The recent death of a man on Manus Island who had sought asylum in Australia, points to the unacceptable mistreatment of all people who are turned away from our shores.
Over the coming days, as more details of this budget are evaluated and discussed, people will be asking questions about how the budget affects us and our families. There will be loud and impassioned voices arguing for and against various line items and what they represent. But for us as Christians, there is also a deeper question to ask – how does this budget affect the vulnerable and marginalised in our society and our world, and how do our faith convictions inform our own engagement with those experiencing injustice?
When Treasurer Scott Morrison was first elected in 2007, he used his maiden speech in parliament to reflect on his Christian convictions as the driving framework for his political role:
“From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way,”
and pointed to the historical examples of William Wilberforce and Desmond Tutu as inspiration:
“These leaders stood for the immutable truths and principles of the Christian faith. They transformed their nations and, indeed, the world in the process.”
Much of what Mr. Morrison said on that day reflects my own story and convictions, and I too hold to the witness of those faithful Christian leaders who have gone before us, modelling what it means to practise Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour, to serve the least, and to confront the injustice that cause their misfortune.
But as we reflect on this week’s budget, there are some emerging details that concern me, that I cannot agree with, and which contrast starkly with what I believe we’re called to model from Jesus’ own example.
Firstly, it’s deeply alarming that a further $300 million has been cut from our aid programme. Over the last five years we’ve seen consecutive governments (from both parties) raid our aid budget for political advantage, moving us from our international commitment of 70 cents in every $100 down to just 22 cents. Spread out over the coming years that equates to more than eleven billion dollars diverted from programs empowering the most vulnerable in our region. And this, presided over by our Treasurer who in that same maiden speech declared our need to increase our aid programme:
“If we doubt the need, let us note that in 2007 the total world budget for global aid accounted for only one-third of basic global needs in areas such as education, general health, HIV-AIDS, water treatment and sanitation. This leaves a sizeable gap. The need is not diminishing, nor can our support. It is the Australian thing to do.”
Secondly, while we are pleased at the increase of our current refugee intake of 2,500 places, the number does not make up for this Government’s previous cuts, and our refugee intake continues to remain at lower total number that when the Coalition came to power (despite record numbers of people being displaced globally). Similarly, the Government has subtracted 500 intakes from their own commitment, and transferred them to the community sponsorship program which is instead funded by the community not the budget, choosing to save money over helping more desperate people. Again, in this budget, there is no commitment towards a regional response that improves refugee protection in our region. Not addressing the regional issues that lead asylum seekers to arrive by boat, while maintaining our policies of deterrence through boat turnbacks and indefinite offshore detention, highlights our inability to acknowledge the value and worth of every human life.
Thirdly, concern for our rapidly changing environment is all but silent in this budget, with a renewed emphasis on fossil fuels for energy security, and only minor support for renewable schemes. For Christians concerned about justice, anything shy of a rapid move away from our dependence on fossil fuels shows our disregard for future generations and those already impacted by environmental change who are subject to longer droughts, rising sea levels and more devastating weather patterns.
While this is only a snapshot of a budget, these particular oversights and exclusions have become far too familiar in today's political landscape. Too often it seems that the initial values and convictions professed by our elected representatives from all parties, are sidelined by the demands of politics.
The risk that we all face as Christians in a democracy is the temptation to self-preserve rather than self-sacrifice. To seek self-representation as we vote, rather than using our democratic participation for the least of these whose circumstances do not afford them the same opportunities we share in.
Are we praying and advocating for a world where women and girls in East Africa who are facing famine to not have to go to bed hungry tonight; where our Pacific Island neighbours are able to pass on their culture and lands to their children without having to worry about their homes disappearing underwater, and where those who have fled violence across the seas are welcomed in our country with grace and compassion?
Our faith convictions should drive our engagement with the world around us. They’re the light by which we should see all other things. But if we allow them to be compromised by difficult circumstances, we will lose sight of the gracious, generous, compassionate role Christians and the church have to play in our nation.
May we each hold firm to the truth that God calls us to serve. May we continue to challenge the decisions and circumstances in our nation that cause the injustice we’re called to confront. And more than anything, may we be willing to stand on the side of the vulnerable, marginalised and demonised even when it's unpopular and costly.