Australia’s economic growth record and current fiscal position are considered to be the envy of the advanced economic world. Its budget deficit and debt to GDP ratio are among the lowest in the world; it has become the first rich country to go 22 years without experiencing a recession; and its AAA credit rating came out of the global financial crisis unscathed. Yet you would not know it if you have been following Australian politics lately.
Australia’s recent Federal Election campaign was a battle fought on the grounds of its economy, which believe it or not was identified by the political pollsters as the issue most concerning Australians.
For those living in a number of other rich countries, where their governments are still trying to hold their heads above water following the global financial crisis, this must come as quite a surprise; but for those living in some of the poorest countries in the world, Australia’s economic complaints and disquiet must be nothing short of offensive.
There is a reason however for why Australians are so concerned about their economy, and it has very little to do with its condition. Australians are so concerned because the alarm and anxiety was cleverly planted and perpetuated by a political opposition that had very little to run on except a strong fiscal record (the different governments to which this record can be attributed to is contestable I might add).
The then Opposition Leader, Mr Tony Abbott, led an overt negative scare campaign that aimed to paint a picture of doom and gloom in Australia, convincing the constituency that only a change of government would save them from certain economic downfall and the loss of our way of life as we knew it. It was effective. His conservative right-of-centre Liberal-National Party (LNP) took power from the left-of-centre Australian Labor Party (ALP) on 7 September, ending its six year reign.
True to its tradition, the LNP wasted no time in taking an axe to government spending – embarking on what it deems as ‘cutting out the waste’ to ‘fix our budget blowout’. In addition to axing domestic public health agencies and thousands of public service jobs – which will no doubt be felt heavily by Australians over the coming months and years, the new Prime Minister has also set his sights on Australia’s foreign aid program – something that seems to be an all-too-easy target when fiscal belt tightening comes around.
In what he must consider as ‘waste’, Mr Abbott is slashing US$4.25 billion from Australia’s aid budget over the four year forward estimates, lowering it from 0.37% of national income to 0.33%. This cut will help fund his road infrastructure promises and a new parental leave scheme – which has been widely criticised from all sides of politics as being too generous and inequitable. More than just cutting the aid budget though, Mr Abbott has also committed to ‘integrating’ Australia’s Agency for International Development (AusAID) into the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). With this move, many of AusAID’s staff are expected to lose their jobs – an expectation that has already seen its Director General tender his resignation.
The abolition of AusAID as a standalone agency, the reduction in its capacity, and the likeliness that its remaining funding and support decisions will be dictated by the economic and political interests coming out of DFAT, will only act to stymie or undermine international development progress – and with this tarnish Australia’s reputation on the world stage.
Moreover, Mr Abbott has decided that in addition to reneging on Australia’s foreign aid commitments, he also wants to ensure that those from developing countries who need assistance will not be helped here in Australia either. Running on the three word campaign slogan of “stop the boats”, the new Government is proposing to turn asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia (a popular transit point for asylum seekers coming to Australia) mid-journey – a policy that has offended Indonesia on the grounds of it breaching their national sovereignty. Mr Abbott has also made it clear that if a boat does make it to Australia’s shores, permanent settlement will never be granted here. Further to this, the opportunity for asylum seekers to have their initial refugee status decisions reviewed by the Refugee Review Tribunal or the courts has also been removed, meaning the refugee status decision made by a departmental migration officer will be final – and could therefore very likely determine the prospects and even safety of someone’s life.
While Mr Abbott is doing everything he can to avoid assisting refugee populations escaping from persecution, civil war and despair, he is concomitantly feeding a problem that has the potential to uproot many more populations in the years to come. A long-time sceptic of climate change, Mr Abbott moved quickly to abolish Australia’s independent Climate Change Commission which was set up under the previous government to provide public information on the effects of, and potential solutions to, global warming. Further to this, the Government has begun drafting a bill to repeal Australia’s Climate Change Authority which was established to advise the government on emissions-reduction targets and caps, and to detail international efforts in combating climate change. The bill will also abolish Australia’s carbon pricing scheme.
Most amazing are these stark contradictions that Mr Abbott’s new government seems to adopt and perpetuate. Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, it was built on immigration, and it is one of the biggest per capita carbon emitters on the planet, yet Mr Abbott is going to pains length to cut foreign aid, stymie immigration, and neglect Australia’s carbon reduction obligations. Australia has for a long time been branded with two common descriptors: ‘the lucky country’, and ‘the land of a fair go’. While it is without question that we are indeed ‘the lucky country’, the claim that we are ‘the land of a fair go’ – of which many Australians pride themselves on and are quick to boast about on the world stage, is seemingly slipping quickly from reality; never more so than when Mr Abbott’s Government took power on 7 September.