the latest cuts, had previously spoken positively of aid, saying in parliament, “We should continue to increase the resources devoted to overseas aid, both in dollars and as a percentage of Gross National Income.”
Scott Morrison, when quizzed at the National Press Club about the disconnect between his previous comments and the cuts to aid, had the following to say: “It’s regrettable, it grieves me, I know it grieves [foreign minister]Julie [Bishop].” He then (rather predictably) went on to blame Labor.
“When I gave that [maiden]speech, we had $40bn in the bank and Labor blew it all. They blew it all, with reckless policies that set fire to the budget.”
The implication, of course, being that the cuts are a necessary response to the fiscal challenges faced by government.
There are two flaws to this argument. The first is that it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when the cuts are considered in their broader context. Government spending since the Coalition took power has climbed 10 per cent (so much for the ‘budget emergency’). Spending on defence has been prioritised.
At the same time, spending on foreign aid has declined 30 per cent.
The figures speak for themselves. This is a matter of political priorities, not fiscal restraint.
The other problem with the Treasurer’s defence is just as serious, and it speaks to his credibility. One cannot describe something as “a true moral crisis that eclipses all others”, only to completely abandon it less than a decade later.
This is where Scott Morrison’s U-turn on foreign aid is comparable to Kevin Rudd’s on climate change. Poverty has not disappeared, nor has the moral crisis associated with it.
There was a time not so long ago when a generous foreign aid program had the support of both Labor and the Coalition alike. The aid program increased in size under the Howard government, and increased further under Rudd. Scott Morrison commended the Rudd government at the time, noting that ‘in Africa, 6,500 people die every day from preventable and treatable diseases.’
The Coalition has since obliterated foreign aid to Africa – it sits at 15 per cent of what it was under Labor. Our generosity as an aid donor is lower than ever before, well below the OECD average, and even further below that of Britain, which has increased aid even in the face of recession.
Australia is a lucky country. We like to think of ourselves as a generous nation. It’s a self-assessment that is increasingly unfounded.