In the Federal Budget this week the Federal Government delivered the expected pre-election inducements for voters again – tax cuts, grand announcements of steering the economy towards health, getting the budget “back in black”!

But what about the decisions that did not make big headlines?

To me, it’s the choices our leaders make that don’t win lots of votes and don’t attract huge amounts of publicity, which provide clues to real leadership – driven by vision, character, principles and morality. In other words, doing the right thing.

Personally, I am deeply concerned about who we are as a nation; the sense of fairness in how we act with each other, the responsibilities we take, and the ethics, principles and values upon which we seek to anchor ourselves. It is therefore important to me to know that our political leaders operate according to a moral compass that reinforces fairness.  Yes, government is complicated, but surely this desire is reasonable.

And yet, the Federal Government’s record of denuding Australia’s commitment to foreign aid to the world’s most vulnerable people, paints a very interesting picture… particularly in the context of moral and character-driven leadership:

  • Ten years ago, the major parties had a bilateral commitment to provide foreign aid up to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) within five years. The United Nations sought wealthier countries, including Australia, to target a commitment of 0.7% of GNI.
  • By last year the government budget commitment had dropped from 0.34% in 2012/13 (already well below earlier promises) to targeting 0.22% of GNI.
  • The 2019/20 Federal Budget projects a solid surplus, and yet the Australian Aid budget has been cut by a further $115 million for next financial year.
  • The Forward Estimates for the next three years now put Australia on track to a foreign aid commitment of 0.19% of GNI, which is likely to place our country, one of the wealthiest in the world on a per capita basis, at the bottom of the top 20 OECD table of government commitments to the world’s poorest people.
  • Meanwhile… the Australian Government has decided to divert significant strategy and significant funding – $1.5 billion – to provide non-concessional loans to Pacific nations, under the new “Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility in the Pacific”. This was hastily announced last year, in a bid to compete with Chinese efforts to increase its influence across the region. Either way, Pacific nations which avail of these loans will have to pay interest for more projects, diverting limited income which could be used for other services such as health and education. As the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) has written in its Budget Analysis, “Australia is now prioritising geostrategic posturing over achieving development outcomes”.

Many people argue that charity ‘begins at home’.  Neither I or any of my peers have ever argued that we should commit to foreign aid at the expense of addressing the significant social needs in our own country. However, we can do it all much better, particularly if we take a moral and principled approach in our generosity to the most vulnerable locally and globally.

On the one hand, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, then Federal Minister for International Development stated at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Aid Supplier Conference in February 2017:

“The question is no longer what we are spending our [aid] money on, it is why are we spending our money, but more importantly what is the direct benefit to Australia” (my underline emphasis).

So, the Minister responsible enunciated the government strategy. No reference to a moral and principled approach to assisting the world’s poorest – gracious giving motivated by genuine compassion – but rather a transactional requirement for direct (economic) benefit to Australia, as the primary basis for engaging with vulnerable people living in deep poverty.

On the other hand, in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes undertaken in 2016, the public response was overwhelmingly in favour of helping developing countries (66% of respondents), while only 19% favoured advancing Australian interests as the priority.

In the same survey, in response to a further question on Australian Aid, 4% of people said the Australian government motivation for aid should require direct benefits to Australia, while 43% of people (making it the most popular response) said Australian Aid should be given, “To be kind or [out of] moral obligation”.

Australia, through targeted government funding, has a tremendous history of successful outcomes from foreign aid. However, in the past few years we have seen our international reputation seriously harmed and aid outcomes significantly reduced. The ability to reach millions of people to support their sustainable transformation out of poverty, vulnerability, and exploitation is now heavily compromised.

So, what to do about this?  Speak out to all of your political leaders – particularly in the lead-up to the Federal Election. Remind politicians across the spectrum that you desire principled and moral leadership.  Baptist World Aid and other like-minded groups, like Micah Australia, are looking to help people stand up and call for political leaders (no matter where they are placed on the political spectrum) who are fair and principled and will act accordingly. Leaders who are prepared to be driven by more than the desire for votes.

It’s important that we act now, because The Government’s attitude to foreign aid may still be applied to other important social issues and policies affecting our nation. Watch this space and participate – seek the moral compass!