Friday, May 2, 2014

What would Jesus say about the Commission of Audit?

Yesterday, the Commission of Audit was released, which recommended huge cuts to government spending. While the Liberal Government has pointed out that the Commission of Audit is not the budget, it has not ruled out adopting the recommendations. Australians have already been warned to prepare ourselves for a tightening of the belts and it seems that at least some of the recommendations will be adopted.

Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, criticised the Audit, saying it was 'a plan to make sure that families get less while millionaires get more.' I'm not an economist (or even a well-informed politician) but in reading through the summaries, that's what it looks like to me too. 

Some of the cuts include payments for visiting the doctor, changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and scrapping of Family Tax Part B and new means-testing for Family Tax Part A. These cuts are going to severely hurt people on low incomes - the people who can least afford them. And in some cases, for those who cannot afford medication or who find it hard to put food on the table as it is, they may have a devastating impact. It seems that growing the economy is more important than people's lives.

As I said, I'm not an economist. I haven't read the whole report. And I'm certainly not Jesus and can't claim to speak for him. But as I read through the summaries, I couldn't help wondering what Jesus would think about them. And this is my guess.

Firstly, Jesus spoke a lot about the poor. He told people to sell all they have and give it to the poor (Matthew 19:16-30, Luke 18:18-30, Mark 10:17-31). He said the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). He told people when they had a banquet to invite the poor (Luke 14:13). Furthermore, the bible is filled with verses about caring for the poor. You would have to ignore large chunks of the bible to avoid reaching the conclusion that God (and Jesus) care about how we treat the poor.

Therefore, it seems pretty conclusive that Jesus would not be pleased about cuts that hurt the poor. Nor would he be pleased about cuts which favour the rich at the expense of the poor. The Commission of Audit feels a bit like the opposite of the banquet Jesus speaks about - the poor are left out, while the rich are invited. So what would Jesus say? I don't know. But my feeling is it might sound something like what Jeremiah said: 'For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me' (Jeremiah 18:21).

Jesus also cared about the sick. A large part of his ministry involved healing people. What would he say about cuts that make it hard for people to afford a doctor or get the medication they need? Again, I don't know. But I can't imagine a person who spent such a large part of his ministry healing others would want anyone to be excluded from things that heal. The bible doesn't record any example of Jesus turning someone away because they didn't have the money to pay him.

And what would Jesus say about the scrapping of Family Tax Part B and the tougher means-testing for Family Tax Part A? Well, Jesus doesn't mention those payments because they weren't around in his day, but he does mention widows. And in fact the bible has a lot to say about widows. And every single time widows are mentioned, it is not that we should encourage widows to go out and get a job. No, it's telling us to take care of them. Now people might rightly say that not all (or even most) of people on Family Tax Benefit are widows - although I might point out that some are. But the reason why the bible talks so much about taking care of widows is that they did not have the economic (or social support) of a husband. And if the bible talks so much about helping them, I think we can assume Jesus would care about anyone with kids and without a partner.

Just one more note on that, in a well-known bible passage, Jesus says that the widow who put a mite into the temple treasury gave more than all the others (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). It's often used to encourage people to give more to the church. But it is also says something about how a small amount can actually be huge when you don't have much money to begin with. In relative terms, cuts to the poor are bigger than cuts to people with more money. Even small decreases in Family Tax Benefit can be huge decreases when we consider what they mean to the people affected.

Another recommendation is to lower growth in the minimum wage. Jesus didn't speak at all about this. But the bible does say some things that have relevance. In Malachi 3:5, it says that God will be a swift witness against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages. Deuteronomy 24:14 says not to abuse a needy and destitute worker. Jeremiah 22:13 says it is terrible for those who make people work for nothing and do not pay them their wages. It seems clear that God cares that people get paid a decent wage for the work that they do.

Well that's my take on what Jesus might think about the Commission of Audit. I have no doubt that other Christians will reach different conclusions. But even though interpretations of the bible may vary, I find it difficult to understand how any interpretation can ignore that Jesus cares about the poor and cares for those who are hurting. And if he does, then surely he must care about cuts which hurt the poor and the vulnerable.

Proverbs 22:16 says that 'Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.' The proposed recommendations are designed to improve our economy. Maybe they will. But they will also increase our poverty - not just poverty in financial terms of the many Australians who are already finding it hard to make ends meet - but the poverty of spirit and inclusion and compassion and engagement. We will all be poorer as a result - even if Australia's economy looks better.  

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