Media and Communications Office
Caritas Australia CEO Paul O’Callaghan says the Australian Government’s projected cuts to its aid budget is at odds with Australian generosity and places the country in an unenviable position.
The aid cuts are expected to shave approximately 10 per cent from the current figure, and are widely anticipated to be announced in the Coalition Government’s next budget. The rumoured cuts come in the wake of significant reductions to the aid budget since 2013, a decrease amounting to 30 per cent.
Mr O’Callaghan says the government’s plans are unrepresentative of the desires of Australians.
‘There is compassion in the Australian community and a preparedness to give privately through donations,’ he says.
‘It’s not just about giving money, volunteering is vital too,’ Mr O’Callaghan reveals, ‘as a society, we have a history of people volunteering within our country and we’re rated as one of the top four or five countries in the world in terms of volunteering efforts.’
Caritas Australia CEO Paul O'Callaghan visiting drought affected communities in Kenya. Photo: Mohamed Sheikh Nor
Pointing to Caritas’ recently successful endeavour, Project Compassion
, Mr O’Callaghan says that the project demonstrated the country’s generosity and signalled a sense of leadership among Australians that the Federal Government is not replicating.
Following several years of cuts to Australia’s aid budget, Mr O’Callaghan says Australia had dropped down the OECD rankings (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), reducing the nations aid output from 0.4 per cent to 0.23 per cent of the country’s GNI (gross national income), Australia's lowest ever figure in over 60 years
‘The consequence of that decision is that Australia is now a low ranking contributor on the world stage on these issues.
‘We’ve gone from a ranking from around 9th to 19th in just four years. The view internationally is that Australia has not suffered economically in the way that many other wealthy countries have but we’re not prepared to share the burden of poverty.
‘In 2007, both major political parties made commitments to try to raise our GNI from 0.4 per cent to 0.5 per cent and we think there should be a commitment before the next election to move up from where we are now, towards 0.5 again,’ says Mr O’Callaghan.
The cuts, as the Caritas CEO explains, have the potential to jeopardise health-focussed programs such as the Safe Motherhood Program in Bangladesh.
Mr O’Callaghan says that the ten-year-old initiative had enabled thousands of women to safely give birth but admits that Safe Motherhood and similar programs are ‘now at risk’.
‘More girls are now being educated, millions of people have access to clean drinking water and for the first time in our history, HIV infection rates are on a downward trajectory. We must continue this great tradition and build on these significant and hard-won development gains,’ he says.
A proud mother, Salma, with her newborn daughter Maya — participants in the Safe Motherhood Program in Bangladesh. Photo: Majed Chowdhury/Caritas
The impact of Australia’s aid cuts have reverberated throughout various regions and collaborative programs between government and organisations such as Caritas have ceased to exist.
‘Over the last 70 years Australia has been one of the leading countries in the world in terms of private donations by individual citizens for addressing poverty issues, not only in Asia and the Pacific regions, but also in countries throughout Africa,’ says Mr O’Callaghan.
‘Africa has some of the most dramatic poverty statistics in the world and historically, the Australian Government has supported aid programs for many decades. However, (support) has almost all been withdrawn.
‘Even though some of Australia’s biggest aid agencies – including Caritas – remain active in Africa, it has meant that programs such as the Australia Africa Community Engagement Scheme (AACES) have suffered,’ says Mr O’Callaghan.
The AACES program, a collaborative initiative between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and several Australian NGOs, positively influenced more than 2.3 million people across 11 countries in Africa.
A family in Kamphata, Malawi. Photo: John Reed, Caritas
The impending threat of aid cuts being cast across Australia’s charity landscape may be compounded by further Federal Government actions with damaging consequences to the sector. Take for example the recent Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill, which Paul O’Callaghan argues is in urgent need of redrafting.
The bill will require most major charities to be registered as political campaigners. The requirement will impact charities that have had political expenditure above $100,000. The broad term encompasses the expression of views that go before voters at an election such as homelessness, asylum seekers, mental health and many more topics.
‘The consequence of the legislation will have a very negative impact on normal advocacy by charities in Australia,’ explains Mr O’Callaghan.
‘This bill essentially treats Australian charities as though they are political actors. The reality is, we are part of a public policy dialogue and we always have been.
‘We are nonpartisan; we do not do this just in the two months before an election. It is a normal activity throughout the year to raise awareness, to engage in debate on matters that are legitimate part of improving our society.
‘Dialogue generally leads to better quality legislation because there has been debate about the issues, involving people who are impacted.
‘We need to ensure that our children and young people inherit an open, vibrant democracy where evidence-based ideas and proposals from thousands of charities can be routinely presented without State intervention,’ adds Mr O’Callaghan.
As aid agencies and the generous Australian community await the government’s budget announcement, Mr O’Callaghan encourages those wanting to take action to contact their Federal MP.