Cuts to Australia's aid budget could put lives and futures on the line.
The Christmas story really starts when a peasant girl who finding herself pregnant, announces there is some good news for the poor – certainly more than they have had this week from the Abbott-Hockey Government.
Now as our own nation once again retreats from our commitment to the world’s poor with another massive cut to foreign aid, I have begun to wonder whether the good news of advent might be banned again; this time in Australia.
Pope Francis has talked about inequality and our responsibilities to the poor. He has described it as a global scandal that a billion people go to bed hungry each night when the world produces more than enough food to feed them all. He has explicitly called on world leaders to commit to governing – and taxing – in such a way that those better off are able to provide for those who are not, including through our aid programs.
Following this week’s cuts, Australian aid will now sink to its lowest level since records began. According to the Catholic aid agency, Caritas, for hundreds of thousands of Australian Catholics in parishes and schools around the country, this decision represents an abandonment of the world’s poor.
Yet the government’s decision to slash the aid budget is a profound expression of the coarsening, cruelty and reshaping of Australian values that we are witnessing on an almost daily basis under the leadership of our two most senior Catholic politicians, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey.
We are the fourth richest nation on earth if you exclude Luxembourg and were until this week ranked 13th out of 34 countries on a per capita list of generosity in terms of our aid program. With the latest cut, we will now slip to 19th.
Many will say we are in crisis and have a huge debt. This is profound loss of perspective. Australia’s debt is only 13.5% of GNI (Gross National Income) and out of 28 OECD nations we have the 6th lowest public debt in the world.
Britain has government debt that is 83% of GNI but when it slashed and burnt its budget at a time of double dip recession Prime Minister David Cameron still said, you don’t break your promise to the poorest people in the poorest countries in the world. Those are the values of a decent conservative. Britain’s aid now sits at 0.7% of gross national income which is the level agreed as an international promise by rich nations to poor not that long ago. Australia’s aid by contrast which is currently sitting at 0.32% will now decline to just 0.22% of GNI.
When asked at the G20 in Brisbane what his legacy will be, David Cameron said that his most proud achievement was keeping Britain’s promise to the world’s poor.
Angela Merkel in Germany, another conservative leader, has refused to cut aid. Germany’s aid stands at 0.38% of GNI despite its 55% debt to GNI ratio. Why this profound difference between conservative governments? Even more troubling is what this reveals about the Abbott-Hockey Government’s perception of Australian values when they are willing to make choices that other conservative leaders simply did not even consider.
I fear that the Government believes – after almost 12 years of impasse on how we deal with asylum seekers – that the Australian soul has hardened; the traditional optimism and generosity that we still treasure has been leaching out of our DNA. This has led our government to make decisions in our name that once would have been unthinkable.
It has also paved the way for the Government to frame this debate as a contest between the poor overseas and the poor at home. Instead of cutting aid and with it the vaccinations, clean water, education of girls for communities who have little hope in the world, they could have contrasted the world’s poor with the rich. Instead, they chose not to touch concessions in superannuation which flow to the richest Australians or capital gains that is taxed at only 50% or to act when companies such as Macquarie Bank, Lend Lease and AMP are paying 1% in tax havens like Luxembourg rather than the 30% corporate tax they should be paying here. Instead they falsely set the Australian poor against the poorest of our neighbours.
The Aussie spirit of a fair go certainly has still been evident in some of the responses to the May budget when we were told we are all sharing the pain equally. Australians instinctively knew that the sick, pensioners and certainly the unemployed under 30 were being asked to share far more of the burden than they should and that this was innately unfair.
However, most missed the fact that the May budget sought 20% of its savings from our aid budget that, while literally life-saving, accounts for just over one per cent of the total federal budget. Australians can also be forgiven for missing in yesterday’s budget update that, despite the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop’s best efforts, our assistance to the world’s poorest have again copped the largest cut.
The question this Christmas for those that attend church and even those who don’t, is what has happened to Australian values when a country as well-off as ours continues to abandon our responsibilities to those most vulnerable at home and abroad?
You can join the campaign to Save Australian Aid today.