With the federal government’s announcement that $375 million will be diverted from its foreign aid budget in 2012/2013 to pay for the spiralling costs of asylum seekers released into the community, the decision has met a wave of protest, including from those within its own ranks.
With its border protection policies costing way beyond the government’s expectations, and its commitment to returning the budget to surplus next year, Treasury is looking to every corner of public expenditure in an effort to meet the target.
Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr told reporters: “If you’re providing support for refugees, or potential refugees on your home turf, that’s regarded as equivalent to providing support for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Sudan.
“It is internationally accepted that spending on potential refugees onshore is the same as spending it on the same people offshore.”
The controversial decision means deferring or cutting foreign aid projects to provide $375 million until June 2013 in order to provide basic services for refugee applicants in Australia.
Coalition Senator Arthur Sinodinos told Neos Kosmos that the reallocation of funds was detrimental to Australia’s prestige, and more importantly those who relied on the aid overseas.
“It’s not within the spirit of our aid program to be providing assistance in this manner for a domestic purpose, as opposed to helping people abroad.
“The problem is that the Government has been running up a very high bill in terms of meeting the costs of processing and they’re looking around for budget-neutral ways to do it.
“There’s already been a $6.5 billion border protection blow-out across the board. This pipeline has been allowed to build up too much over time.”
Mr Sinodinos said the fact that Labor Party backbencher Melissa Parke has called the move “counterproductive”, and one NSW Labor MP – Janelle Saffin – has threatened a mass campaign targeted at the Treasurer’s office to protest, showed how the Government’s action has been widely deplored.
The Senator added that the Coalition would have avoided the massive extra border protection costs at the heart of the re-allocation.
“If we were in government I don’t believe there would have been this flow of boat people to Australia.
“The budget would have been under more control, because the problem would have been under more control.”
Mr Sinodinos said the budget transfer was particularly ill-judged in relation to Australia’s recent appointment to a seat on the UN Security Council.
“We would have made aid commitments as part of our campaign for the seat, so we’re in a situation where we may be abrogating some of those commitments. It’ll be seen as another broken promise.”
Acting Opposition Leader Julie Bishop echoed the Senator’s comments, saying that aid promised was a key element of Australia’s pitch to the UN – that it would increase its aid spending to 0.5 per cent of gross national income.
“They have mislead countries into voting for them,” Ms Bishop told reporters in Melbourne on Tuesday.
She also criticised Senator Carr for trying to “sneak” the news of the aid diversion out before Christmas.
“There can be no more excuses for Bob Carr … this is a direct attempt to take money away from developing countries overseas to make up for their border protection failings.”
Indonesia is the largest recipient of foreign aid from Australia ($578 million). Papua New Guinea is the second largest ($491 million) and the Gillard government is now the third largest recipient.
Meanwhile, in evidence provided to a parliamentary inquiry this week, refugee advocate Paris Aristotle told the inquiry that asylum seekers attempting to get to Australia by sea would increase in 2013.
“At the current rate … we could see upwards of 25,000 to 30,000 people coming. There is simply no way the navy has the capacity to get to every boat that will get into distress in those circumstances,” said Mr Aristotle.