YOUNG AUSTRALIANS WANT A COUNTRY THAT CARES - Opinion Piece, Hobart Mercury, Wednesday 17 April 2019

We can help others and our own too, but at the moment we do neither.

LAST month thousands of young people took to the streets of Hobart to demand action from their government on climate change policy. It was one of the largest protests Hobart has seen for many years, and showed that young people more than ever are engaged in the political process and yearning to have their voice heard, particularly when the Federal Government is failing them so badly.

Similarly, late last year, I had a meeting with very motivated representatives of Micah Australia, a group that brings together young Christians from all over Australia on a campaign to increase Australia's foreign aid contributions.

Did I know, they asked me, that when Australians are asked how much money we spend on foreign aid we tend to dramatically overestimate how generous we are?

In fact, they continued, a 2018 Lowy Institute poll found that, on average, Australians think our foreign aid budget accounts for about 14 per cent of all federal government spending. They also believe our foreign aid contributions should take up no more than 10 per cent of the budget.

In reality, the Federal Government commits just 0.8 per cent of its annual budget to foreign aid.

And just when we thought they couldn't cut aid funding any more, the Federal Budget is ripping out a further $115 million next financial year, adding to the more than $11 billion worth of cuts to aid taking aid spending to just 0.19 per cent of GNI (Gross National Income) or 19c in every $100, by far the lowest on record.

The members of Micah Australia and I agree - this is just not good enough.

Many Australians feel that as a well-off nation we have an obligation to help those in desperate need.

Back in 1970 the United Nations set an aspirational target for developed countries to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on foreign aid. That figure was restated in the UN's Millennium Development Goals that have subsequently been developed into the Sustainable Development Goals. When Labor was last in government our foreign aid contributions rose every year, peaking at 0.35 per cent of GNI. In comparison, under a conservative government the United Kingdom met its 0.7 per cent target in 2013 and has maintained that spending level ever since - despite far more serious financial pressures.

It should be noted that despite the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments shredding the foreign aid budget over and over and over again, the unspent money hasn't been redirected to helping those in need in Australia.

Rather, they cut funding to welfare programs helping vulnerable Australians as well, while allowing Australia's net government debt to double. In fact the Morrison Government wants to take $2.1 billion from welfare support including $1.6 billion from the NDIS, and $1 billion from the pension.

Instead of choosing to help others or help "our own", they've chosen to help no one.

A Shorten Labor Government will increase Australia's foreign aid contributions every year it is in office, but this will not come at the expense of helping Australians. The massive machinery of government can comfortably handle helping Australians and helping those overseas who most need it.

If elected, Labor will urgently review Centrelink payments like Newstart and the aged pension, we will take action on climate change, we will find ways to reverse the Liberal's devastating cuts to education spending and to aged care as well as provide further support for farmers.

When Tasmania burns, like it did this summer, firefighters from across the world inevitably come to our aid.

It is Australia's long history of positive international engagement that boosts our reputation and makes other nations willing to return the favour. Not just those nations that we directly support, but other countries in our region and across the world that see us helping. It makes us a good international citizen.

Labor's foreign aid contributions will improve Australia's outlook. It will open the door for stronger relationships with our neighbours and help to improve stability in our region.

Building infrastructure, lifting people out of poverty, supporting economic development are all tools that don't just help people, they create opportunities for Australia.

One of the biggest aid contributions Australia makes is to Indonesia. We provide about $300 million in aid to Indonesia, but our agricultural exports alone to Indonesia are worth $3 billion. With a free trade agreement just signed between the two countries, our exports will increase. Our foreign aid contributions are helping Australian farmers access more markets.

Our foreign aid contributions haven't just made the Indonesian police better at preventing terrorist attacks in Bali, they've helped people out of poverty and supported education that means people aren't radicalised to begin with. Our foreign aid has made us safer.

Our international aid program has vaccinated millions of people against communicable diseases that have the potential to put Australian lives at risk. By eliminating diseases overseas we protect ourselves and our children from catching them at home or abroad.

That's why I agree with the young people from Micah Australia - increasing Australia's foreign aid contributions isn't only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do.

This opinion piece first appeared in the Hobart Mercury on Wednesday 17 April 2019.