The ABC has obtained a breakdown of the programs affected by the government's decision to divert money from overseas assistance to pay for asylum seekers.
Some of Australia's poorest neighbours will be hardest hit and aid agencies warn lives are at risk.
Mark Purcell from the Australian Council for Overseas Aid says these are the second cuts to overseas aid in the last nine months.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Mark Purcell, Australian Council for Overseas Aid
PURCELL: There's a purpose of overseas aid, the overseas aid program is to help people in poor countries where there is poverty overcome poverty. So money that is taken away and used for other domestic purposes in Australia it's all intents and purposes cuts because it's not going to reach the poorest overseas. I'd also add that this is the second series of cuts we've seen in about nine months. There were also big cuts and reductions over several years in the May budget last year, followed up by this 375-million dollars taken from the aid budget in December last year.
EWART: Now we are of course in the middle of a very long election campaign in Australia and if the opinion polls turn out to be correct there is likely to be a change of government later this year. So does that just really confuse the issue still further? Can you see an incoming Liberal National government changing this policy quickly enough to have an impact?
PURCELL: Well certainly the current government went to the last election promising to lift the aid budget to zero-point-five of gross national income by 2015 and they pushed that out by a year, 2016 in May last year in the federal budget. That did cause the coalition, the opposition here in Australia to say that puts them in a very difficult position to meet the pledge to lift the aid budget too, because at that point it was a bipartisan pledge to lift the aid budget. And you've got to remember this is all part of a global effort to halve global poverty by 2015, the year the Millennium Development Goals are meant to be concluded. So I think both parties are wavering, but at this point it's the government that needs to honour its commitment and it has made that promise in an election, and also to the UN General Assembly when we went for our Security seat bid there.
EWART: Are you able to give us perhaps one or two examples at this stage as to where you think programs will be particularly hard hit by what's happening?
PURCELL: Yeah look the biggest overall cut is 70 million dollars taken from funds for humanitarian and emergency response. And folks up in the Solomons would know that that sort of resourcing is needed in an emergency situation, you need that ability to disperse funds quickly so you can get assistance to where it's needed to save lives. The largest country program cut globally is Indonesia, with 38 million. But coming into the Pacific, the Solomons has had a seven per cent cut, with 16, nearly 17 million dollars taken from education and gender equality projects in the coming year. The next largest is Vanuatu who have just had 13 million taken from cuts to governance programs and urban development programs.
EWART: We have a situation here you hinted at earlier where the government is supposedly committed to hitting certain targets linked to the Millennium Goals on just how much GDP goes into overseas aid. They're plainly not going to hit those targets now?
PURCELL: Well I think they're still possible if they remain true to their word. The Australian Prime Minister Gillard is actually been appointed a champion by Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General for the Millennium Development Goals. So it's really her word, the trust that people can have in her word to actually honour the commitment. She did go to the Security Council with Australia's bid with a brochure saying Australia will do what it says it will do, and in that it said that we would lift our aid program to zero-point-five per cent of gross national income. So we think if the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister Bob Carr hold firm in the forthcoming May budget, we can get back on track, we can have those steady increments to meet that commitment. But it also requires people that are recipients of Australian aid to say look your word does matter, you can't just promise things and then pull out of it halfway through the financial year, because that does erode trust.
EWART: What is your view of what you might call the China factor in all this, because it's been suggested in some quarters that Australia feels it can afford to do what it's doing because China in particular, and to a lesser degree Taiwan, are pumping so much aid into the Pacific at the moment, that perhaps Australia doesn't need to fulfil such an important role?
PURCELL: That's not what the Australian government's own aid review recommended. It actually recommended expanding Australian aid in the region, particularly the Pacific Island states. And I think other donors such as China, if Australia is retreating or as seen as wobbly, can't meet its commitments because of domestic political imperatives, then of course other donors will come in to fill to bridge the gap, and for Pacific Island governments why wouldn't you turn to other donors if they proved to be more reliable.
EWART: And on the more immediate problem of what you do as the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, I presume between now and the May budget a lot of lobbying is required?
PURCELL: Well yeah we represent not for profit aid organisations in Australia and ultimately our funding comes from public donations not primarily the government. So our concern is the overall integrity of the Australian aid program and making sure that the government keeps its commitments to helping halve global poverty by 2015. We see that the Australian government's aid program ultimately is the most effective way that you can reduce poverty, because it has the largest amount of capacity and resources to assist people in helping them overcome poverty. So that's why we're really, really concerned, that they're pulling away from some of those commitments in the middle of the financial year.