‘A week is a long time in politics.’ Former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson first said this sometime in the mid-1960s, and it has since echoed through Parliamentary chambers around the world. As Australians have now passed the halfway point of our own lengthy election campaign, I wonder what Wilson would say. Eight weeks is a lifetime, perhaps?
With six long weeks behind us and another two to go, it would be easy to let election fatigue settle in. But I can’t help but be energised when I see the enthusiasm and optimism of every day Australians taking the opportunity to put the issues they care about at the heart of this election campaign. We’ve already seen the Australian public wrest the debate away from national growth and towards personal experiences of inequality. We have tremendous power when we work together to show our leaders what we care about.
This was clear to me at the Campaign for Australian Aid election launch where I spoke in front of a number of advocates who expressed their enthusiasm for a fair and inclusive Australian aid program. In my speech, I referred to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s move to encourage Australians to “embrace our future with confidence and optimism” upon calling a July 2 election.
And as I spoke on-stage at the launch event, surrounded by people who believe in a fairer world for everyone, I felt similarly optimistic. While there’s no denying the last few years have been challenging for those in the aid and development sector, we remain united by our determination and hope. United in our understanding that elections are important moments where we demand the kind of future we want.
For too long, Australian aid and its contributions to reducing poverty and inequality have felt remote, and have been misunderstood by many in the general public. As a result, it has been easy for the Government to cut funding from Australian aid. As CEO of CBM Australia, an international Christian development organisation working to end the cycle of poverty and disability, the impact of Australian aid is very personal. Not just for me, but also for the tens of thousands of donors who support our work, for the organisations we work with on the ground and for the people with disability who succeed in transforming their lives through our programs. Together, we’re working towards a fairer world every day.
In the context of the aid program, our progress towards this fairer world can often be difficult to understand. Many Australians used to think of aid as tangible and highly visible projects, like the construction of a hospital. While this work is still critically important and remains at the heart of what we do, we’re also working with local partners in increasingly complex settings to implement aid projects that are less tangible in nature. When we consider that 1 in 7 people in the world live with a disability, and 80 per cent of people with a disability live in developing countries, building a hospital is only one important step along the way towards building a better and more inclusive future for all people.
This was made clear to me on a recent visit to India, where I met Premnika. Premnika is in her mid-30s, lives in Jharkhand – the second poorest state in India – and both of her legs are severely affected by polio. As a child with a disability, she was neglected and discriminated against by both her family and community. Her situation only worsened as she became an adult and then found herself in a violent marriage. Two operations helped to improve her mobility but with no family prepared to support her, Premnika felt “broken from the inside,” was terribly lonely and saw no future for herself.
When her community became involved in an Australian aid funded community based rehabilitation program, Premnika was supported to transform her life. She received counselling; training in leadership, disability rights and livelihoods; and discovered a talent for tailoring. Premnika’s new profession of choice required the use of strong lower limbs to operate a manual sewing machine, but her sheer drive and willpower saw her overcoming the physical challenge. Today, she owns four machines, employs three other young women in her village and has demonstrated to her community that women with disabilities are capable of being strong and independent.
Premnika is now determined to support other young women in her community to achieve independence and reach their full potential. Meanwhile, her community now also understands the value of including people with a disability into everyday community life.
To me, Premnika’s story is a prescient reminder that the road to a fairer future is a long one, which reaches beyond the hospital gates or the operating table. But when we make our way down this road together, we can go far.
Sadly, the Government’s recent cut of $224 million from Australian aid cuts this journey short. Our aid program is now the least generous it has ever been, but it doesn’t need to be this way. Everyday Australians, ranging from the passionate campaigners at our events to my own neighbours, know that this funding cut doesn’t reflect their values. The Australian Labor Party has already pledged to reverse this cut and, if elected, begin to rebuild our aid program. While valuable, this is just a first step, and it’s up to all of us to keep the pressure on all parties to ensure that our values, our priorities and our global responsibilities are at the heart of Australian policy during this year’s election campaign and beyond.
This July 2, when you head down to vote, remember this election is about the future. Not just of people here in Australia, but the future of people who live in some of the poorest parts of the world. In the last days of the election campaign, we have the invaluable opportunity to let our local members of Parliament know that we care passionately about equal access to jobs, growth and sustainable futures for all people, regardless of where they live. Let’s take the opportunity to ensure that our voices and our votes build the kind of fairer world we believe in.
Visit australianaid/pledge to pledge your vote for a fairer world and send a strong message to our political leaders that we need to begin repairing the Australian aid budget.
Jane Edge is the CEO of CBM Australia, an international Christian development organisation working to end the cycle of poverty and disability.