Subject: Govt lifts aid ban on groups critical of Australian policy
Canberra Times (Australia)
May 20, 2009 Wednesday
Govt lifts aid ban on groups critical of Australian policy
Markus Mannheim; Public Service Reporter
Overseas organisations that receive Australian aid are now free to vilify the Government without fear their funding will be cut off.
The parliamentary secretary for development assistance, Bob McMullan, confirmed the shift in policy, saying the Howard government was wrong to punish not-for-profit groups that criticised Australia.
"I've made it clear to NGOs in Australia, to AusAID and around the region that people are entitled to criticise us," he said at an international anti-corruption forum in Canberra.
"They might have to live with the fact that we'll criticise them right back and have a debate, but we will not penalise people for speaking out."
East Timorese aid groups were outraged in 2005 when former foreign minister Alexander Downer stripped a small human rights organisation, Forum Tau Matan, of a $65,830 grant.
AusAID officials later told the Senate the government broke the organisation's contract because it had criticised Australia's hardline negotiations with East Timor over oil and natural gas reserves in the Timor Sea.
Forum Tau Matan was among 13 organisations that signed a petition which demanded Australia respect international law and stop "belittling" East Timor.
Two years after AusAID broke the contract, the organisation rejected a $US20,000 ($A26,000) World Bank grant because some of the money came from Australia.But Mr McMullan condemned the way the former government had treated the organisation.
"We think civil society needs to be fearless," he said. "They will not have their funds cut for simply criticising the Australian Government."
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop dismissed the announcement.
"... Mr McMullan should be focused on how he will ensure the foreign aid budget is sustainable given the Government's growing debt," she said.
Oxfam Australia welcomed the new approach.
The organisation's policy director, James Ensor, said listening to the views of people in developing countries was essential for ensuring aid was effective.
"It shows the maturity of the Australian aid program that the Government is not seeking to restrict debate, but is willing to listen to views that it may not always agree with," he said.
Forum Tau Matan coordinator Joao Pequinho was also pleased with Mr McMullan's comments.
Australian officials assured East Timor's aid community that AusAID would no longer blacklist non-government organisations.