Soft diplomacy: Greg Sheridan gets it wrong on aid, Israel and the Security Council

Bob Carr is getting very little love from The Australian’s Greg Sheridan of late. AAP/Lukas Coch

Poor Greg Sheridan: he never met a prime minister he couldn’t be besotted with until Julia Gillard came along.

Ever since she got the top job, he has been running a campaign designed to demonstrate that her government is bound on leaving Australia defenceless while squandering precious taxpayer’s money on unnecessary overseas aid.

His latest outburst in last weekend’s Australian is, not surprisingly, half right and half dangerous nonsense.

Diplomacy and aid

Sheridan juxtaposes spending on foreign aid, which is increasing, though not at the rate previously promised, with declining resources for Australian diplomatic representation. “The Australian foreign affairs and aid budgets are a disgraceful shambles that reflect neither Australia’s national interests nor our values,” he wrote.

That Australia is under-represented diplomatically was established by a Lowy Institute study in 2009, which pointed out that we maintain fewer overseas diplomatic posts than any other country of comparable size and income.

Sheridan is right: he has written before about the lack of an Australian embassy in Morocco, to which we should certainly add Colombia, which is emerging as a significant economic and political force in Latin America.

He is also partly right in arguing that “Good diplomacy does more to help fight poverty than aid does.” But this begs the question of what constitutes “good diplomacy”. It also avoids the evidence that aid, properly targeted, does work.

Of course a lot of it is wasted, and some of it ends up in the hands of corrupt and unpleasant regimes. But at the same time, as is clear from the evidence that is presented on the very good postings from the Development Policy Centre at the ANU, much of it is remarkably effective.

There are many areas where we could argue for cutting back on aid, starting with the money funnelled via commercial companies that run major projects for AusAID. There are far too many consultants whose self-interest outruns their concern for real change, and there is a bizarre tendency for AusAID to award consultancies to rich northern universities rather than committing to help develop local and regional research expertise.

But none of these problems seem to trouble Sheridan as much as the “dizzying number of grants to Australian aid NGOs in part to raise awareness of the need for aid spending.”

In fact, many aid agencies are careful that they do not use government funds for their advocacy work. But in principle this is the corporatist model that also funds industry groups, and gives major tax concessions to struggling mining companies, so they can more effectively influence the tax codes.

Israel and Palestine

But Sheridan’s real animus, it turns out, is directed at “taxpayers’ money” which goes to various agencies working with Palestinian relief organisations. The Australian clearly has a house rule that government expenditure its writers dislike must be described as “taxpayers’ money”, unlike, say, money spent on submarines, which Sheridan wants more of.

He may well be right that some of this money could be better directed, although his major informant for this argument appears to be Michael Danby, the member for Melbourne Ports, and “certainly the Australian politician who knows more about the Middle East than any other”.

Oddly this part of Sheridan’s polemic echoes a recent story along very similar lines in the Australian Jewish News, which gave prominence to Danby’s criticism of Foreign Minister Carr for allowing funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency in Palestine. Danby may well know more about the Middle East than his peers — if so, that is a sad reflection on the general level of knowledge within the Parliament — but he is also an overt and proud lobbyist for Israel, as is Sheridan.

Let’s assume, however, they are both right, and the UNWRA is “a notorious boondoggle of vast waste and political dysfunction”. Let’s further assume Sheridan is right and it would be better to spend the funds on diplomacy than support for the Palestinian groups he abhors.

Under Gillard, Australia’s diplomatic stance on the Palestinian issue is to support the Israeli government of the day, whatever their policies. It must have been a hard day for Sheridan, given his bromance with Kevin Rudd, and his dislike of Gillard, when the prime minister overruled Rudd, then foreign minister, on the vote recognising Palestine as a state, instead backing Israel.

Were Australia to take an independent position on the Israeli/Palestinian debate, similar to that of some European countries, and recognise that a peace settlement requires more than supporting every Israeli demand, this would indeed be “good diplomacy”, though I doubt it would please Sheridan.

There is something perverse about the constant emphasis on our relations with Israel, which in any rational assessment of what matters to Australia is surely at best a second order issue.

The Security Council

There is a temptation for me to agree with Sheridan that the decision to seek a seat on the Security Council is wrong-headed and has led to some strange funding choices. The seat is not, however, the major reason for Australian aid to Africa increasing, as he argues in his piece. This has been a major demand from the development sector for many years, and reflects international consensus on where development assistance is most required.

Sheridan apparently sees the search for a seat as a direct misuse of the taxes of “a policeman in Dandenong, a shearer in Scone, a miner in Mt. Isa.” But is there not a major inconsistency in arguing for more diplomatic engagement and rejecting the possibility of engagement within one of the major arenas where global decisions are made?

My own scepticism about the Security Council bid is that were we to win — which is increasingly unlikely — we would effectively act as another vote for the United States, rather than carving out an independent Australian position.

My hope is, should Australia be awarded a seat, that the foreign minister of the time — most likely it will be Julie Bishop — would actually use the position to develop a genuinely Australian perspective on global issues. A position where we acted as a broker and intermediary between our traditional North Atlantic allies and the countries of our region.

If that were the case we would also recognise that the demand to increase our foreign assistance to 0.5% of Gross National Index is a commitment to some sense of global equity, which for a country situated where Australia is should be both a moral and a realistic priority, whether Greg Sheridan likes it or not.