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Indonesian education aid works – don't cut it

Desperate times, they say, call for desperate measures. Proposing to cut $400 million from Australia’s aid budget to Indonesia’s schools program looks pretty desperate. So one can only assume that having alienated damp Queensland voters and not just a few Victorians, Tony Abbott is trying to find a way out of opposing the one-off tax hole he has dug himself into.

Someone should tell him that the first rule of holes is, when you are in one, stop digging.

Abbott’s chopping of the Indonesian education program would be an abysmal policy decision, but for one saving grace: being in opposition means it won’t be enacted.

So what is wrong with cutting $400 million from the Australian aid program to Indonesia? As any fair dinkum, true-blue, red-blooded Aussie will tell you, we need to spend our precious money on our own kiddies and let those ungrateful foreign people look after themselves. Except when we go to Bali for holidays and then they are very nice … ooops! Wasn’t Bali twice the scene of mass murder directed at Australians by just such people who received the type of education the $400 million is aimed at changing? Clang!

It is true that many Australians do wonder why we have a foreign aid program. Barnaby Joyce was in favour of scrapping it a little while back. One has to assume that foreign policy is not the strong suit of either Mr Joyce or Mr Abbott. Australia has an aid program so it can (try to) achieve desirable outcomes in countries of strategic interest, to give a little bit of economic substance to its diplomatic rhetoric, and to genuinely assist some people who, through no personal fault of their own, end up in pretty rotten circumstances. That is, we are –or like to think we are — just a little bit humanitarian.

But let’s just assume we are not humanitarian, that we don’t even accept the helping-you-to-help-us principle of "enlightened self-interest". Well, sadly, Indonesia is not going away any time soon. Indeed, there is a fair chance that Indonesia will be smack bang on our front doorstep for the rest of forever.

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has been pretty rocky until fairly recently. Australia helped out following the 2004 tsunami, but otherwise most of our aid is fairly low profile. Some Indonesian kids might know they are receiving a largely secular education because of Australian funding, but most that do, probably would not realise. But they will know they are in a school and not a madrasa, or Islamic boarding school.

Some madrasas are very good, but most are mediocre, and then there is the handful that preach blind hatred and extreme violence to impressionable young minds. Do we want to be stuck with people like that as neighbours forever? No, me neither. So helping fund education in what is still a developing country, with more than a few continuing problems, is actually a pretty good idea.

Australia has been lulled into a false sense of security with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the helm. He is very smart — a cautious reformist — and Australia’s friend. The health of the bilateral relationship comes down to him.

Before him, bilateral relations were awful in so many ways and it may again become true — SBY is now largely hamstrung by his own parliament and he is in his second and hence last term. All Australia does with aid and diplomacy is to try and sell the idea to less sanguine Indonesians, that we really are OK and they shouldn’t hate us for East Timor, cultural insensitivity, turning back boat people, burning fishing boats, being fat, uncouth and ugly in Bali, and many other reasons.

So, supporting education — a good, positive gesture — is something we should retain. Perhaps, however, it was a better sound bite than cutting the African aid budget entirely, which it appears was the alternative. The pictures of starving orphans (you could see that left-liberal campaign coming before it even got to the horizon) would haunt even the hardest of political hard men and play very badly with middle-ground voters who, if nothing else, do have a heart.

But, as noted, it was a cheap stunt — the bid is in but it will never be paid out. It was just the opposition leader digging his way out of (and hence back into) a political hole.

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