A continuing look at the work of Australia's Foreign Minister. If you missed the start of this series here are links to parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.
One area where Bob Carr's role as the non-Rudd has proved invaluable for the Gillard Government is in the handling of the aid budget.
As prime minister and foreign minister, Rudd presided over an unprecedented surge in Australia's aid budget. Carr is to preside over the cresting of the surge. In the May Federal Budget, to help deliver a surplus, the growth in the rate of aid spending took a hit to produce a saving of nearly $3 billion over the forward estimates along with the savaging of defence spending.
Unlike the public fuss over defence, the aid lobby has not managed to eat at the Government; that says as much about the different constituencies involved as it does about Carr's skills in soothing aid sensibilities.
On the evidence of this year's budget and current economic trends, it's likely that aid will keep on giving to ensure a budget surplus next year, which means Australia's march towards spending 0.5% of gross national income on aid has slowed and is set to slow further.
For a politician of Bob Carr's experience, the argument is simple doorstop fodder. Writing mock Carr answers is a bit like doing mock Whitlam: you just summon the sound of the voice and pick up the emphasis rhythm. The answer would go something like this:
The mining boom is slowing, so our aid boom has to adjust, but our commitment is as strong as ever...we are still a proud and extremely generous country...We are, far and away, the biggest donor in the Pacific and our aid to Africa has quadrupled in the last five years...To give just one example in our neighbourhood, in Solomon Islands we've helped with 45 bridges, 90 minor crossings, wharves as well...As I said in Parliament in May, over the last four years our aid around the world has helped more than 2.2 million boys and girls enroll in school; provided 2.2 million people with access to safe drinking water; and two million people with better sanitation services across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. Australians should be proud!
It is a simple rule of the game. When questioned about the size or direction of any program, first boast of the commitment then point to the achievements and quickly starting running out examples. It's what state premiers do every day and plenty of foreign ministers know the technique.
On his first trip as foreign minister in 2010, Rudd declared, 'I am the Australian government – when it comes to AusAID.'
Carr, too, is lord of AusAID, but he is quite willing to see AusAID do its bit for the broader aims of the Australian Government. The Foreign Minister will boast about the $5.2 billion annual aid budget rather than die in a ditch over how quickly that spending is going to increase. If you're not talking defence, $5 billion a year is a lot of money in most people's language, and Senator Bob has plenty of ability in speaking exactly that language.
The Foreign Minister started his May aid speech with the words, 'I am pleased to advise that the Government will maintain its commitment to increase Australia's aid program.' The key word is 'maintain' – the rate of maintenance is subject to all sorts of fine tuning. Indeed, 'maintain' is actually a good word to describe what the Foreign Minister has achieved in his first six months in the job. He walked into a fiendishly complicated area after seven years away from politics and has maintained course with nary a wobble.
Photo by Flickr user United Nations.