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Did the Government suspend its $30 million family planning aid program in return for Independent Senator Brian Harradine's support for the Budget

PETER THOMPSON: The Federal Government has apparently sacrificed its commitment to overseas aid on the altar of negotiations on the Budget. According to a report in this morning's Canberra Times, Tasmania's Independent Senator, Brian Harradine, has managed to pressure the Government into suspending its $130 million family planning aid program. Senator Harradine is a devout Catholic who disputes the view that high population growth retards economic growth.

Only two months ago the Minister for Development Co-operation, Gordon Bilney, quoted estimates by the World Bank that aid could help save the lives of 100,000 women who die each year in childbirth. Michael O'Regan asked the Executive Director of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, Russell Rollason, about the significance of suspending the aid.

RUSSELL ROLLASON: Well, I think it's quite outrageous and particularly so, that the expenditure on population activities, it's only been increased this year and now it's suspended because of domestic political concerns that have got absolutely nothing to do with poverty and development in the world.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: How important is this money as far as Australia's overseas aid obligations are concerned?

RUSSELL ROLLASON: Well, quite important, because Australia had finally committed itself to move towards the international target of 4 per cent of total aid program being spent on population activity. So firstly Australia had acknowledged an international target and agreed to move towards it; secondly, it's about the lives of women and children in the world. I think Mr Bilney's figure that he used from the World Bank was 100,000 lives of women and children who would be saved if there was assistance in childbirth as a result of family planning activities. So it's about lives of women and children.

Of course, the third thing is that population growth is primarily in developing countries. Something round 95 per cent of the population growth in the world is in the developing countries. So if we're to address poverty we need to give women the choice on family planning.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Well, according to newspaper reports in the Canberra Times, the Government has also agreed to appoint an international expert on population and development approved by Senator Harradine to review evidence. Is that an appropriate move, in your opinion?

RUSSELL ROLLASON: Well, I suppose it's the best of a bad deal. I don't think there needs to be any more international study on the relationship between population and poverty in the world. As I said, 95 per cent of the world's population growth is in some of the poorest countries of the world. I think the international community is quite convinced of the need to assist people to plan their families more effectively, and it's a question of resources. My understanding of the situation internationally - and this is from all the best research done by the United Nations - is that if families had access to family planning methods then all the population targets of the majority of the countries of the world would easily be achieved. It's not a problem of religion or attitudes; it's simply a problem of access to effective family planning.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Well, what does this mean for the Government's obligation to various United Nations commitments that it may have made?

RUSSELL ROLLASON: Well, it throws it somewhat into doubt when, for domestic budgetary reasons, a deal can be done in which commitments to international activities in family planning and commitments in aid generally can be just set aside for the sake of achieving a vote within the Senate.

PETER THOMPSON: Russell Rollason of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid. And A.M. contacted the office of the Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, this morning. The office said the Minister wasn't available for comment because responsibility for the issue rests with Gordon Bilney who is the Minister for Development Co-operation.