Why Today is the Most Important Day of the Last Ten Years

It’s a cloudy Sunday afternoon that threatens to become uncomfortably cold. I sit in a lounge outside the Honeysuckle Hotel in Newcastle’s tourist precinct. Twenty metres away a one man band is playing Chuck Berry songs to which a group of five fifty-somethings from the Eagle Rock Dance Club are jiving. Beyond them small groups of people gather around a slew of vintage cars that are on display. To my right a couple of teenagers are skateboarding.Pedestrians trickle by at a steady rate. Families, couples, friends, people out on their own. I love it, this kaleidescope of human existence. People enjoying one another and the world in which they live.

I suspect most are completely oblivious to what may well be the most important meeting of the decade taking place today in New York, where world leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly will formally endorse the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals that will shape the course of the future.These goals are a successor to the Millennium Development Goals, a set of 8 goals that formed a shared agenda for development between 2000 and 2015. The SDGs build on these by broadening the focus to lean towards a future in which economies grow in an ecologically sustainable way and the fruits of growth are enjoyed by all humankind. The preamble to the goals reads

The Goals and targets will stimulate action over the next fifteen years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet:

People
We are determined to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.

Planet
We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.

Prosperity
We are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.

Peace
We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.

Partnership
We are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda through a revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focussed in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.

The ambition is lofty, but the hope they carry is not. Realising these ambitions is within our collective capacity. The last 15 years saw incredible reductions in poverty around the world and should the global community continue to invest in health, education, and infrastructure, and open opportunities for the world’s poorest nations to trade there is no reason systemic extreme poverty cannot be eliminated by 2030. We know what it will take to combat environmental degradation and can do it affordably. Never before has humankind experienced freedoms and peace at the level we do today and the possibility of using soft power to enlarge their proportion of humanity who share these freedoms.

The cold, hard political reality is that the aspiration of the goals will outstrip their realisation. Greed, selfishness, and the inability to see those outside our borders as our neighbours will conspire to water down our action toward the goals. Nonetheless, if we take them seriously they will guide us to a much better future than exists now.

The members of the Eagle Rock Dance Club, the owners of the vintage cars, and the skateboarding teenagers around me may remain forever unaware of the significance of this day and might never hear about the SDGs. That is simply the nature of things. It will not be them that determine the role Australia plays in narrowing the gap between the aspiration of the goals and their realisation. That will fall to a smaller group: our political leaders, our people and institutions of influence, and those of us who are inclined toward justice for all those living in poverty.

Did anyone else think government spending was going down?

With all the hype about “budget repair” I had made the assumption that government spending was going down. Turns out I am wrong. At the same time that our government is demanding we slash and burn things like foreign aid, it is planning on spending $14 billion dollars more next year than it did this year,  and projects that by the year 2018-19 it will be spending $79 billion more than it  spends at present.

budget 2015

Considered as a proportion of our national income spending stays relatively steady at historically high levels.

This makes a mockery of the claim that foreign aid had to be cut in order to “repair the budget”.  The truth is we just prefer to spend the money on ourselves.  There is a word to describe this, and it’s not “fiscal responsibility”. It’s “greed”.

All that campaigning and the aid program is still savaged. Did we achieve anything?

Having spent more than a decade of my life campaigning for increases in both the quantity and the quality of the Australian aid program, it has been devastating to see the aid budget slashed by more than 20%, the greatest single decrease in the history of the program.

I have travelled to a number of countries with large numbers of people living in extreme poverty and seen the amazing impacts that well targeted aid can have. Because of Australian aid children who otherwise would have died before their fifth birthday have not only survived but flourished; women who would have died in pregnancy have been kept safe; communities that would have suffered continual sickness and even death due to dirty drinking water have found access to clean water sources. I have met these people and heard their stories. Aid is without doubt one of the best investments we can make and to cut it in order to fund more spending on ourselves seems criminal.

So was the campaigning worth it? Aid levels are returning to what they were decades ago as a proportion of national income. Did all that campaigning achieve anything?

I think it did. First, for a good decade under both John Howard and Kevin Rudd the aid program increased substantially. Even though it’s now fallen back to earlier levels the increases above trend during this period were in the vicinity of $16 billion. That’s a lot of good.

Second, there is a far greater awareness of what makes for good aid amongst our politicians. The campaigns by Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge saw many politicians getting asked questions about aid by their constituents, which drove them to find answers, and many are now much more engaged.

Third, there have been many advances in the quality of our aid program. For example, when we started campaigning a decade or more ago a lot of Australian aid was “tied”, which meant we gave money to countries but required them to spend it on services and products from Australia. This, along with many other deficient practices, has been abandoned.

A perusal of the history of changes in the aid program reminds me not to despair. Since the Whitlam government came to power in 1972 there have been 13 years in which the volume of aid was cut. As the chart shows this happened under both Coalition and Labor governments. Certainly, it doesn’t look like we’ll see any increases under an Abbott government. The budget forecasts further decreases over the next two years and then increases in line with inflation. But we’ve been here before. I remember being berated by Alexander Downer when a group of us suggested the Australian government should increase the aid program, yet just a few years later the Howard government in which Alexander Downer was a minister oversaw some of the most substantial increases in our history.

