Just before Christmas, the Federal Government announced that it will cut a further $3.7 billion from the aid budget over the next four years. This means that since coming to office in September 2013, a staggering $11 billion has been cut from Australia’s aid program.
I know that the Government believes it faces a very difficult economic situation and has to make unpopular choices. No one would argue with the Government’s desire to act prudently and to try and return the Budget to surplus over time. However, it seems to me that these cuts fly in the face of our position as a wealthy nation, and our responsibility to help our neighbours in need.
Australia is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. We have an economy that continues to grow, the sixth lowest level of debt among all developed countries, relatively low unemployment by international benchmarks, and a standard of living for most people that is the envy of most of the world.
Against this background, our Government is asking the world’s poorest people to make disproportionate sacrifices, and in doing so reduce Australian aid to its lowest recorded levels.
To put this into perspective, Australian aid makes up just over 1 per cent of the Federal Government’s budget; cuts to aid represent more than a quarter of all the budget cuts this Government has made since coming to office. These actions take the shine off international perceptions of Australia as a generous nation.
Aid agencies such as Anglican Overseas Aid feel like they are in limbo, as there has been no detail provided on where these cuts will fall. We just have the headline figures. Recommendations are being made right now by Government committees that will affect us in the May 2015 budget.
This uncertainty is destabilising and demoralising for staff who are passionate about the work that they do, but the greatest impact will be felt by those communities who benefit through international development programs.
My concern is that foreign aid is regularly raided, by both sides of politics, because it is politically expedient to do so. Cutting or redirecting foreign aid doesn’t require legislative support in the Senate and the consequences are felt far from home.
Development spending should not be seen as a piggybank to be raided. It should be seen as a fundamental moral commitment that is part of being a globally responsible, wealthy nation. From a Christian perspective, Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, and in a globalised world, this means both at home and overseas.
Other countries with far greater deficit problems than Australia – and led by conservative governments – recognise this moral imperative and have made development spending a real priority. British Prime Minister David Cameron stands out as one such champion.
More importantly, the Government should take its lead from the Australian people who have steadily increased their personal financial support for aid and development even as the Government makes its cuts. It is clear that helping our neighbours is a priority and source of pride for the average Australian, and should be a guide for the Government when making policy decisions.
We wait to assess the impact of the announced cuts on our programs. We may need to call on the generosity of our supporters more than ever, but the reality is that the Australian giving public can never give as much as the Government that represents us.
As Christians we understand that salvation is for everyone and that the task of working for God’s Kingdom is to be shared. Unquestionably, God has a heart for the poor. Salvation is a broad concept and it includes seeking fullness of life before death.
Church-based aid and development is an important ministry that touches upon our own sense of global responsibility as we seek dignity and opportunity for others. As part of this, there are times when we are called to seek justice – to speak prophetically – and maybe this is one of those occasions.
The reaction of donors and supporters to the latest announcements has been strong. One donor, an ex-serviceman, rang me to express his deep concern and disgust at the announced cuts. He advised me that he is writing to the Federal Government to return his war service medals.
His view is that cuts of this scale and severity go against the values of the Australian people and that a symbolic protest was called for.
If you would like to join him in voicing your opposition to these cuts, Micah Challenge has prepared a website that helps you to contact your MP to voice your support for Australian aid: www.micahchallenge.org.au/dont-cut-aid
Anglican Overseas Aid is a member of Micah Challenge, a coalition of Christian aid and development agencies.
Anglican Overseas Aid is also part of the Campaign for Australian Aid, a new campaign that celebrates the achievements of Australian Aid that helps people around the world to reach their potential. Find out more about the Campaign for Australian Aid here.
This opinion piece by our CEO, the Reverend Bob Mitchell, first appeared in the February 2015 edition of The Melbourne Anglican.