Voices for Justice Conference

18 Dec 19

This December, over 200 Australians and 15 Pacific Church and community leaders gathered at Parliament House in Canberra. We met with our nation’s politicians to share our support for Australia’s aid program and discuss what the Pacific Step Up means for Pacific peoples.

We’d gathered for the annual 4-day Voices for Justice Conference, run by Micah Australia and supported by Caritas Australia. We were privileged to have Church and community leaders from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Amongst them was Diane Unagi, Caritas Australia’s Protection Program Coordinator in Papua New Guinea.

Over the first two days, we learnt from Pacific leaders about the priority issues for their communities: climate change, women's and girls' rights, and disability rights. Then over a further 2 days, our 230-strong delegation held face-to-face meetings with 88 Australia’s politicians.

Our Pacific leaders were kept busy, involved in over 60 of those meetings between them! This included meeting PM Scott Morrison, Deputy PM Michael McCormack, staffers for Minister for International Development Alex Hawke (as Mr. Hawke was in Fiji), Minister Ken Wyatt and Minister Angus Taylor.

Rev James Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, said the Pacific leaders want to encourage conversations about how Australia can best love its Pacific neighbours.

"Our journey with our Australian Christian brothers and sisters is an example is the kind of partnership the Pacific is looking for from Australia," Rev Bhagwan said.

“The truth is we don’t want a ‘hand out’, or even a ‘hand up’. What we want is genuine consultative partnership. It is this kind of partnership that we know has two-way benefits in leading to the deeper connection and flourishing of Australian and Pacific societies and their people.”

Rev Tim Costello, Micah Australia’s Executive Director, said, “Pacific church leaders and everyday Aussies standing together in support of Australian Aid is a powerful message that I believe was heard in the halls of Parliament.”

Our Pacific leaders were officially welcomed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during the launch of the ‘Parliamentary Friends of the Pacific’, a new multi-partisan parliamentary group. Almost 40 MPs and Senators attended.

Australia’s aid program budget has been cut by almost 30% over the last 5 years. It is now at it’s lowest level in history, at just 22 cents in every $100 dollars.

Knowing the government was about to announce a review of Australia’s aid program, at Voices for Justice we called on Australia’s politicians to:

  1. Ensure the new aid policy empowers local communities in the Pacific to lead their own inclusive and sustainable development.
  2. Ensure the new aid policy recognises the needs of the most vulnerable members of our Pacific family, particularly women and children.
  3. Work with the Australian Church and Christian development agencies to leverage and amplify the strength of the Pacific Church as a key partner for human development.
  4. Recognise the impact of climate change in the Pacific including the increasing risk and impact of natural disasters.
  5. Ensure the Pacific Step Up is not at the cost of ‘stepping down’ elsewhere in the world.

The overall response to our policy asks was very supportive. Many parliamentarians agreed they would write to the Foreign Minister Marise Payne, supporting these recommendations, and some committed to making a speech in Parliament or having further meetings back in their electorate.