The original Christmas story was startling news for the poor. God noticed them. More than that, God had become one of them. Never again could His divine image be isolated to Kings, Caesars or rulers, but in Jesus of Nazareth divinity was within the poor, the oppressed, the displaced.
During the last sitting week in Federal Parliament this December, amidst the madness and chaos of bills, motions and a government in turmoil, there was good news for the poor.
It started with 200 Christians gathering for Micah’s ‘Voices for Justice’ Conference. Across two days, these Christians lobbied over 90 politicians from every side of politics.
They were speaking on behalf of the world’s poor, oppressed and displaced who will not vote or have a voice in the next election but whose lives depend on Aid decisions.
The result was truly encouraging and beyond what I had expected.
Among Coalition politicians, many were shocked that under their governance aid that had slipped to its lowest ever level in history. They were surprised that Australia had sunk to 19th on the OECD table of generosity and agreed we should be in the top half of that table at least, especially when according to Credit Suisse’s recent wealth report we now have the highest median wealth in the world.
Even Tony Abbott unexpectedly agreed aid should be increased. His government’s first budget slashed aid by $11.1 billion, attempting to balance his books on the backs of people who have nothing. That budget crushed hope and cost lives, and Australia left the heavy lifting to the UK, Dutch and Scandinavian nations that honoured their promise of aid at 0.7 per cent of GNI. In the UK they made it law.
To hear the passion of conservative Christians speaking up made its mark on him and his colleagues.
And then earlier this week the good news continued.
During their National Conference Labor announced that if elected they would commit $500 million over five years to the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
With an unprecedented 68.5 million displaced people around the world, this is a very welcome announcement and one that was advocated for by our delegates only two weeks earlier during Voices for Justice.
This funding is line with our values as a compassionate nation and will contribute to giving people waiting to find safety the support that they need during their wait.
An additional $30 million was also announced to address the humanitarian crises in the Palestinian Territories, Myanmar and Bangladesh, plus a commitment to reform the Community Sponsored Refugee Program from 10000, to 5,000 refugees to resettle in Australia annually.
And then a very welcome announcement for those in the aid and development sector: A resolution was passed during the conference that a Labor Government would increase aid as a percentage of gross national income every year, with a goal of achieving a funding target of 0.5% of GNI.
However, details of the exact dollar increase each year were not detailed.
An encouraging step for Christians across Australia and many NGO’s across the nation who have advocated on this for so long.
Has the harsh attitude of recent years quashed our warm hearts and generous impulses? I’m not so naïve to believe that there’s simply a sudden pivot towards compassion.
Within this same week, the Coalition announced a better than expected surplus for 2019-2020 as a part of MYEFO.
This would have been the perfect opportunity for the Coalition to outline its own plans to rebuild Australian aid but there were no details on any new aid commitments. Instead we have The Australian reporting that it understands the Coalition plans to find $80 billion of savings through further cuts to the foreign aid budget between now and 2028-2029. If true, this would be very concerning indeed.
For years politicians on both sides have promised to rebuild Australian Aid once the surplus was regained. With MYEFO now showing we are on track for a strong return to surplus in 2019-2020, there are no more excuses.
Improving our international image can help Australia get things done in the diplomatic sphere – and generate income. When defence and security agencies start whispering that aid is soft power and cutting it has left us exposed, this government listens.
But will it lead to change?
Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, talked of increasing aid and making poverty history in his maiden speech. His announcement that the Pacific is ‘back at the centre of Australia’s foreign policy’ with $2 billion in infrastructure bank last month is welcome but must not come at the cost of life-saving aid initiatives.
While the winds of change may be coming, we cannot grow weary in doing good, especially when the lives of the world’s poor depend on our voice.
The 200 Christians who attend Voices for Justice have refreshed my hope that in a world quickly turning inwards, the message of Jesus and Christmas, keeps us focused outward.
Let’s pray that 2019 will continue to deliver that same message of hope for those feeling oppressed by the weight of injustice and darkness, both here in Australia and across the world.
May we consider that age-old reminder from the prophet Isaiah ‘And the government will be upon His shoulders.’ Thank God for that.