LEON BYNER: Now, do you remember a couple of years ago I deciphered… I went to a lawyer because the language was just so unbelievable that it was very hard to kind of decipher, so I went to a Senior Counsel, spent a bit of time with him and he deciphered the Copenhagen treaty [draft] and part of that treaty was that first world countries would contribute a set amount of gross domestic product in value, in cash, to restore the balance, the social inequity, of poorer countries. Now, it was nothing in there about climate. It was actually an economic document and he actually said to me, when I asked this lawyer about these various issues, I said ‘so, is this an environmental initiative?’ He said ‘well, Leon, look at the language, it’s not – it’s social policy.’ Well, funny that, because now we have Australia’s foreign aid program spending $600 million on climate change in third world countries. Pacific, Caribbean, African countries will share millions of dollars to help tackle climate change while environmental – listen to this – “advisers” will be paid $200,000 or more to help the poor countries. Another $3 million on developing five-star green energy ratings for fridges, air conditioners and other household appliances in the Pacific as AusAID [Australian Agency for International Development] searches for ways to spend its growing budget. That’s nice. But didn’t we just say ‘hey, solar hot water systems, we’re going to drop the rebate, we can’t afford it’? But we want to be green. Yeah!
Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator, what do you make of this?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, good morning, Leon, and good morning to your listeners. The thing that really worries me about this, Leon, is that it’s the type of thing that can really give foreign aid spending a bad name and undermines the support and confidence that Australians have. I mean, when I talk to people in the community about spending and support for overseas countries and people in need, most people are happy to support if they know and have confidence that the money is going to those who really need it and is actually making a difference to meaningful things – to the health standards of people, to their education standards and to the economic development of our… particularly our Pacific neighbours and countries that have often struggled – but they don’t like it when they think that it is simply lining the pockets of bureaucrats, the big spending, that it’s wasteful, that it appears to be going on things that people don’t see as the real priorities of what’s required.
LEON BYNER: So what would you be doing instead?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Coalition firmly believes that we need to have real accountability around the foreign aid budget. We’ve called for the implementation of performance benchmarks in terms of how aid is spent. That was a recommendation of a review that Kevin Rudd, when he was Foreign minister, conducted straight after the last election but it’s a recommendation that hasn’t been acted on yet, so we need to have…
LEON BYNER: Why? Do you know why?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, no, I don’t know why, Leon, and it’s something that Julie Bishop, our Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister has been pursuing quite strongly and we really do need to have real standards and real benchmarks against which this money is spent. It is the money from Australian taxpayers. It’s money that should be spent wisely to make a real difference in these countries and spent on things that people accept will make a tangible difference to the future of people in poorer countries.
LEON BYNER: So, again, a lot of people are… I think… we give foreign aid to help the poor but we’re better off not giving them money but expertise. Here, we’re just giving money.
LEON BYNER: I’m not sure that’s smart.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … and it’s… look, it’s obviously… it’s always a bit of a combination. You need… as the old saying goes, it’s better to teach the man to catch the fish than to simply give him the fish and so of course you’ve got to give expertise and skills and actually build up capacity in other countries and that’s certainly what our aid budget should really be focused on doing and in many cases it is but unfortunately you have instances like this where the Government, whether it’s part of their bid for the UN Security Council and they’re trying to curry favour there or whether it’s to look good at international climate change fora I don’t know, but they appear to be…
LEON BYNER: Are you suggesting we’re spending some of this taxpayers’ money for a seat on the UN Security Council?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, there’s no doubt that we’re spending a lot of taxpayers’ money for a seat on the UN Security Council. Whether this money is related to that or not, you’d have to really get the Government’s intentions but certainly there’s a lot of extra money and energy going into countries like [those in] Africa at present, that have not traditionally been the focus of Australian diplomatic efforts, which is all about what was originally Kevin Rudd’s dream for a UN Security Council seat and presumably some time today or in the next couple of days we’ll have a new Foreign minister and they’ll have to explain whether that’s still a priority and how much they’re going to spend on that over the next few years.
LEON BYNER: Yeah, because I know a lot of Australians who are doing it tough… they’re very sensitive about spending money overseas and I, personally, have never been against it but, you see, I’ve always been one who believes and was always taught that, rather than give somebody money, give them the ingenuity to generate that wealth themselves.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Indeed, Leon, and that’s really where our spending and dollars need to go and that means sometimes you do have to work with foreign governments and put money and investment and time into those governments to build capacity there and to end corruption and to make sure they have proper processes that they can support they’re own countries but it’s also, of course, about helping individual communities and providing the type of education support that allows young people in those communities to actually have a far better future than other generations have had. I know there’s a lot of sensitivity in the Australian community about sending money overseas. That’s why we have to make sure that every single dollar we send overseas is well spent and well accounted for and that’s why it’s so disappointing when you see stories like this that really undermine that public confidence in the worth and the good things that we could be doing if we put this money in the right direction.
LEON BYNER: Thank you, Senator Simon Birmingham, on FIVEaa. It was Julie Bishop that did the attack on this but she’s on an aircraft so it’s pretty hard to talk to somebody at 36,000 feet so Simon decided to deputise and put the point of view that’s been expressed in the last 24 hours.