Australia's contributions to United Nations humanitarian and development bodies will be cut by $20 million this year to pay for food and housing for asylum seekers in Australia, just months after Labor won a seat on the UN Security Council with a promise of increased aid.
A spokesman for the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, confirmed that $20 million, from a total of $375 million was to be diverted from the aid budget to pay for the rising costs of the government's asylum policy, will come from money allocated for UN programs.
Aid groups have written to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, demanding to know exactly where all the cuts will be made ''in the name of public accountability and transparency''.
The $230 million in this year's budget for the UN includes $105 million for humanitarian agencies such as the World Food Program and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and $124 million for development agencies such as the UN Development Program and the UN Children's Fund.
The spokesman said the UNHCR, which processes asylum seekers in offshore camps, would be shielded from the funding delays. The government would not say which other programs would be cut this year.
The opposition spokeswoman on foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, said the government had ''misled'' countries when it won the Security Council seat, which Australia takes up in January, with a promise to increase foreign aid to 0.5 per cent of gross national income.
The government insists the diverted money still qualifies as ‘‘legitimate aid’’ under OECD rules, and that other countries spend their aid budgets on onshore asylum applicants, but Ms Bishop dismissed that as ‘‘spin’’ because ‘‘it is not being spent overseas and it is not being spent on development.’’
She ridiculed the fact that Australia was now the third largest recipient of its own foreign aid program, after Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. But she would not commit to restoring the funding, saying a Coalition Government would need to see the state of the budget.Some on Labor’s own backbench are also angry at the decision, with West Australian MP Melissa Parke saying it was "counterproductive" and that the budget should not balanced "on the backs of the poor".
"We’re a wealthy developed country … and we shouldn’t be balancing our budget on the backs of the extreme poor. That is not the act of a good global citizen," she said.
The backlash against the aid funding decision came as the chief of the defence force General David Hurley said the Coalition’s policy to ‘‘turn back’’ asylum seeker boats - the biggest remaining difference between the policies of the major parties - would not have a big impact on asylum seeker arrivals.
He said the navy would do what it was instructed to do by a new government, but turning back the boats was ‘‘not a solution’’ and people smugglers would ‘‘work around’’ the move.
‘‘A change like that by itself may not have ramifications for the whole chain,’’ he told Sky television.
‘‘They (the people smugglers) will watch what we do and respond.’’
The Australian Council for International Development wrote to Ms Gillard yesterday demanding details of the cuts and saying the decision ‘‘seriously undermines community trust in Australia’s aid program.’’