Don’t let political agendas seep into flood recovery plans

14 January 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Like many Australians, I’ve found myself glued to the continuing television coverage of the unfolding flood crisis in Australia’s north over the past two days.

The enormity of this unprecedented disaster is difficult to comprehend, and one is often left with a feeling of helplessness.

In a disaster of this magnitude, various kinds of rhetoric begin to emerge – often from politicians, and sometimes unrelated to the task at hand.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s continued reinforcement that the federal budget will return to surplus in 2012/13 despite the huge cost of the recovery effort in Queensland is a good example.

There’s no doubt the federal government will be fully committed to the rebuilding of Queensland’s flood-affected areas.

But is it really the time to be thinking about a budget surplus?

While many would be in favour of the Gillard government sticking to its election promise of returning to a surplus next year, surely we’d understand if this goal is put back a year or two, given the current circumstances. 

Among some of the other rhetoric emerging from the floods is the call for Australia to cut its overseas aid.

The idea is that this money would be spent on ‘our own people’.  Not on ‘foreigners’.

Federal Liberal MP, Alby Schultz, has accused the government of lavish spending on aid and development programs overseas, saying that this budget should be redirected to assist flood victims. His call has been backed up by letters to the editor in major newspapers and on talkback radio.

But the solidarity which has been displayed by our neighbouring countries during this crisis – Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, to name just two is surely a timely reminder of the importance of our ongoing assistance to countries which are incredibly poor.

Especially since we often repeat that we’re the only developed country to have dodged the global financial crisis bullet.

Besides, our aid budget isn’t that overly generous.

Australia is ranked 16th out of the 23 OECD countries when it comes to giving aid on a per capita basis.

Yet Australia is ranked second on the United Nations human development index, with the second-best quality of life, behind Norway.

In the words of World Vision’s CEO Tim Costello, cutting overseas aid would simply ‘set up suffering against suffering – almost a contest’.

It’s worth keeping the situation we’re facing in context.  Flash flooding in Brazil this week, for example, has claimed the lives of almost 400 people.

The economic cost of the Queensland floods will need to be dealt with in due course, and will no doubt strain the nation’s budget. 

But surely, none of this should allow us, as a nation and as a people, to compromise on the compassion we so often pride ourselves on.

It’s this compassion which has been demonstrated by Australians in all the natural disasters we’ve had to endure.

And even by people whose very lives we have made in to one big political football.

While calls to cut overseas aid illustrates that we’ve lost some of our compassion along the way, yesterday, some 70 asylum seekers held in a Darwin centre made a special plea to authorities to allow them to make a donation to the flood appeal.

Immigration Department spokesman Sandi Logan described it as an ‘unselfish act by people who themselves have an uncertain future’.

In contrast, many of us have a certain future.  And yet sometimes, we lack the unselfishness which can be displayed by even the most vulnerable of people in the most trying of circumstances.

Cutting aid and returning the federal budget to surplus won’t fix Queensland’s problems.

On the other hand showing humanity to those who need it, including those beyond our borders, will always go a long way.

Erdem Koc is the founding editor of upstart, and a journalist at SBS radio. He will be lecturing in La Trobe University’s Journalism program in 2011.