When will the Australian government stop turning its back on the world’s poorest people?

This week we learned that our government has made the choice to continue to balance our books on the backs of the world’s poor.

Australia’s aid commitment will fall to a record new low of 0.19 cents per $100 of GNI by 2021-2022. This is a harsh and cruel decision. I like many other Australians are bitterly disappointed. This is now the sixth year of successive cuts to the aid budget at a time when the challenges of our global neighbours means we need to step up even more. It is now more than three years since, the Conservative Coalition Government slashed more than $1 billion from the Australian aid budget.

At the time, the decision, was justified with cries of ‘We’d love to do more but we can’t right now. We’ll do more when our economy is stronger’. Now, as the revenue rolls in, and the Treasurer confidently declares that economic growth is stronger than predicted, some of us can’t but wonder why the Treasurer is not also announcing that we are moving to a more generous Australian aid commitment.

If not now, then when?

Personal tax is bringing in an extra $10.6 billion, goods and services taxes an extra $7.5 billion, and company tax is bringing in $36.2 billion more than it did a year ago. And yet there is deafening silence from the Turnbull Government when it comes to the plight of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Our leaders tell us we are a generous nation, yet according to the OECD’s global ranking we have fallen from 17th last year to 19th. This is the third year in a row that Australia – the 13th largest OECD economy –has dropped. We give proportionally less aid than nations not as wealthy – including New Zealand, Ireland and Belgium.

We should do better. We can do better.

The Labor Party, while committed in principle to rebuilding the Australian aid program, and campaigning on the values of ‘equality’, is yet to provide any detail as to how under Labor that equality pledge would translate into real change for our neighbors in need of help. This lack of moral leadership from our elected leaders, on all sides, is not befitting of a nation borne out of the fair go, that’s built on support for the underdog and the battler, wherever they are, that chips in and does our bit.

Even now, as the  tax receipts roll in, we have the spectacle of the Foreign Minister asking the UK government to foot the bill for our lack of vision, care and leadership in the Pacific region. Britain’s debt is four times that of the Australian Government, yet the UK  has kept their promise to fix aid at 0.7 per cent of GNI, in stark contrast to Australia’s broken promise; Australian aid currently accounts for just 0.22 per cent of our national income. The UK’s commitment was initiated by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who refused to balance his government’s budget at the expense of those suffering in the world. Mr Cameron understood a basic principle that Australian leadership seems to have forgotten: there’s never a convenient political time to show compassion. But it is always the right thing to do.

This courageous, moral leadership is rarely seen in our Parliament.

While the budget was handed down this week I’ve been in Uganda, a country that despite drought and continuous economic hardship, has opened its doors to refugees fleeing South Sudan. I was there this time last year – at the Imvepi refugee camp – when between 2000 and 3000 South Sudanese refugees were flooding in every day. Between 2016-2017, it is estimated that this poorly resourced but generous nation took in over 1.3 million refugees from neighbouring countries. Compare that to the 21,000 refugees we with all our wealth, granted visas to, in the same period.

When I ask leaders in Uganda why they are so generous, they all say the same thing:

“We were once refugees under Idi Amin. We know what it is like to be scared and on the run.”

It’s been three years since we slashed our aid to sub-Saharan Africa, leaving this region susceptible to the rising influence of extremists groups, governments and militias.

Let’s be clear about exactly what it is that Australian aid does; it saves lives, it empowers women, it protects the vulnerable, especially children. All the while extending Australia’s good name, our soft power abroad. If the protection and education of girls in Afghanistan who are up against the Taliban doesn’t move you, if breaking down barriers to clean water, education and healthcare in the Pacific doesn’t get you excited, then let’s talk about the degradation of Australia’s role and influence in the region. Our lack of commitment to Australian aid means that our soft power is waning, along with our reputation. In my travels, I’ve observed that our nation is starting to be known for all the wrong reasons, including our shabby and inhumane treatment of refugees.

To be effective in protecting and promoting our national interests, Australia needs both hard and soft power. We need to invest in our defence, but also in our diplomacy and tools of influence, and one of the most potentially effective tools we have to shape our place in the world is the Australian aid program.

I know Australians have a strong moral compass – it’s part of our national fabric – but this is  not being reflected by our current batch of leaders in Canberra, where opportunism and populism have trumped authentic leadership that truly reflect our national values.

On Wednesday morning, as the nation awoke to the post budget headlines, young adults from Micah Australia, hosted a banquet on the front lawns of Parliament House. This was a demonstration of radical generosity; a chance to show how we are meant to display grace and compassion to those on the fringes – and to the poor. Australia’s own banquet table is groaning with food.

The tax receipts are rolling in, the table is full, and yet the world’s poor are not being considered, because they can’t vote. My hope is that the actions of these young people can hold our leaders to account, making them think twice before they resort to the familiar cry:  ‘sorry, we’d love to, but we can’t right now’.

Tim Costello is the Executive Director of Micah Australia and Chief Advocate for World Vision Australia.

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