An innocent enough question from that lawyer to Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Jesus responded with a parable rather than a definition – the story of The Good Samaritan. That story broke every barrier of sectarianism, cultural history and baggage, prejudice and insularity imaginable for his Jewish audience. In our time, looking after one’s neighbour challenges self-interest, myopia and that old Australian cop-out, “I’m alright, Jack”. In the broadest of visions, Ignatius used to tell his Jesuits, “The world is our home.” In that tradition in which we find ourselves. It is a reason that impels us to send our young men to serve on Immersions. It is something to be reminded of.
The Budget delivered this week was endlessly touted as being “fair”. And many sectors of the Australian public felt a little better off as a result. But the question remains, was it a “just” Budget? The Treasurer has cut $7.9 billion over four years in his first budget last year, followed by a further $3.7 billion in December’s mid-year budget review. So this present government has slashed foreign aid by one third since being elected at a time when the budget increased. Yet the former Howard government committed Australia to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goal of 0.7% of Gross National Income dedicated to foreign aid. That is, 70 cents in every hundred dollars. Now it is 22 cents. Next year it will be only 18 cents. Researchers have said the cuts mark both the largest ever multi-year aid cuts and the largest ever single year cuts. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures find that 2016 will see the government’s foreign aid spending drop to its lowest levels since records began in 1960.
“If this budget is a test of fairness, it totally fails the poorest in the world. It’s virtually destroyed the aid program in Africa,” World Vision chief Tim Costello said. Those cuts of 70% in Africa are where 18 of the poorest countries in the world are found. This means a hugely successful program to help 750,000 people this year — most of them women and children — with basic essentials like water and sanitation and vaccinations is terminated. The Indonesian aid budget has also been drastically cut by 40 per cent (not, of course, as a consequence of the recent execution of two Australian nationals).
Three countries are virtually untouched in the Budget: Nauru, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. They have a common factor – partners in Australia’s solution to the “asylum seekers problem” (where the United Nations charges that Australia has breached a number of international treaties and obligations).
Our country is grounded in the goodwill and the generosity of a ‘lucky country’. This current tight-fistedness is unworthy of our national character. Australia does not, and cannot, exist in a global community where the needs of the most hapless and vulnerable are less valued than the preservation of our comfortable lifestyle. In 2014, our A T Thomas Advocacy Group (ATTAG) wrote to all members of the Australian parliament, encouraging them to bring Foreign Aid back to just levels. The boys wrote:
Foreign aid is more than a self-serving tool of diplomacy and trade promotion. It may pay dividends on a strategic level in terms of being able to combat the terrorism that is bred in poverty afflicted environments, yet it is far more than a strategy of pre-emptively assuring national security. Foreign aid says something about who we are as a nation, and as individual human beings. It shows a commitment to bringing about change for those men, women and children who are condemned to suffer and die simply as a result of where and when they were born. Foreign aid is an investment in human dignity and potential, without which our society cannot hope to build roads to equality rather than political gain.
The boys received only three replies from all the parliamentarians. One agreed with us. Another said they would forward the letter to the relevant minister. A third (very senior) member of the government wrote, “It is very easy to give away someone else’s money.” It seems the encouragement fell on deaf ears.
In his recent encyclical, Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis was quite clear about our moral obligations:
With due respect for the autonomy and culture of every nation, we must never forget that the planet belongs to all humankind and is meant for all humankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity. It must be reiterated that “the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others”. To speak properly of our own rights, we need to broaden our perspective and to hear the plea of other peoples and other regions than those of our own country. We need to grow in a solidarity which “would allow all peoples to become the artisans of their destiny”, since “every person is called to self-fulfilment”.
Clearly, we are losing that sense of solidarity with our fellow human beings. Blessed John Paul once described such solidarity as:
… not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.
This is a time to remind ourselves of the large-hearted character for which Australian has known. A time to reclaim our sense of ‘a fair go’, in deed and in word. To reflect on solidarity and the implications it has for us …
Solidarity is the conviction that
we are born into a fabric of relationships,
that our humanity ties us to others,
that the gospel consecrates those ties,
and that the prophets tell us that those ties are the test
by which our very holiness will be judged.