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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 125

Senator ALSTON(11.14) —I would like to follow the remarks of my colleague Senator Hill in relation to the seeds for Africa display in front of the Parliament today. It provides an opportunity to draw attention to the iniquity of the cuts in the Government's aid program. The reality is that although the cuts have been of the order of 13 per cent they have been much more than that if one has regard to the fact that the Government's method of calculation has changed with the amount set aside for Third World student education now being included in the aid Budget. The percentage of gross domestic product, fixed at 0.39 per cent, is said to be the lowest in 25 years. That is simply because the figures do not go back any further than that in the Budget Papers. If we take account of the old method of calculation we see that we are down to 0.35 per cent. I regard that as disgracefully low. It is below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average and it is simply not good enough.

If we have regard to the way in which other countries are operating in Africa we see that they are going in the opposite direction. Countries such as Japan, which has promised to increase aid threefold by 1990, and West Germany in particular, are now paying a great deal of attention to the African continent. They realise the benefits of trade that flow from providing development assistance to that region. By contrast, Australia has reduced its aid to sub- Saharan Africa to the extent that our current level of funding to southern Africa is $37.5m. If we look at the recent decision by the Canadian Government to allocate $500m over five years and we apply that on a per capita basis we discover that Australia should be giving $320m. In other words, we are giving about one-tenth of what we ought to give in comparison with Canada which is, roughly speaking, not much closer to Africa than Australia. Again, Canada recognises the benefits of giving aid.

The problem that this causes arises from the decision of the Jackson Committee to Review the Australian Overseas Aid Program which reported in 1983. It was established by the previous Government. The composition of that Committee was, I think, essentially settled by the then Foreign Minister, Mr Street. It reported to this Government, which adopted the recommendation to withdraw from Africa almost entirely. We have halved our food aid as a result. We have cut back on development assistance in many areas. That was a very misguided and short-sighted decision, presumably on the basis that it is more expensive to service Africa, that our administration costs are higher, that we do not have too many missions in place in the region. If one has regard to the level of public support for overseas aid as measured by contributions to the non-government organisations, which are currently running at the level of $75m a year-allowing for inflation, this is certainly above the level in 1983-it will be seen that there has been no reduction in public support for overseas aid. Yet one sure way of reducing that support over time is reducing the humanitarian commitment. That is essentially what cuts in aid to Africa do because one does not have to be very aware of what is going on in the world to recognise that Africa is by far the most needy of continents. If Australia is dramatically reducing its level of overseas development assistance, it is clear that it is undermining the very purpose of aid giving. If it becomes simply an instrument of foreign policy, if we allocate the bulk of it to our regional neighbours irrespective of need, we are creating a cynicism in government which ultimately will be reflected in reduced community support.

The Oz for Africa campaign which was run in May of last year raised $5.8m from about a quarter of a million Australian citizens. That is a very significant amount of money. In 1984-85 the Australian Government was prepared to give of the order of $25m through non-government organisations for emergency relief and another $25m in overseas development assistance in both food aid and emergency relief. That was because there was a real crisis in Africa; it was an emergency. It was short term relief aid. We know from many years experience that that is simply handout stuff. It might keep a few people alive on a short term basis; it does nothing for long term development assistance. There is no reason why Africa cannot become food self-sufficient, yet at the moment it is going backwards. I think the Organisation of African States estimates that Africa has gone from something like 86 per cent food self-sufficiency to of the order of 70 per cent at a time when its population growth is of the order of 2.8 per cent a year, which is much higher than the rate in any other region of the world. So there are increasing needs and an increasing population.

Australia has an ability to provide funds. Dry land farming techniques are a particular skill that we possess. There are many regions in Africa comparable to Australia. The result of the Government's callousness in cutting aid to Africa across the board is compounding the problem. The Special Minister of State (Senator Tate) is present in the chamber tonight. I hope he was not present at the national conference in Hobart in July last year when an unequivocal commitment was given to achieving the United Nations target of providing 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product in overseas aid and in particular achieving a target of 0.55 per cent by 1990. I urge the Minister to bring to the notice of his colleagues that the Australian community will not stand by in the run-up to the next Budget and see aid cuts once again. It is an absolutely callous approach. It is not in our long term interest. It does nothing for boosting our export productivity and it overlooks the fact that something like 90 per cent of our aid is spent on the purchase of goods and services in Australia. I hope that the Government, with all its cynicism and its desire to achieve a workable economy, will realise that there are very significant benefits in increasing the level of development assistance and that now is the time to start that process.

The PRESIDENT —Before I call the Minister, I remind Senator Alston that it is customary to speak from one's usual allotted seat.