I am in favour of a big Australia. 

But I don't mean a big Australia in population terms which has dominated so much of the federal election campaign. I mean a nation that is big in terms of its vision, its compassion and in identifying its place in the region and the world.

Australia face 

A 'BIG' AUSTRALIA? Tim Costello's vision for a big Australia is a nation 'big interms of its vision'. PICTURE: © Duncan Walker (www.istockphoto.com)

 

"(I)n the context of the population debate the issue of asylum seekers is too often erroneously, or cynically, blamed - despite the fact the numbers arriving in our waters make a mockery of such arguments."

Sadly the election campaign appears to have become a foreign policy-free zone. It is also a campaign bereft of hope. Neither of the major political parties has sought to define Australia's role in the world. For a host of reasons we are a fortunate nation that has escaped the worst impacts of the global financial crisis. 

Little wonder that more than one political commentator has lamented the domestic, poll-driven nature of this election by citing the acerbic reflections of 19th-century French democrat Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: "There go the people - I must follow them, for I am their leader." 

There is a two-fold tragedy in the current 'Big Australia' debate. Firstly in the context of the population debate the issue of asylum seekers is too often erroneously, or cynically, blamed - despite the fact the numbers arriving in our waters make a mockery of such arguments. 

The second tragedy is there is precious little to inspire a 'big' vision for the nation. There is one notable exception and that has been the bipartisan agreement by both major political parties to commit to boosting the nation's overseas aid program. But even here we could go further. 

In terms of the population debate there may well be merit for the nation to have a frank and fearless debate on migration. In recent years Australia has received up to 300,000 people annually. As the Coalition recently discovered when it promised to cap the migration, these figures are now set to fall sharply, and to even drop below Mr Abbott's planned cap of 170,000. 

Of course if we have an open debate on immigration, we know that we must weigh up the consequences for economic growth, a point business groups have been quick to highlight. Yet there is no way this population debate should be clouded by promises to "stop the boats". Australia accepts about 13,500 people through its humanitarian progam each year - only a porton of whom come by boat. In fact, numbers are evenly split into thirds between the conflict-ridden Middle Eastern/West Asia, Africa and the Asia/Pacific. 

And even though there is a financial cost to fulfilling our humanitarian obligations in respect of asylum seekers, it is clear moves to process such claims offshore will only increase these costs. 

It is my hope that our political leaders will have the courage to reframe the debate on asylum seekers rather than to stoke the fear that exists in the electorate. All political parties must restore respect to asylum seekers policy and end offshore detention and processing for those who land on our shores. It is worth noting that around 90 per cent of those who apply for asylum have been found to be refugees. 

There is more optimism to be found in this campaign, however, on the issue of overseas aid. The bipartisan commitment to growing Australia's aid and development budget as good global citizens and in our own national interest is most welcome. 

Yet Australia must maximise the effectiveness of its billion-dollar aid budget by elevating it to a Cabinet-level portfolio alongside foreign affairs and trade. Both major parties should go further and commit to appointing a minister for overseas development to ensure the nation's aid budget is delivering maximum benefit to those in need as well to Australia in terms of fostering stability and trade in our region. 

Australia lags behind countries such as the United Kingdom which has elevated development efforts to the same level as diplomacy and defence.

The UK already has an independent department for international aid, which has increased aid effectiveness because aid spending is recognised as only one part of successful development and is integrated into related portfolios like trade, foreign affairs, migration, national security and conflict resolution. 

Australia already has a rich heritage of ministers representing our overseas development assistance program in cabinet. Restoring its place in senior government deliberations would help deliver a whole of government approach to aid and unify the piecemeal efforts that shift and alter the rationale and expectations for development outcomes. It would give AusAID - the nation's agency for international development - an appropriately stronger voice reflecting the significant increase in aid funding that both major parties are supporting. 

It is gratifying that in the political debate over aid and development, Australia's leaders acknowledge that we cannot think as an island nation. It is an acknowledgement that the issues that beset our neighbours, near and far, profoundly impact our own lives. 

It is a pity that, to date, such far-sightedness has not extended to our national approach to climate change. The impact of climate change on our globe ignores national borders. It is a problem that must be tackled domestically and internationally. 

There is still time in this campaign for our leaders to give us a vision of a 'Big Australia', but as the campaign unfolds there is little evidence of it being presented. 

Tim Costello is the CEO of World Vision Australia. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.