Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 15:49 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 15:49 | SYDNEY

A Minister for Aid and Development?


Graeme Dobell

26 March 2010 14:17

The Foreign Minister, with his Department screaming in his ear, would rage against any move to shift foreign aid into the Prime Minister's Department.

Roaming through the Canberra jungle, I see no evidence that the big beasts are fighting over such a prize. So please regard the idea of the creation of an Aid Minister as a hypothetical. And shifting that Minister to the PM's Department is even bigger what-iffery, building on previous columns about Australia's Pacific drift, the need for some big bang changes, and the Pacific Islands Forum.

AusAID does its work off-shore, as does DFAT. There ends the natural fit of the two organisations.* The foreign-affairies and the aidies are culturally and literally kilometres apart — AusAID has always camped in a HQ in Civic, while Foreign Affairs lives on the other side of the lake within shouting distance of Parliament.

Consider also the cash disparities between the boss department and its aid arm. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gets by on a bit more than $1 billion annually (well, a couple of hundred million more than a billion, but you get the idea). The Lowy panel report on DFAT's fiscal anorexia is still the go-to document on this point. 

By contrast, AusAID, one of the boxes which sits beneath DFAT on the organisational chart, will go above an annual spend of $4 billion in this May's federal budget.

The future cash prospects for DFAT look as tight as they have for the past decade, whereas AusAID is being force-fed dollars. The ratio of Australia's aid to Gross National Income (GNI) for 2009-10 is estimated at 0.34 per cent. To reach the Millennium Development Goals, Australia's pledge is to double aid so that by 2015 the ratio of aid to GNI is 0.5 per cent. Money galore. On that trajectory, the aidies will push a long way beyond a ratio of $4 for every $1 going to their DFAT bosses.

The Millennium push will confirm AusAID's status as one of the great slush funds in Canberra. Oops, did I just write that!

What I meant to say is: AusAID is a highly effective spending department which is ever-responsive to the shifting policy demands of the government of the day. AusAID has shown it can react as quickly to changing ministerial needs as to the fashion shifts in aid. And if a crucial independent Catholic senator from Tasmania with a balance-of-power vote wants to reach deeply into abortion/family planning/women's health issues, well, AusAID showed under the Howard Government that it could quietly cope with that, too.

The slush fund line is a cheap shot, but it reflects the fact that aid doesn't get much political or voter attention. What's more, the NGOs which ought to do the most searching analysis of AusAID are also clients, dependent on the dollar fountain.

The significance of shifting foreign aid from DFAT to the PM's Department would be in the greater political and bureaucratic prominence for international development. It would add another element to the Rudd campaign narrative — for a seat in the UN Security Council, I mean. Plus the move would offer a vivid expression of AusAID's dominant mantra about the need for a whole-of-government approach to development.

The PM's Department has quietly taken unto itself the central role in coordinating counter-terrorism. Aid would be the peaceful counter-point. Certainly, AusAID would not have to explain to Kevin Rudd the attraction of multilateral agencies in spending all those dollars.

Stephen Smith has a more traditional politician's view. He likes to see lots of Australian flags on projects. Giving cash to the multilaterals is an efficient and accountable way to splash cash, given AusAIDs relatively small staff. For Smith, though, sending money off to the UN doesn't put Oz flags on bags of food. Where is the Australian identity in that?

A shift to the Prime Minister would slowly erode the subservient culture that rules AusAID's dealings with DFAT. There might even be some discussion about the design and purposes of Australian aid, beyond its uses as a foreign policy instrument.

* On the offshore geographic synergies of DFAT and AusAID, the realist argument for foreign aid is that it is 'the soft arm of defence'. Given that Defence always claims credit for delivering the supplies during a crisis, AusAID could always be shifted over to Defence. $4 billion a year is a snap for the folks at Russell. OK, OK! Now I'm just being silly.

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