ONE humanitarian crisis facing Australia has political advantage, the other does not.
In one crisis the government responds to an international request for help by sending troops and planes overseas, with “security” action in Australia and an injection of hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the other the government responds by declining the request for troops, making a small financial contribution and ensuring readiness at home. The responses are disproportionate.
The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has assured the community that the government will deploy all the resources needed to keep Australians safe. This is at a time he has been feeling the polling pressure as his popularity wanes and he is exposed again and again for breaking promises he made before the election.
British PM, Margaret Thatcher, illustrated just how useful wars are for politicians who are behind in the polls. Before April, 1982, Thatcher was polling as the UK’s single most unpopular prime minister. She then assembled a British Task Force which was successful in retaking the Falkland Islands from Argentina’s military junta led by Gen Leopoldo Galtieri. The following year she won a landslide election and continued in office until 1990.
The first contingent of SAS troops has left Brisbane for Iraq and the intention is to deploy 600 military personnel and eight Super Hornets as well as other planes to the United Arab Emirates with a cost estimated at around half a billion dollars a year.
The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who has been arguing since he came to government about the Budget also being in crisis, added his support for the expenditure saying: “Ultimately you can’t put a price on protecting human beings and that’s what we’re doing”.
It is a shame that the government does not have the same attitude to all of the people suffering and dying in the wake of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. This is a humanitarian crisis. They also need protection. Although it’s clear that it is not so politically useful, there is a dire need for troops, professionals and money – a similar contribution that Australia is making to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Australia has reacted on the Ebola front. Foreign Minister Bishop and Health Minister Dutton put up a million dollars at the early stages of the Ebola infection. Last week they added another $7 million. Dutton has also reassured Australians that our own country is in appropriate preparedness with a co-ordinated approach between the Commonwealth chief medical officer, Prof Chris Baggoley, and his State and Territory counterparts.
However, the investment so far is a drop in the bucket. Infections like this do not respect borders as we learnt from the avian and swine flu epidemics.
The Ebola virus outbreak was declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” on August 8, and the World Health Organization released an Ebola Response Roadmap on August 28 with a request of over half a billion Australian dollars.
Just three weeks later the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon called for a billion dollars. On September 19, the UN Security Council unanimously declared the Ebola outbreak a “threat to international peace and security”. He added that this, “the largest outbreak of Ebola in history,” demands the “attention of the world” and requires “unprecedented” action.
Australia responded quickly to the crisis in Iraq where it is politically convenient. Its response on Ebola is entirely inconsistent.
It is time for Australia to step up, provide appropriate troops and equipment, deploy our Ausmat health team (that was used so successfully during the Philippine’s disaster), assemble appropriately qualified civilians and make a really significant financial contribution. Real action is needed before this Ebola crisis gets even worse.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health. He is CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia and is vice-president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations.