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Out of Africa: deficit-cutting should start at home

By Christopher Croke - posted Thursday, 2 September 2010

An unfamiliar observer watching this election campaign past would have been hard pressed to miss the fiscal hypochondria that saw both major parties bragging about how much money they were saving rather than spending. Strangely enough, the possibility that winning a majority in a hung parliament may require turning on the spending spigot seems to have put paid to any austerity anxieties for the time being.

This rare state of electoral indecision almost certainly gives the so-called “three amigos” (Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor) the capacity to extract all sorts of financial promises from the government. Plainly, this should not simply be limited to demands for new spending but also to rigorously examine the merits of proposed spending cuts.

One promised budget cut in particular stands out for review: the Coalition’s recent pledge that it would end the government’s bid for a rotating seat on the UN Security Council and the $12.9 million of ancillary aid measures to Africa thought to be little more than international vote-buying.


The focus on Africa has been one of the peculiar obsessions of opponents of the bid. Andrew Bolt has decried the government’s desperation “to win the cheap votes of African and Muslim nations” (“Our values cannot be so cheaply sold. Or defended with such hesitation”, The Adelaide Advertiser, March 18, 2009).

Greg Hunt has suggested that the government’s apparent unwillingness to demand the return of Stern Hu could be attributed to an unwillingness to provoke China out of a fear of an antagonised China corralling its African allies to oppose Australia’s bid.

Andrew Robb has suggested that insofar as winning the support of African countries involves a “softening of our position on human rights abuses, especially in Zimbabwe, that the bid is a dangerous folly” (The Age, April 11, 2008).

Greg Sheridan has suggested that an apparent rebalancing in Australia’s voting behaviour on Israel issues at the UN could be explained by a bid-related desire to curry favour with African nations (“A price too high to pay”, The Australian, March 7, 2009).

Setting aside the merits of the Security Council bid (of which there are many), one of the clearest benefits of the process of bidding was that it has formed a circuit-breaker for Australia to finally improve its relations with many African nations. Increased engagement with Africa represents an opportunity to advance Australia’s humanitarian, security and commercial interests. And increased aid for some of the world’s poorest and most populous countries has a logic all its own.

The Coalition proclaims that it is not against the provision of foreign aid. In May, it affirmed its support for the government’s commitment to increase foreign aid levels to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income. Its largely-unexplained contention is that the increase in foreign aid should be spent in our region rather than more distant regions such as Africa.


This year, AusAid (the agency tasked with delivery of Australia’s aid budget) expects to deliver about $200 million in aid to African nations - a negligible portion of its $4 billion overall budget. If we are to commit to the aid target it will involve at least an additional billion dollars in aid expenditure - all of which, according to the Coalition - must stay within our region.

The projects in question, titled the “Africa Law and Justice Framework”, involve Australian government agencies helping African governments to develope greater institutional capacities to manage their countries. AUSTRAC, the Australian agency responsible for fighting money laundering and financial crime, has been providing technical training to their African counterparts. The Australian Federal Police have used the funds to help host the first African Pathologists Forum in Botswana in May and run forensics courses in South Africa, hoping to improve the standards of forensic science across Africa.

These are small but worthwhile initiatives that will help improve law, order and governance across Africa. They may be incremental and unsexy in their approach but they are nevertheless vital to political development. Unpunished crime only serves to undermine faith in the rule of law and financial crime deprives governments of necessary revenue.

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About the Author

Christopher Croke is currently the World Universities Debating Champion.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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