AID-CHANGES

 

So yes, the current round of cuts are bitterly disappointing, but now is not the time to give up. We need to keep advocating for more aid and better aid, making sure it stays on the agenda of our politicians and convincing our fellow citizens that money spent on well targeted aid is one of the best things we will ever do together

Who pays too much tax? Probably not you

Put ten Australians in a room and ask them if they pay too much tax and you’re likely to find everyone agreeing, “why yes, I do pay too much tax.” None of us likes paying tax, but are we really paying too much? Here are three ways you can answer that question.

How much should we pay?

At the end of the day we need to pay enough tax to pay for the services we want. At the moment our budget is in the red and looks like staying there permanently unless we either cut services or increase taxes. Personally, I opt for the services, which means collectively we’re not paying enough tax.

How much tax do we pay compared to other high income nations?

It turns out that we pay very low taxes when we compare ourselves to other high income nations. The chart below shows the total tax revenues received by governments as a proportion of national income. As you can see, Australia is right down the lower end of the tax collected. So by this measure, no we are not paying too much tax.

tax_revenues

Who should pay taxes?

Earlier this year the Australian Council of Social Services released a paper that shocked me. It showed the total proportion of income that households paid in tax. We’re accustomed to thinking that rich households pay a lot more as a proportion of their income than poor households. It turns out that that is not true. When you consider only income tax, yes the richer you are more you pay, although not nearly as much as people like to think. But when you add indirect taxes, such as the GST, taxes on tobacco, etc, it turns out the tax system is far more flat then we commonly believe. The top 20% of households paid a total of 28% of their income in tax and the bottom 20% of households pay almost as much, 24% of their income goes in tax.

househol_tax_rate

That means that tax rates are roughly equal across Australian households, but that leaves them far from equitable. The top 20% of households live on an average of $2597 per week after tax. The bottom 20% get by on just $409 per week after tax.

So unless you’re in the bottom 20% of households by income lets get rid of the bleating that we pay too much tax.

Are we the world’s stingiest nation?

Never before has an Australian government made cuts to the international aid program like those made by the Abbott government. The argument goes that we can’t afford to borrow money in order to give it away. We first need to deal with our debt crisis, and then we can afford to give more.

A friend of mine, Gershon Nimbalker, put together the chart below. It shows the aid budgets of the world’s wealthy nations as a proportion of their national income (the red dots) and their levels of debt as a proportion of national income (the black bars).

debtandaid

 

The message is disturbing. The nations on the right-hand side of the chart have the lowest levels of public debt. Most of the nations down this end of the chart have  large aid programs. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg all devote more than 0.8% of their national income to helping poor countries make the investments they need to lift their populations out of poverty. And then there’s Australia and New Zealand. Like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Luxembourg we have very low levels of debt, but unlike them we have  small foreign aid programs.  Indeed countries such as Ireland, Belgium, France, and the UK have national debt that dwarfs ours yet they have  much more substantial aid programs.

So are these nations being profligate, spending their way into ever more debt, while Australia is being prudent?  No, they’re simply prioritising other areas to cut in order to bring their debt under control.

Australia does needs to deal with its long-term structural deficits. How we do so says an awful lot about us. We can ask multinational corporations to pay their fair share of tax; can get rid of tax breaks that distort our economy such as  discounted capital gains and negative gearing; we can cut back on welfare to those who have no need for it. Cutting back aid to those who most need it? I’d like to say it’s unAustralian, but apparently it’s not.

Did I Just Leave Jesus Hungry?

It’s early evening in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I walk through bustling streets. Hundreds of motorbikes whir by, punctuated by the presence of motor cars and trucks. The sidewalks are crowded. The sounds of car horns, chatter, laughter, music and hawkers combine to form a cacophony of life. This is a post-conflict nation that is making rapid strides to lift its people out of poverty. The task is by no means complete, but the throbbing life of the city gives witness to the progress being made.

Amid this explosion of noise I can’t help but notice some who are silent, muted, abstracted from the melody that surrounds them. They are a mother and child lying on the sidewalk; a young boy prone on a park bench. They are weak, hungry, dishevelled, alone. They are the unemployed and the underemployed. For all this nation’s rapid economic advance, there are still not enough jobs for everyone. And that means some are reduced to living on the streets dependent on the largesse of others.

They don’t ask for money. They just gaze silently as I pass by.

What am I to do? I am here as someone working for a development NGO. I know that there is much being done to help communities find long term, sustainable pathways to livelihoods and well-being. I know that this is the only way to a long term solution for those I walk past.

But what about the short term? Is it not within my power to help those for whom economic development is yet to provide opportunity? The sheer weight of numbers numbs me. I cannot provide a short-term fix for all of those I am walking past. But what about that one? That one woman, that one child, that one man. I can provide them with sufficient for one meal, one night, one day. It may not be a long term solution, but it’s still one meal, one day, for one person.

These are the questions of the tourist. Those who live here must learn to walk past the silent ones. If life is to go on, if poverty-reducing economies are to be built, livelihoods made, time enjoyed with friends, errands run, you cannot possibly stop for everyone in need. In Jesus’s parable of the Samaritan there was one wounded man and one Samaritan, but what is the Samaritan to do when there are hundreds of wounded and when the place of every wounded person he heals is taken by another?

I don’t know. What I know is that I am not the first and I will not be the last to struggle with these questions. What I know is that those I pass, the silent ones, should be part of the noise, not simply observers of it. What I know is that the only real solutions are long term solutions. What I know is that the silent ones are witness to our collective failure to build an equitable, just and inclusive world. What I know is that our collective failure does not absolve me of personal responsibility: “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.”

May God have mercy on us all.

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