The leaders of 12 Christian denominations and churches in Australia have joined in signing an open letter to Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison in which they call on him not to go ahead with a scheduled $224 million cut to the country's foreign aid budget.

In what has been described as an "unprecedented" step by church leaders, the letter - published in The Australian newspaper today - says the cuts will be the fourth time the government has reduced the foreign aid budget and comes "on top of more than $11 billion in cuts to aid".

Part of the text of the open letter from Christian leaders calling for cuts to the foreign aid budget not to be implemented.

 

  CALLING FOR HALT TO AID CUTS A "NO BRAINER", SAYS LETTER SIGNATORY

Janet WoodlockFor Janet Woodlock - federal coordinator of the Churches of Christ in Australia and one of the signatories on the letter released this week, putting her name to the call for a halt in the cuts to the foreign aid budget was a "no brainer" if Australia is to be a just, compassionate, Christian values nation.

Rev Woodlock says that for her personally, "the bottom line is there is a whole lot of research which would say that Australian aid has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of children". Conversely, she says, that means that if the aid is cut it will adversely affect people's lives, particularly in terms of their health and livelihoods. "I just don't believe that's who we're called to be as a nation."

Noting that previous cuts to the foreign aid budget have already dramatically affected the work of aid agencies, Rev Woodlock says any arguments that Australia can't afford to not make the cuts because the country is in deficit "sound a bit hollow when compared to countries like the UK which have a much larger deficit but have committed to the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP as their international aid giving".

Australia's foreign aid budget is certainly an issue that will inform Rev Woodlock's vote at the upcoming federal election. And while she notes it's not an important consideration for all Christians, she hopes that it is for enough to make it a significant factor in the election.

She says it is her long-term hope that there will eventually be bipartisan support to keep foreign aid levels in line with international commitments Australia has made in the past.

"We're actually reneging on commitment we've made in the international community which is not a good look for us as a nation...It's about our reputation as a nation."

- DAVID ADAMS

"We believe it is time to reverse course," the church leaders write. "These cuts damage and undermine programs which have a direct impact on lives, livelihoods, security and opportunity of many of our region's poorest and most vulnerable people and communities, including women and girls and people with disability."

The signatories include the Archbishop Philip Freier, Anglican Primate of Australia, Roman Catholic Bishop Greg O'Kelly, of the diocese of Port Pirie, Pastor Stuart McMillan, president of the Uniting Church in Australia, and Salvation Army commissioners Floyd Tidd and James Condon.

Other denominations and churches represented include the Lutheran Church, Seventh Day Adventists, Australian Christian Churches, Australian Baptist Churches, Churches of Christ, Vineyard Churches Australia, Wesley Methodist Church and C3 Church.

In their letter, the church leaders point out that in last year alone, Australian aid helped to provide vaccinations for more than 2.8 million children, ensure more than 2.2 million more people gained access to safe drinking water and more than 800,000 gained access to basic sanitation, ensure treatment for more than 1.5 million people with HIV/AIDS and more than 1.3 million people with tuberculosis, and provide more than 130 million treated bed nets to tackle malaria. They say it also fed into the response to humanitarian crises and natural disasters on some 15 countries, including Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in March last year and the earthquake in Nepal in April last year.

The church leaders also quote British Prime Minister David Cameron in his vow never to "balance the books on the backs of the poorest" and say they believe Australia can make the same commitment as the UK which has legislated to increase foreign aid to the internationally agreed level of 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI).

Noting that more than 10 million Australians identify with their churches, they say that foreign aid is "fundamentally a moral question and it rises above partisan politics".

"Because of our shared faith, our commitment to compassion and our common humanity, and with a resolute hope that Australia can be a better neighbour and more principled actor in the community of nations, we call on you not to proceed with the scheduled cut of $224 million and begin, instead, to restore our commitment to Australian aid."

World Vision CEO Tim Costello described the letter as "unprecedented action" from Christian leaders while Ben Thurley, Micah Australia's national coordinator, said that until the recent cuts, there had been a bipartisan commitment to increase Australia aid for almost a decade.

"Time is running out to stop our nation from becoming the least generous we've ever seen," he said.

Unprecedented cuts were announced to the Australian foreign aid budget in December, 2014, by the then Abbott Government. These cuts, some of which have already been implemented, will see aid fall to 0.22 per cent of gross national income (GNI) in 2017-2018, a record low level for Australia and well below the 0.7 per cent of GNI which had been a target under the Millennium Development Goals.

The letter comes in the wake of a protest by humanitarian aid advocates outside Mr Morrison's Sydney office last week as part of the "Stop the Clock" campaign. Mr Morrison is scheduled to hand down his first federal budget early next month.

Head here to see the full letter - http://bit.ly/churchleadersopenletter2016