• What does the new minority Govt mean for the poor?

    Posted by Peter

    8 September, 2010

    Political Engagement Coordinator, Peter Keegan, discusses the election result

    After more than a fortnight of uncertainty, Australians finally have a Government. But while we've been waiting for the independents to make their decision and the votes to be counted, another set of numbers have continued to dictate the reality of lives across most of the planet. Despite some progress, the number of children who don't live to see their 5th birthday is still almost 8.8 million each year, and 350,000 women don't survive child birth. So while the media's focus has been on the political drama of a hung parliament, for Micah Challenge, the question that really matters is 'What will this new government mean for the global poor?'

    Prior to the election, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith reaffirmed Labor's commitment to increase Australia's funding for overseas development assistance to 0.5% of gross national income by 2015. This is an important commitment that was initially made during the 2007 election campaign and has now achieved bi-partisan support throughout the Parliament. In the current financial year, the forecast is that aid levels will reach 0.33% of GNI, so there's still a long way to go in reaching the promise of 0.5%, and this new term of Parliament is going to be critical in ensuring that it is delivered. Beyond the challenge of ensuring the delivery of existing policy, this term will also be critical in gaining new commitments to take the aid budget to 0.7% of GNI - the level our leaders have always acknowledged as the international benchmark. It is also vital that Australia strengthen our response to key areas of global need such as maternal and child health, and climate change adaptation.

    So what prospect do these issues have within the new Parliament?
    Perhaps the most significant change we face over the next three years is Labor's lack of a sufficient majority in the House of Representatives to form Government in its own right. Instead, Labor is reliant on the support of a motley crew of independents and cross-benchers. This effectively means that the vote of each and every local MP becomes critical in ensuring that the government's agenda is able to pass through the Parliament.

    For Micah Challenge this is good news. As a campaign we have always been driven by grassroots Christian advocacy for the poor in local churches across the nation. Over the years, activities such as Voices for Justice, Offering of Letters, and 5th Birthday parties, have engaged local MPs and expressed genuine grassroots concern to see Australia contribute its fair share toward the achievement of the MDGs. The actions of individual Christians, small groups, and churches have meant that we built up a strong network of support throughout the Australian Parliament. In the new Parliament there are almost 40 individual politicians who have been identified as strong allies of Micah Challenge and the MDGs, and many others who are broadly supportive. Ongoing grassroots engagement is going to be foundational to achieving progress over the next three year.

    But what about those cross-benchers?
    In the statements made by Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott when announcing their decision to back the formation of a Labor Government, we heard a lot about the concerns of regional Australia, and the need for MPs to balance local and national interests in their parliamentary deliberations. Micah Challenge, and indeed, most Australians, agrees with the need to ensure effective consideration of the challenges facing rural and regional Australia. Yet missing in this mix was an explicit recognition of the significant challenges of poverty, health, education, and food security facing many communities beyond our borders. The question we are then faced with is what impact will the new-found importance of the cross-benchers have on the global poor?

    There are some encouraging signs:
    In his maiden speech to the Parliament in 2008, Rob Oakeshott went beyond the local-national formulation he offered yesterday, to acknowledge that the commitment to "care, protect, and build a better place... [is a] borderless commitment". "The litmus test for reflection at the end of my political career will be how these factors-international, national and local... have been managed" he said. Mr Oakeshott has also met with Voices for Justice delegates in the past, expressed a strong commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, and stood on behalf of the Parliament to read a response to the Micah Call at the Signature Event in June this year (click here to watch a video of his address).

    Tony Windsor has also been broadly supportive of the need to prioritise progress on the MDGs. As recently as last month he replied to a Micah Challenge supporter's email asking the Poverty Question by indicating that he "would be supportive of increasing Australia's overseas aid to 0.7% of GNI and the appointment of a Minister for International Development". He has also met with Voices for Justice delegates and attended Micah Challenge events in the past.

    The new MPs in the mix - Greens Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, and Denison (Hobart) independent, Andrew Wilkie - have not yet been met by Micah supporters, but early indications of their attitude toward international development are positive. Both attended Make Poverty History electorate forums in the lead-up to the election, and both are or have been members of a party with a strong commitment to reaching aid levels of 0.7% of GNI before 2015.

    Keep engaging your MPs!
    There is a lot at stake for the world's poor during this next Parliament, both in seeing existing promises honoured and vital new commitments made. The reality is that the new Parliament will at times be a messy and fragmented place as the Government has goes about building a coalition of support for any policy change both in the House and in the Senate. The parliamentary process will sometimes be slow, and it will sometimes be difficult to get the voices of the poor heard amidst the diverse voices competing for attention. But the fine balance of numbers, and the procedural changes that will enhance the ability of all members to ask questions and move private member's bills, will also create new opportunities for engagement.

    The foundational work of recent years puts the Micah Challenge campaign in a great position to continue to speak into and influence the Parliament's deliberations for the poor. More than ever the dedication and commitment of Christians and churches to speak out for the poor is going to be what counts. More than ever actions like 5th Birthday Parties, local churches taking part in 10.10.10 prayer services, letters and visits to local MPs, and the Voices for Justice pilgrimage will be critical in putting the needs of the global poor on the agenda of our nation's decision makers. And with just five years to go until the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, more than ever, now is the time for us to renew our commitment to the Prophet Micah's call that we pursue justice, be passionate about kindness and walk humbly with God.