Saturday 23 Feb 2019 | 14:45 | SYDNEY
Saturday 23 Feb 2019 | 14:45 | SYDNEY


Graeme Dobell

30 November 2010 16:47

The aid inquiry has three distinct choices for what it recommends about the future structure and status of AusAID. 

The first option facing the Hollway committee is to say everything is fine and things should stay as they are, with just some internal tinkering. But the very fact of an inquiry being appointed guarantees that changes will be recommended. A basic law of bureaucracy states that once a body is in motion it is almost impossible for the body to return to its original position. The terms of reference invite the inquiry to give AusAID's present structure a shake and a shove. This is a bureaucratic body in motion, so where will it come to rest'

The second option is for the inquiry to recommend that AusAID's status within DFAT should be lifted. The line-up of the inquiry suggests this DFAT-friendly outcome — merge AusAID deeper into the department and take an even firmer grasp on that big bucket of money — is the safest bet.

Appointing a separate Minister within DFAT for this important aid work would be one thing the Opposition should support without hesitation. After all, it is Abbott policy. During the election campaign, the Coalition announced that in government it would create a Minister for International Development. Labor could be praised for picking up a sensible Abbott idea.

It looks strange that presently AusAID doesn't even have its usual Parliamentary Secretary. Rudd scrapped the Aid Parl Sec job when he became Foreign Minister. At the moment, Rudd is the Aid Minister. And if an extra minister isn't to be added to the lineup, then the job could be tacked on to his formal title: the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development. This would certainly resolve the issue of aid purposes. The merged ministerial title would express the view that the objectives of international development correspond almost exactly with those of foreign affairs.

This is important semantics, as Peter McCawley explains. Peter confirms his reputation as one of the smartest guys in the room (and for an economist, easy to understand) in discussing the aid divide between the generalist/diplomats and the aid lobby purists. If the inquiry selects the second option, it will give plenty of weight to the generalist/diplomats, which is also the area where most of the politicians live.

The third option, though, plays to the aid purists and is the big bang recommendation: take AusAID out of DFAT. I've mused before on the sometimes funny fit between the foreign-affairies and the aidies, even suggesting that AusAID could just as easily belong to the Prime Minister's Department. But a Foreign Minister already lamenting the lousy job he did as Prime Minister in giving more resources to DFAT is unlikely to take kindly to having the biggest ATM in Canberra ripped from his grasp.

Taking AusAID out of DFAT would implement the purist view that aid should have different policy objectives from the foreign affairies or the tradies. In the political book of the year, a wonderful account of the frantic, ferocious and fear-driven way government actually works, Tony Blair has an interesting reflection on this purist solution.

On 2 May, 1997, Blair walked into Downing St as prime minister for the first time. The next day, the second big announcement of the neophyte government was to create Britain's new Department for International Development, separating aid from the Foreign Office. On the Blair telling, the big bang caused various policy casualties, plus a few dilemmas:

It was not popular with the Foreign Office, who thereby lost control of the largest slice of their budget, and some of their objections gained my sympathy over time...[The Department for International Development] led the way globally in terms of development policy and people just queued up to work in it. It resembled a non government organization inside government and this caused significant problems from time to time, but all things considered it was worth it and gave Britain huge reach into the developing world.

Blair offers DFAT a vision of a parallel universe that looks just a little hellish. Imagine a separate Aid Department with the working culture of an NGO, run by some of the best and the brightest who, by 2015, get to spend $160 million a week, every week of the year.

Image the joy around here if AusAID turned into an independent department and started to operate as a policy player rather than just a spending agency; a distinct department with its own view of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, more interested in clean water, maternal health and civil society than smooth diplomatic relations. The international affairs debate in this town would sound different if an Aid Department began to punch close to its budget weight. At the very least, DFAT and Defence would have to start showing the aid ATM a bit of respect.

Photo by Flickr user laverrue, used under a Creative Commons license.