• Politics, protest and prayer

    Posted by Ben

    16 December, 2014

    In light of the Government's aid cuts announced yesterday, I want to step back and consider the politics and process for a moment. If you're like me, you may well feel demoralised and defeated. For years we have been highlighting the significance of Australia's aid program, the good it achieves in our region and beyond, and the fact that Australia has made commitments to the world's poor in the Millennium Development Goals and in solemn pledges to increase aid.

    Yet again and again we see Australian Governments (both Labor and Coalition) turning to the aid program to find a disproportionate share of budget cuts and savings, damaging the effectiveness of our aid and harming some of the world's poorest people.

    We have protested these delays, diversions and cuts time and time again – regardless of which side of politics was in office at the time. We protested Gillard's delays, diversions and broken promises. We have spoken out against Abbott's cuts and broken promises.

    Yet every cut seems to be followed by something even worse.

    Why? And what can we do about it?

    The first thing to recognise is that we are fighting against a powerful metaphor and a simple story. The powerful metaphor is that Government budgets are just like household budgets.

    The simple story is that when times are tough (or when we can be made to feel that times are tough) we need to cut down on luxuries or optional spending – even when this is painful or difficult.

    With this powerful metaphor and simple story deeply entrenched in people's minds, it seems to make sense that aid should be cut. Governments are able to say, "We would love to be more generous, but we just can't afford it at this time" and, by and large, the public accepts this. It makes sense.

    Just as a household might cut back on its charitable donations when times are tough (although many people I know make the sacrificial decision to keep supporting charities by cutting down on other areas of spending) so, too, governments cut back on aid. Regrettable, sure, but necessary.

    With this powerful metaphor and simple story in place, governments are then able to rely on the following facts to make aid cuts politically simple and seemingly inevitable:

    1. There is no domestic constituency that will be affected by aid cuts.
    2. There is also a deep well of ignorance about the aid program for politicians to draw from. (Where does our aid go? What does it do? Is it really effective? How much is lost to corruption or fraud?)
    3. There is no need to get the Parliament to pass legislation in order to cut aid (unlike many other areas of government responsibility.)

    However,  the powerful metaphor and the simple story are not true. Government budgets are not just like household budgets. And aid is not just another "luxury expenditure" or optional donation to charity which should be scaled back when times are tough.

    Governments of every political stripe borrow money all the time to cover all the purposes of government (not just their aid programs). If debts are taken on for productive and socially useful purposes, and as long as servicing the debt doesn't restrict a government from achieving other purposes, then debt is not necessarily a problem. And unlike households, governments borrow money at extraordinarily low rates, are able to print their own money, and can (within limits) define their own income streams and levels by defining what kinds of activity (income, profit, trade, resource extraction, pollution, consumption, etc.) are taxed and at what level. Issuing your own bonds, printing your own money, and changing the nature and level of your income stream through legislation are not powers generally available to the average household.

    Aid is also not a luxury, charitable expenditure to be reduced according to political whim. It is an essential part of global citizenship. It is part of the contribution that Australia makes to a more stable, just, peaceful and prosperous world in which there is opportunity, hope and dignity for all.

    Australian aid contributes to meeting global and regional challenges – such as reducing the risk and spread of infectious diseases like Ebola, TB or HIV/AIDS, dealing with natural disasters or conflicts and the support of displaced people and refugees, or reducing deforestation and loss or damage of natural resources such as water or fisheries. Without aid, many countries would find tackling these cross-border burdens impossible to manage within their own borders and doubly impossible to coordinate with other nations.

    Australian aid also helps people and communities directly, supporting their efforts to overcome barriers to their own development. Working in partnership with other governments, communities, NGOs, UN bodies and others, aid helps to save and transform lives. Our aid helps to support education, better access to healthcare, provision of safe drinking water and decent sanitation, the improvement of governments and courts, the development of farms and businesses and the inclusion of poor and marginalised people into economies and societies.

    In just one year, Australian aid helped to:

    • ensure an additional 889,000 new mothers had their deliveries attended by a skilled birth attendant;
    • support an extra 1.4 million children to enrol in school;
    • give more than a million people better access to basic sanitation and more than 2.9 million people better access to safe water;
    • vaccinate 2.4 million children against killer diseases;
    • train an extra 160,000 teachers and school officials;
    • support 13.7 million women, men, girls and boys with life-saving assistance during conflicts or crises.

    These are good things in themselves which we should be pleased to contribute to. And we are all better off in a world where more people have opportunity, dignity and hope.

    So we need to challenge the powerful metaphor and the simple story. When governments spend billions on new fighter jets but cut aid, it is not the painful but inevitable consequence of economic reality. It is a choice, reflecting political priorities. As followers of Christ and citizens of God's kingdom of justice and peace, we need to ask why governments choose to cut aid, but constantly increase spending on weapons. Or why governments cut spending programs that affect the poorest people but leave in place tax concessions that are of the most benefit to the wealthiest people. We need to highlight that aid is not an optional contribution to charity, but a fundamental contribution we make to a more just and peaceful world.

    We also need to recognise that the political realities are stark. It is easy for polticians to cut aid. It will take a change of moral vision to protect the aid program. We need to pray constantly for our politicians. We need to be tireless advocates to them, reminding them again and again that their obligations are not only to the Australians who elected them, but also to the community of nations of which Australia is a member.

    We need to remind our politicians that the job of the ruler, in the words of Proverbs 31:8-9, is to:

    Speak out for those who cannot speak,
    for the rights of all the destitute.
    Speak out and judge righteously,
    Defend the rights of the poor and needy.


    and, in the words of Psalm 82:3-4, to:

    Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
    maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
    Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked."


    We need to do this with passion and perseverance, knowing that the Spirit God has given us is not one of fear, but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). We know that the God we worship and serve is faithful and that, in His grace and strength, we will reap a harvest as long as we do not grow weary in doing what is right (Galatians 6:9).


    Ben Thurley is the Political Engagement Coordinator for Micah Challenge Australia.