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Coalition's economic and tax package: foreign aid cuts not in our self interest

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Australian aid agencies today criticised the Opposition's proposed cut in overseas aid funding by $100 million. Under the current Government, overseas aid has been reduced to .33 of one percent of gross national product, its lowest level ever. The Opposition's proposed cuts would move Australia even further away from the United Nations' target of .7 percent of GNP. A short time ago, Michael Brissenden spoke to the executive director of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, Russell Rollason.

RUSSELL ROLLASON: They've been rightly critical of the current Federal Government for cutting aid to its lowest level ever, and what do they propose to do but take it even lower. It's an easy option, it shows a lack of leadership, in our view, and so we're extremely critical of this decision.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: What effect would these cuts have on the ground, in those countries that receive aid from Australia?

RUSSELL ROLLASON: I think it will undermine Australia's standing yet again, in terms of our region, and we must remember that all Australia's nearest neighbours, bar one, are developing countries and so they look to see how Australia responds to their needs and the aid program is a key indicator of that response.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Are there any specific areas that would have to go first, if these cuts were introduced?

RUSSELL ROLLASON: It's very unclear because at present, the statements made are in very general terms but interestingly, it raises this question that countries who spend more on defence as a percentage of GNP, than Australia, will be a target for cuts. Well this includes Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, India, Pakistan - most of the countries in our region in fact, spend more on defence than Australia. While we're concerned about that level of defence expenditure, but the question for us is well, what are you seeking to achieve with the aid program? You should be addressing poverty, not scoring political points.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The cuts that are intended here will give money back to Australians, particularly Australian families. What's wrong with that, why should we be supporting Third World countries, or countries who have difficult economic problems, when we also have them here?

RUSSELL ROLLASON: We have the capacity to assist Australians very adequately. We could in fact, cut some of the defence budget which has grown so dramatically in recent years, to provide extra money to spend on ourselves at home, but the two real reasons is one, we have a moral responsibility. We've acknowledged that moral responsibility in the United Nations where we have agreed to work towards 0.7 percent of our GNP as aid. We, if we're going to be a good global citizen, we should seek to achieve that objective. The second one is, all Australia's nearest neighbours, bar one, are developing countries. Our future trade opportunities are going to be in the Asian region. They will not .. the capacity of those countries to import Australian goods depends on their development, aid assists that development. It's in our long term, enlightened self interest to provide aid as well.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: A short time ago, you launched a campaign against the present Government for its record low level of spending on foreign aid. Now the Opposition says that if they win Government, aid will be cut even further. Do you now have to accept that you are asking for too much?

RUSSELL ROLLASON: No, we don't accept we are asking for too much and our public opinion surveys of the Australian community reinforces in the view that we are not asking for too much. We are asking for Australia to honour its commitments. We're asking for Australia to be a good citizen and to respond to the needs of developing countries. We're also saying it's in our enlightened self interest.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Russell Rollason from the Council for Overseas Aid.