Tony Abbott’s tryst with Australia’s Destiny

Tony Abbott’s tryst with Australia’s Destiny

Dr. Sudhanshu Tripathi

Australia’s conservative leader Tony Abbott swept into office in national elections recently as voters punished the outgoing Labour government for six years of turbulent rule and for failing to maximize the benefits of a now fading mining boom. Abbott, a former boxer, Rhodes scholar and trainee priest, promised to restore political stability, cut taxes and crack down on asylum seekers arriving by boat. Immediately after election Abbot said that “From today I declare that Australia is under new management and Australia is once more open for business”. He promised to form a government which is competent, trustworthy and would deliver its best.

In fact it was frustration with Labour party’s leadership turmoil that cost the government dearly at the polls. Labour dumped Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, for Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard, only to reinstate Rudd as leader in June 2013 in a desperate bid to stay in power.

Abbott could end up with a majority of around 30 seats, ending the country’s first minority government since World War Two. Abbot’s campaign had support from media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his Australian newspapers, which have urged voters to reject Rudd’s Labour government. Australia’s other major newspaper group Fairfax also called for a change of government, saying Rudd had painted Abbott’s planned spending cuts as dangerous European-style austerity and said his government was best placed to manage an economy that is slowing but remains the envy of much of the developed world.

As Labour prepares to turn over the keys to the Australian Agency for International Development to the spending-wary Coalition, Australian aid groups fear that the heady days of growth and expansion for Canberra’s now more than AU$5 billion ($4.6 billion) aid programme may be over. But insiders within the Coalition say that while Abbott may not share Rudd’s strong personal interest in the Australian aid programme, nonetheless he is broadly supportive of Australia’s global development engagement.

“He hasn’t spoken the same rhetoric about the aid program [as Rudd] but he certainly has recognition and sympathy for those who are less well-off. I think he also sees this as a national interest priority,” Russell Trood, former chair of the Australian Senate’s foreign affairs committee, told Devex. “There’s been no evidence that there’s going to be a slash and burn policy taken to the aid program.”

On the eve of the general election, the Coalition had reaffirmed that it shared the Labour government’s 0.5 per cent ODA to GNI target — albeit while still refusing to set a timetable for meeting this goal. Labour party had pledged to reach the 0.5 per cent aid spending target by 2017-18, two years behind Rudd’s original deadline.

In an effort to save up to AU$4.5 billion over the next four years, the Coalition has also announced plans to index growth in Australian aid spending to the rate of inflation. Based on projections from the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre, the incoming Coalition government’s aid budget is slated to rise from AU$5 billion in 2013-14 to AU$5.7 billion in 2016-17. The Coalition’s aid budget for 2013-14 cuts Labour’s planned aid spending for the current financial year by 12 per cent. Under the Coalition’s spending plans, Australia’s ODA to GNI ratio would drop shortly from 0.37 per cent this year to 0.32 per cent in 2016-17, prompting skepticism over the Coalition’s adherence to the 0.5 per cent target.

As the Australian aid program continues to grow — albeit much more modestly — the Coalition is expected to channel more aid money toward private sector development and economic growth initiatives, as was the case in the last conservative government under Prime Minister John Howard from 1996 to 2007.

Climate change is one sector that could experience funding shifts. Before becoming leader of the opposition, Abbott had expressed skepticism over the science behind climate change. The Coalition looks poised to keep its word to scale back Australia’s AU$200 million in annual climate financing. Some analysts say that the Coalition could protect funding for climate change adaptation, which unlike climate change mitigation, does not imply man-made global warming and is more easily weaved into traditional environment and disaster risk reduction programs.

Under six years of Labour government, AusAID has aggressively expanded its presence to Africa as well as Latin America and the Caribbean in a bid to reach more of the world’s poorest people. Zimbabwe — the leading recipient of Australian bilateral aid in Africa — now counts Australia as its fifth largest donor. Following the Coalition victory, there is widespread expectation in Canberra that this trend will soon be reversed.

In early 2011, the Coalition leadership had considered a proposal from its right flank to call for the Labour government to effectively discontinue Australian aid to Africa. In the years since then, Coalition stalwarts have moderate their criticism of Australian aid to Africa and Davies, for one, told Devex that he doesn’t anticipate dramatic cuts to the AusAID program on the continent. Generally skeptical about the effectiveness of multilateral institutions, the Coalition does seem keen on shelving the Labour government’s plans to join the African Development Bank.

There is also some suspicion that the bulk of Australian aid to Latin America and the Caribbean — which currently stands at only AU$38 million compared with AU$355 million for sub-Saharan Africa — will be on the chopping block under the incoming Coalition government. Deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop — in line to be Abbott’s foreign minister — had previously expressed reservations over the Labour government’s decision to expand Canberra’s aid program to Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the event of an AusAID pull out from either Latin America and the Caribbean or Africa, Canberra is likely to focus its aid program even further on the Asia-Pacific region, which has historically garnered the lion’s share of Australian aid spending. Despite the Coalition’s overtures to Australia’s aid community, observers say that the incoming government could inherit the Howard government’s reluctance to fund NGOs that are critical of Australian government policy. Sources within Australia’s NGO community did emphasize to Devex that the Howard government largely steered clear of defunding activist aid groups based in Australia, many of which wield considerable political influence in Canberra.

Under this scenario, despite Abbot’s convincing victory, much of the interest remains on the Senate where the Greens, the independents and fringe parties might still hold the balance of power and frustrate Abbot’s legislative agenda. But being firm, steadfast and upright, Tony Abbot is expected to stay clear of all hurdles and would successfully chalk out a new course of destiny for Australia.

Author is Associate Professor, Political Science, M. D. P. G. College, PRATAPGARH, UP (India).

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