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An open letter to Prime Minister Abbott

By Noel Preston - posted Wednesday, 9 October 2013


Dear Tony,

I take the liberty of addressing you on first name terms because you have been a presence in my home for so long. Moreover, my local MP, a member of your government, and the State organiser of the Liberal National Party (LNP) have assumed some familiarity with myself in writing numerous letters to me this year.

They and your good self have assured me that, in government, you will build a better Australia contributing to a better world. I accept that undertaking as coming from the genuinely compassionate leader you wish to be. This missive, which I have delayed until you and key ministers have begun to establish your international credentials, assumes that in aiming for that goal, your government is as interested to hear my views, as you were to give me your views in the recent past.

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Let me be frank at the outset. Although I congratulate you as Prime Minister of our country, I actually did not vote for you (though, in the Senate election, like many millions of my fellow electors I have no idea who ultimately benefited from my vote – but that's a matter for another day).

On polling day, I ritually walked toward the booths approached by poll workers offering various leaflets. I paused on receiving the coalition leaflet and spoke softly to the LNP representative, not lingering to have a dispute or hear an answer: " You know what has 'pissed me off' most in this campaign. It has been your leader's announcement that the coalition government plans to cut $4.5 billion over four years from promised increases to the foreign aid budget to help fund road projects."

Of course Tony, there were other matters of Australia's international moral, economic and political responsibilities which weighed heavily on my heart as I approached the polling booth (is it really only a month ago?). One matter is our diminishing commitment to policies which would give a lead to the rest of the world in addressing global warming. I leave this critical issue aside for now.

Another is an admittedly complex issue, all the more shameful and lamentable because the ALP joined your side in a bipartisan race to a heartless, corrupting abyss of political amorality shrouded in half-truths. I refer to Australia's cruel and heartless approach to asylum seekers arriving by boat. Many citizens of this wonderful country will struggle to forgive you, Tony (and others) for apparently being more interested in votes than the suffering of fellow humans! Your 'sovereign border operation' brings out the xenophobic worst in our society, though, at the same time, many of us are responding, through elements of civil society, with strong, practical humanitarian reactions.

I am reminded of an earlier stain on Australia's response to new settlers, the debate about the White Australia Policy in the Menzies – Calwell years. The saga of the White Australia Policy no doubt sounds like a fairy story to younger voters if they are ever told. In fact it became a morally corrosive element in our society which prevented Australia and its citizens from facing our Asian neighbours with integrity.

Tony, the return to the past seems so evident to me. In 1972 I completed doctoral studies at Boston University, USA. The title of my dissertation was An Ethical Analysis of Australian Policies in Development Partnership and Immigration Restriction, that is, 'overseas aid' and the 'white australiapolicy'. Returning to my academic tome forty years on, its timeliness is scary. I am tempted to bemoan how the more things change, the more they stay the same, and yet, I refuse to believe that. I want to hope for a better world for my six grandchildren.

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Back to the foreign aid question. In 1972 and the decade after, the goal of Australian governments was to allocate 1% of Gross National Income to bilateral, multilateral and NGO overseas aid. Ever since, we have been slipping down the national rankings of overseas aid givers so that now we are resiling from a goal of 0.5%, even though, Tony, you supported that as recently as March 31 this year. Your words were: " Look, our policy is to take foreign aid to 0.5% of gross national income – we are a generous people, we don't want to be niggardly in respect of our poorer neighbours".

The Director of one church aid group, Uniting World, (Dr Kerry Enright), has published estimates that as a result of the Government's cuts 450,000 lives will be lost down the years and millions of children will lose the opportunity to go to school. Other commentators fear that the minimal support now committed to poor countries will be manipulated to serve Australia's business and trade interests rather than aiming primarily to support projects at ground level improving the conditions of the poorest.

Tony, all this is on behalf of one of the world's wealthiest and secure economies. How miserly and miserable we are beginning to look. Reverse the cuts. I believe that most Australians will applaud you if you do this. At the individual level, we Australians have often shown our generosity to the disadvantaged overseas.

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Prestonís recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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