A Bit Rich
The Age, August 22, 2004

In this election year, several members of the Howard Government have been talking about the importance of ethics and values. It started in January with the Prime Minister saying that parents were choosing to send their children to private schools because government schools are too "values-neutral". Tony Abbott has been talking up moral issues. And Treasurer Peter Costello said, in a speech at Scots Church, Melbourne, in May, "We do not have to look far to see evidence of moral decay around us".

This emphasis on ethics is in curious contrast to the stance that the Howard Government boasts about taking when it comes to Australia's role in the world.

The Government's first white paper on foreign policy was called In the National Interest. It asserted that foreign policy is "about the hard-headed pursuit of the interests which lie at the core of foreign and trade policy". These interests were, it said, "the security of the Australian nation and the jobs and standard of living of the Australian people", and it promised to "apply this basic test of national interest" in all that it did in the field of foreign and trade policy. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reiterated this philosophy in a speech to the National Press Club in May 2002, and John Howard said it even more explicitly when speaking to the Sydney Institute in July 2003: "Australia's foreign policy must always serve our national interests."

In everyday life, it is thought wrong for individuals to consider only their own interests, and not take into account the interests of others. Such people are called selfish. It is believed that morality demands at least some concern for others. People are urged to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Something like that is, in many traditions, Eastern and Western, a core component of living ethically. Yet the Howard Government tells people to behave ethically at home, while proclaiming that they should be selfish in their stance towards the rest of the world.

The results of that selfish stance are now plain.

At the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000, the nations of the world set a series of "millennium development goals" to be achieved by 2015. These goals include halving the number of people living in extreme poverty and suffering from hunger, or lacking safe drinking water; giving every child at least a primary school education, reducing child mortality by two-thirds, and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Australia signed on to these goals, and a World Bank study has indicated that, with a modest increase in aid, they can be achieved.

Yet Australia is failing to meet its obligations to give aid sufficient to meet these goals. For it to play its part in meeting the health goals, for instance, its expenditure in that area would have to be tripled. Its aid for water and sanitation is only about a sixth of what it needs to be.

Overall, Australia now gives only 0.26 per cent of its gross national income in overseas aid - that's just 26 cents in every $100 the nation earns. Despite its strong economy, this figure has fallen since 1995-96, when it was 0.32 per cent, and compares poorly with most other developed nations. Worse still, since the Howard Government took office, aid to the Middle East has trebled, while aid to sub-Sahara Africa - where most of the poorest countries are - has been cut in half, and is now only 3 per cent of the total aid budget. It is hard to escape the conclusion that in Australia's aid program, the moral obligation, as a wealthy nation, to help the world's poorest people, takes second place to what the Government perceives as being in "our national interest".

An even more clear-cut example of putting the national interest - narrowly conceived in economic terms - ahead of moral obligations is Australia's failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol is an attempt to deal with the ethical dilemma of how to divide up a cake when there are more people who would like a big slice than the number of big slices that the cake will yield. Here the cake is the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb waste gases without changing the climate of the planet in ways that will prove disastrous for hundreds of millions of people.

Every industrialised nation would like to continue a business-as-usual scenario in which its economy is unrestrained by any need to limit emissions. That is the equivalent of getting a big slice of the cake. But if that happens, the atmosphere's limited capacity to absorb these gases without disaster will be exceeded.

Since the atmosphere is a common resource, owned by no nation, a fair way of sharing its capacity must be found. Australia has one of the world's highest - by some measures, the highest - levels of emissions in proportion to its population. No fair way of dividing the atmospheric cake among all nations could conceivably grant Australians such a disproportionately large share of this resource. Indeed, the slice Australians are now getting is about six times as large as it would be if they were to follow the usual rule adopted in dividing cakes - an equal slice for everyone - and divide the global emissions target set by the Kyoto Protocol equally among all of the planet's inhabitants.

At Kyoto, Australia bargained hard for - and was conceded - the most generous deal of any industrialised nation. Whereas most countries agreed to cut their emissions to about 5 per cent below their 1990 levels, Australia was asked only to cut back to a level 8 per cent above its 1990 levels. No other nation, except Iceland (which has a population of 300,000 people and low per-capita emissions) was given a target more than 1 per cent above 1990 levels.

Yet the Australian Government has refused to sign on even to this target - a conspicuous example of selfishness, unconstrained by ethics.

Realists will claim that all nations pursue their national interest, and Australia would be foolish not to do the same. But in the face of urgent problems that need a global solution, the realist stance is indefensible. If nations focus on their own interests, eschewing

co-operative solutions that involve an element of sacrifice without any immediate pay-off, the outcome will, in the long run, be worse for most of us. In this situation, even enlightened realists can see the need for governments to do more than promote the short-term interests of the nation they govern.

Every nation has an interest in promoting the ideal of good global citizenship. A nation that is a good global citizen acts in a manner that, if followed by others, would lead to a significantly better world.

A nation led by a government genuinely interested in promoting moral values would have been a better global citizen than Australia has been under the Howard Government.