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Australian democracy needs an intrusion of the excluded – By Dr John Falzon

We’re well into the election campaign and everybody is talking about the economy. The word ‘economy’ has a Greek etymology. It comes from oikos (household) and nomos (law, order, management). In the contemporary context it is generally understood to refer to a set of figures, such as GDP, rate of growth, inflation, employment, balance of trade, the deficit. But maybe the number of people experiencing homelessness in Australia is also a measure of the economy? After all, it provides us with a picture of how many people are actually without an oikos!

The truth is that we could look at ourselves as enjoying a thumping record of economic growth while viewing the number of people experiencing homelessness as somehow incidental to this rosy picture. Likewise for the 2.3 million people living in poverty, including 600,000 kids!

In a poem entitled ‘Economic Report’, poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal wrote prophetically about the kind of internal revolution that is demanded by the Gospel; a Beatitudes-like inversion of our values and practices to the degree that we might be able to say that ‘economics now is love’.

In truth the popular mainstream notion of ‘economics’ is ideologically loaded. It is a reference point not for love or for the ‘public good’ but rather a paean to private gain, private profit, and the accumulation of wealth — regardless of the concomitant accumulation of misery, both here and in those parts of the world where people are savagely exploited and plundered of their natural wealth so that our standard of living might be augmented.

It is predicated on the assumption that wealth generated for the rich will eventually trickle down to everyone else. Poverty, then, is seen as a symptom of personal failure. People are pathologised and many are eventually criminalised; for the criminal ‘justice’ system is the logical end-point for those who find themselves outside the household, neither producing nor consuming according to the rules of the household.

John Berger, in A Seventh Man, his moving study of migrant workers in Europe, wrote: ‘According to the capitalist ethic, poverty is a state from which an individual or a society is delivered by enterprise.’ Poverty and homelessness therefore are constructed as a lack of enterprise, a moral failing. Berger goes further with this analysis of how exclusion is justified, and utters the terrifying judgement that ‘to be homeless is to be nameless’.

It is time for a new beginning. The Prime Minister says we need a ‘new politics’ or a ‘new way’. The Leader of the Opposition responds that we’ll only get a new way by electing a new government. What is missing is the recognition that we actually need a new kind of economic democracy: a reconfiguration of our economic decision-making and prioritising, away from individualism towards a sense of the public good, the common good, the participation of all rather than the exclusion and marginalisation of many.

We need to broaden our revenue base in order to provide social goods such as education, healthcare, transport, housing, childcare, disability services, and employment services. We need to be unafraid of removing some of the massive and wasteful concessions — such as superannuation tax concessions that cost the taxpayer about $32 billion a year, according to Treasury, the bulk of which goes to middle- and upper-income earners. Many such potential savings have been identified in the Henry Tax Review.

We do not need to take from the poor to give to the rich. We do not need to cut payments to single mums or the unemployed. We do not need to cut expenditure on health or social housing or education.

In a recent opinion piece I put the following three questions to both leaders.

1. What will you do to make sure that everyone has a place that they can call home?

Over 105,000 people are homeless. This is not worthy of a nation that prides itself on being progressive. Thirty-nine per cent of these people are living in severely overcrowded conditions. Eighty per cent of the people seeking help from housing and homelessness services are trying to survive on a social security benefit. The factors contributing to homelessness include poor health, housing stress and the need to escape domestic violence.

Safe, affordable housing is a human right for all, not a privilege for some. The 2008 Homelessness White Paper sets the target of halving all homelessness by 2020. It costs more, in the long run, to manage homelessness than to end it. And you don’t end homelessness by blaming people who are homeless any more than you can fix unemployment by blaming the unemployed.

2. What will you do to make sure that everyone who can work actually has the chance to work?

We all want to be treated fairly and respectfully in the workplace and receive an income that allows us to keep up with the cost of living. While people are looking for work or are outside the labour market because of caring responsibilities, they should not be forced to wage a battle for survival from below the poverty line or be treated in a punitive or patronising fashion. If there was anything we should have learned from the Global Financial Crisis it is that unemployment and underemployment are, in the main, structurally rather than behaviourally caused.

It is a matter of deep shame for a wealthy nation like ours that our unemployment benefits have been kept deliberately low as a means of humiliating the very people they were designed to assist. We support helping people into the paid workforce. The time has come, however, to abandon the foolish notion that forcing them into deeper poverty improves their chances of employment. You don’t build people up by putting them down. You don’t help them get work by forcing them into poverty.

3. How will you ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn?

Education is a game-changer in the fight against poverty. Every parent in Australia should feel confident that their child is going to have access to the highest quality education and that this should never depend on what they can afford or where they live. And education should not be seen as something that ends at year 12. University, TAFE, apprenticeship training and adult education should be accessible and affordable for all. Education is not just something we benefit from individually but also collectively as a society and as an economy.

It’s hard to be able to look for, or keep, a job when you don’t have a place to call home. It’s equally hard for a child, or an adult, to engage in formal education, in circumstances of homelessness, including overcrowded housing. It’s hard to find work when your literacy and numeracy levels are not up to standard and it’s hard to keep a roof over your head when you’re out of work.

The message is clear: A place to live, a place to work and a place to learn are deeply interconnected fundamentals for building the kind of Australia that deserves to be called progressive or fair. And this means for everyone: the First Peoples, the most recent arrivals, and for everyone in between!

It’s time to move beyond the politics of marginal seats to a politics that listens to marginal people. A good society is one where the people treated as the most marginal enter the public space and teach the rest of us what really matters. This ‘intrusion of the excluded’ as Slavoj Zizek calls it should be the true measure of our democracy.

By John Falzon

This article was first printed on Eureka Street news website on August 18, 2013.  

About Vinnies

St Vincent de Paul Society is a lay Catholic organisation working towards a more just and compassionate society.

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