2012 will be remembered as a year of sluggish international policy debate. Ken Henry recently said he couldn't remember a time in the last 25 years when the quality of public policy debate had been as bad as it is right now. In my opinion, Australia's aid debate is no exception.

Australia's public discussion on our role as an aid donor is patchy at best. The debate is sustained by ANU's Stephen Howes (who runs the Development Policy Centre) and the Lowy Institute's Annmaree O'Keeffe, while Hugh White keeps things interesting. News Limited's Steve Lewis writes a quarterly article for the Daily Telegraph exposing perceived aid waste.

Australian NGO heads do a good job of keeping the focus on poverty and humanitarian aid by getting out in the media during times of disaster and famine, or when it looks as though the aid budget might be cut. But few stay regularly engaged in public debate about Australia's aid strategy and the future of the aid program.

For some NGO figures, this is likely a deliberate strategy. Budget discussions are tense in Canberra. Few supporters (and recipients) of the aid program will want to continuously remind the Australian public, and the Treasury, of the $5.2 billion annual aid budget. As the Government continues to cut spending to achieve its promised budget surplus, foreign aid is an increasingly obvious target.

Last week, Australia's development community got a serious funding injection which has the potential to shake up and wake up the lethargic aid debate. The Harold Mitchell Foundation gave a $2.5 million grant to the Development Policy Centre, a university think tank which undertakes aid and development analysis. This grant, which will be matched by ANU, will give the Centre breathing space and independence from the very institution whose policies it will need to critically analyse and inform – those of AusAID.

The fact that this is such big news in Australia's small development community tells you a lot about the environment Australia's aid budget is operating in. Australia is not blessed with a collection of research institutes that provide Australia with informed analysis on international development issues, and hence inform and shape Australian aid policy. As a comparison, the UK aid agency DFID is surrounded by institutes which provide high quality research and engage in a dynamic public debate which helps inform the British public on the pros and cons of an international aid program.

Australia's weak aid debate is odd given the size and scope of Australia's aid program and considering the aid budget has more than doubled since 2006-07. Over this period, the Australian Government, civil society, and to a lesser extent the business community, have paid little attention to building Australia's capacity and knowledge on international development issues.

A frail and weak aid policy dialogue is bad news for those who support a sustainable and predictable aid program. A weak policy debate means there is one less obstacle to potentially diverting aid funds to other priorities. Sure, keeping a low profile and remaining disengaged from the public debate helps minimise the effort required to defend the aid program from criticism and keeps the Foreign Minister's office happy. But a weak aid debate also means that much of the policy and strategy surrounding Australia's aid program remains undiscussed, untested and misunderstood.

Too often in Australia, when the money stops the thinking starts. Earlier this year the Government slashed the defence budget by 10%. Subsequently, a vacuum of debate on defence policy has been filled with voices from both in and outside the ADF. A weak aid debate will prove detrimental to the sustainability of the Australian aid program. Does Australia have to wait until the aid program faces cuts before we can expect an informed and lively debate on Australia's role as an aid donor?

Photo by Flickr user sbluerock.