Another Way for Aussie Aid to Work

Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia breezed into Jakarta last week and handed out A$500 million for the worthy cause of Indonesian schools. The new donation, to be dispersed over five years, brings the estimated Australian aid commitment to Indonesia over the period to $2 billion.

Aid programmes include scholarships for Indonesians to travel free to study free at Australian universities (a privilege for which Australians must pay), receive a $5,000 establishment fee and an annual “contribution to living allowance” of at least $25,000 which permits many of them to take their families with them.  Such programmes offer wonderful opportunities to Indonesian go-getters and unquestionably build relations between the neighbour nations.

But there is another side to the coin. Recent experience with a seriously ill relative brought me into contact with the shocking state of deterioration of one of Western Australia’s leading public hospitals where just a crumb of the public money dispensed in foreign aid would have immensely improved the comfort, treatment and possibly the life span of ill Australians.

The degenerated state of public health facilities and services throughout Australia is a nightmare issue that has reached life-threatening proportions. The nation’s taxpayers deserve to see a little more of their money applied to correct it.

There’s no problem with the concept of generous foreign aid if it is sensibly distributed and responsibly used. But current levels of Australian funding can be seen as part of an inequitable trend that penalises Australians for the betterment of others.

A good friend retired to Indonesia five years ago, before reaching Australian pension age (65) and after decades of hard work and high income tax, expecting to be self-funded for the rest of his life. The global financial crisis put paid to that. 

In Australia this year, he inquired about access to the age pension on the basis that he spent the bulk of his time in Indonesia and would be returning there. The office at which he inquired processed an application, and Big Brother granted it.

But from the day he returned to Indonesia, where he makes no call on Australian’s infrastructure, health and other services, his pension was suspended and later cancelled. He was aggrieved, particularly at the officious but non-explanatory correspondence that Big Brother sent his way. 

He eventually established through other means that because he was resident out of Australia at the time of application – he’d inquired; the bureaucrats applied – he’d had fallen victim to the “two-year rule.”

To receive the age pension, all of $12,000 a year, Big Brother demands that at 66 he uproot his life and return to live for two full years in Australia, where he has no home and can’t afford to buy one.

Only after a full two years of residency may he leave Australia “permanently” and continue to receive the age pension.

Big Brother in this case is Australia’s all-powerful Centrelink social security octopus, the payment agency for all public welfare. It readily admits the two-year rule was introduced to prevent Greek citizens who had worked for a minimum pension-qualifying time in Australia returning to their home country with their regular Australian benefits.

My friend is not Greek. He is an Australian with permanent resident status of no country other than Australia. In Bali, he is darned sight closer to many parts of Australia than most of that vast county’s population.

To many, in these times of increasing globalisation, mobility and multi-culturalism, national borders are little more than lines on maps, especially when they are between close neighbours.

It is impossible for anyone to live a reasonable-quality lifestyle in Australia on $12,000 a year, a fact Australia recognises by paying its international scholarship students annual allowances of at least $30,000. (Wow, that’s more than Rp22 million a month).

In Indonesia, $12,000 a year (Rp8.9 million a month) would ensure my Australian friend of a comfortable life in his later years – after decades of substantial input into the Australian public purse – and it would free the Australian budget of other needs to support him.

But because – while being formally resident in Australia, voting in Australia, banking in Australia, and being physically there frequently – he applied for the pension while “non-resident,” he must sentence himself to two years enforced presence in the country to access his right to the public pittance.

This is a barbaric infringement of personal freedom. It also reeks of the Big Brother mentality of over-regulation that in recent times has persuaded many older Australians that they would be freer living elsewhere. They certainly cost their fellow citizens less by doing so.

Instead of penalising them, Prime Minister Gillard should be thanking retired Australians who want to take their meagre age pensions elsewhere and forgo their otherwise inevitable demands on Australia’s overburdened health and welfare infrastructure.

People like my friend are possibly doing more to enhance bilateral relations by engaging in the local community and culture, making friends and spending money on household goods and services than a lot of fire-and-forget aid money. Australia should put a few things into perspective.

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