It took the international “summit season”, a visit by US President Barack Obama and the prospect of a reversal on our ban on sales of uranium to India to finally put foreign affairs on the national political landscape.
And when it did come into the spotlight the focus was squarely on the importance of the Asia-Pacific region. The “Asian Century”, the “China Century” or “America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific” dominated debate.
The focus on our region is belated but welcome. Yet it is short-sighted if we just limit such a debate to issues of diplomacy and defence. In absolute numbers, there are more people living in poverty in the Asia-Pacific region than in any other. Any approach to the region must not only tackle issues of trade and security, but also contribute to regional efforts to combat poverty.
It is fair to say foreign policy has not dominated the Australian political landscape over recent months. Likewise, neither leader has tried to forge their credentials upon foreign affairs issues.
Yet in terms of the bipartisan approach to overseas aid that has survived the often toxic political environment they have struck the right political chord. Australia is committed to increasing aid spending from its current low level of just 35c in every $100 of Australia’s national wealth.
This places Australia 15th on the league ladder of aid donors. We still spend a smaller proportion of our national wealth on aid than countries such as Spain and Ireland, which are mired in debt.
Both the government and opposition are committed to increase spending to 50c in every $100 by 2015-16 (just 0.5 per cent of gross national income).
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd reaffirmed in parliament this month this target, which he admits is a “modest target” and would place us midway on the list of OECD donors.
Deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop has endorsed this target. She told aid agencies last year “the Coalition believes the aid budget should be quarantined from what is often called euphemistically ‘fiscal consolidation’ “. In other words, no cut to the aid budget.
In his ministerial statement, Rudd also announced measures to improve the transparency of the aid program, steps the opposition has welcomed.
This bipartisan leadership reflects some key international developments, most clearly in Britain, where the Conservatives are legislating to raise their aid spending to 0.7 per cent by 2013 – a move supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
For Australia, contributing to fighting poverty and disease in the Asia-Pacific region is not only the right thing to do, it is in our national interest and it also promotes stability and growth.
It is every bit as important as efforts to tackle the European debt crisis that has dominated the efforts of world leaders.
Andrew Hewett, executive director of Oxfam Australia, and Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, are co-chairs of Make Poverty History
This opinion editorial was first published in The Australian on 30 November.