John Menadue.  We pass by on the other side.

Nov 16, 2014

We are one of the richest and most privileged people in the world but our recent performance on Ebola, foreign aid and refugees tells the world a quite different story.

On Ebola, our response has been grudging and slow. We tendered one excuse after another. We moved quickly however to commit our military to combat again in Iraq and Syria. Our Medical Assistance Teams which we have deployed in humanitarian disasters like the typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines were ready to go to West Africa. They had volunteered and had vaccinations. The AMA urged us to get cracking. After a very lengthy delay the government decided to outsource our assistance. Our tardiness was in stark contrast to the response of countries such as the UK and the US. All the advice from experts was that the best way to address the Ebola outbreak was at its source. We knew that the medical and health facilities and hospitals in Liberia and other countries in the region were closing because the qualified staff were contacting Ebola and dying. Several hospitals were bereft of any staff. Healthcare in West Africa was near collapse but we delayed. Liberia has an income per head of $US454 p.a.; ours is over $US68,000. It is hard to recall a situation where our response has been so miserable.

The UNHCR told us a few days ago that there were 13.6 million refugees displaced by the wars in Syria and Iraq. That is more than the combined populations of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, our four largest cities. By our involvement in the war in Iraq we have contributed to this humanitarian disaster. But our refugee intake has remained unchanged at 13,750 p.a. Kevin Rudd had promised to increase it to 20,000 and Tony Abbott agreed before the last election. He then changed his mind and kept the quota at 13,750. If we adjusted our intake according to our population increase since the time of the Indochina refugee program, we would now be taking over 35,000 refugees p.a. which would still be quite small in relation to our migrant intake. Whilst the humanitarian tragedy in the Middle East escalates, we continue to turn our back.

We are also ignoring our responsibilities as a wealthy country in overseas development assistance. In the last budget, the biggest cut in government spending was in overseas development assistance. We spend more on our cats and dogs than we do on ODA. At the same time that it cut funding for the poor of the world, the government kept in place a whole range of programs that advantaged the wealthy, such as superannuation concessions and subsidies to the mining industry.

Surely we can do a lot better than this.

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