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Dr John Falzon discusses social issues with Just Salvos

Vinnies CEO, Dr John Falzon discusses social justice concerns such as the asylum seeker issue with Just Salvos presenters Gen Peterson and Kristopher Halliday. The 12 minute interview was conducted via Skype in September 2011.



Just Salvos:  Welcome to Just Salvos this week.

We are continuing our series looking at the leaders of non government organisations.  A couple of weeks ago we spoke to Toby Hall from Mission Australia and today we are incredibly privileged to have John Falzon,  who is the Chief Executive Officer of St Vincent de Paul.

On his Twitter he describes himself as an advocate, with a deep interest in philosophy, politics and poetry, which is a good little mix.

John Falzon, great to have you with us.

John Falzon:  Lovely to be here.

Just Salvos:  Well can you start off by telling us a little bit about St Vincent de Paul and just some of the work that you do?

John Falzon:  Vinnies was actually founded in the 19th Century back in Paris by a young activist academic, a guy named Frederick Osanam, who came from a fairly privileged background, and he and some of his mates were actually taunted by people who were saying well look, if you’re Christian why don’t you put up or shut up – show us how you can prove that.  And so, rather than simply meeting together to discuss issues of faith and politics, they decided to start putting their faith into practice and going and visiting people who were living in incredible poverty in the slums of Paris.  So Vinnies is a global organisation and right across the globe and including here in Australia, we are ordinary people, volunteers primarily, over 40,000 in Australia, ordinary people just lending a hand to other ordinary people.  Our main form of ministry is by visiting people in their homes, seeing what their needs are – their material needs, but also offering some friendship and a sense of solidarity and of course we provide many professional services of course in Australia too such as in the areas of homelessness, domestic violence support, disability support, services for young people, right across the board – housing, all sorts of areas, wherever there is a need – nothing really is foreign to us, that is our way of looking at the world.

But then of course, we believe very strongly not only in providing assistance to people, but advocating regarding the causes of poverty and inequality.

Just Salvos:  John something you speak out quite regularly about is the Asylum Seeker issue, which obviously is a cause for great concern, indeed in poverty and alienation.  You said recently on Twitter that  it’s time we turn the debate on asylum seekers and you’ve made it pretty clear to the Government that St Vincent de Paul says No to mandatory detention and offshore processing.  Can you tell us a little bit about what has got you to this point?

John Falzon:  Absolutely.

Sure, again it’s something that’s a very natural position for us and for our members.  We don’t want to see politics in this debate and it shouldn’t even be a debate.  The truth is we don’t have a refugee problem in Australia.  We take the tiniest trickle of refugees compared to the global movement, the tragic global movement of people fleeing persecution and suffering.  We know that we take around 2% of the total of asylum seekers seeking asylum in industrialised countries and we know that the people seeking asylum particularly arriving by boat in Australia are only just under 3% of the total immigration  intake  in Australia.  So this isn’t a problem at all.  What is a problem is the demonization of people who are forced to flee their countries and seek asylum legitimately in ours.  These are not illegals.  These are people who have a legal right to come here and to ask that their case be heard, that they be able to apply for refugee status here.  We have a national obligation, rather than locking them up, or throwing them out, we have an obligation to treat their requests with dignity and respect, rather than demonization and repression.

Just Salvos:  It’s just so encouraging to hear you say these words John, and it’s something that we would expect to hear from Christian organisations and so we first of all want to thank you for those words.  But it’s certainly not a popular opinion, the one that you have just expressed – certainly we see it in the media and we see it – it is very much a political issue.  So do you have any ambivalence about saying things like this publicly?  Do you fear that it will hurt the organisation and the support that you get from the public when you can speak out on this, and other controversial issues?  Is that a concern you have before you speak out?

John Falzon:  No, look we have a moral obligation to speak out.  It’s non-negotiable.  That’s all there is to it.  Not only on behalf of asylum seekers with whom we stand in solidarity, not only the most recent people to come here, but the first people of this nation, again a people who have been oppressed through  invasion and colonisation and the continued effects of that.  We’ve seen tragic taking away denial of self determination of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders people in this nation.  We know from  World Health Organisation analysis that control over one’s life is a key social determinate in health outcomes.  It’s is little wonder that there is such a glaring and unconscionable gap in health and life expectancy between  indigenous and non indigenous Australians.  So the first peoples, the last peoples and everyone in between who is suffering the effects of structural poverty and inequality, we have an obligation to stand in solidarity with.  And you know, we are very privileged.  People share their stories with us.  Whilst this is a sacred gift they are giving us and we have a sacred responsibility to share those stories in the public arena, to tell the stories and to defy the myths and the lies that are perpetrated against people who are doing it tough.

Just Salvos:  Well we are, as Jen said, incredibly encouraged by your determination to stand up and have an opinion If anyone’s interested by the way, we’ve got your twitter account details on the screen right now … it’s just  @johnfalzon.  So we’d love you to jump on there and follow John and join his conversation.

John you talk about the inequality you talk about the growing divide particularly between our indigenous brothers and sisters, but there was a report out just recently which showed that the lowest 20% of income earners in Australia own 1% of the wealth – an average of $30,000 per household.  Whereas the top 20% have over 60% of the wealth – averaging $2.2M each household.  How has this happened and what can we do so somehow bring some equality back?

John Falzon:  For a start, and thank you for citing those statistics – they are enormously important.  It’s a great sadness, but not unexpected, that both sides of politics currently are obsessed with blaming people who are doing it tough for their poverty.  We’ve heard both Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in the lead up to the budget for example this year, saying that people who are for instance outside the labour market or soul parents or indeed people with disabilities need to try harder, they’re not trying hard enough like the rest of us.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The problem is not the laziness of the so called poor in our nation, the problem is, as you’ve pointed out, the huge inequality that has developed historically and is exacerbated structurally.  A market economy of course, is very good at providing great choices – a massive array of choices.  It encourages innovation and creativity, but it’s never been good a guaranteeing equitable access to the essentials of life for all people and so, what we have always argued is that simply Governments must do what markets cannot.  Markets have been unsuccessful in providing access to appropriate housing for low income households in Australia.  Markets are unable to guarantee access to health, to education, to transport, to childcare and the list goes on and so governments need to guarantee access to those essential goods and services, if we are to be the kind of society that we pride ourselves on being – a “fair go” society.

Just Salvos:  John, just briefly, because it is time for us to wrap up unfortunately but you’ve touched on some amazing issues with such great passion – asylum seekers, indigenous health, the growing divide between rich and poor.    What can we, as a community do, to get that little bit closer to John Falzon’s idea of utopia?  What can we do to get there?

John Falzon:  It’s not John Falzon’s idea of utopia, ah, you know I feel very privileged because I, like yourselves, am part of a massive movement of people who dream of a different kind of society .  There’s a Brazilian indigenous saying that when we dream alone, it is only a dream but when we dream together, it is the beginning of reality and so I would simply say to you that we need to dream together, we need to work together.  One cannot achieve these things individually, it is only by collective efforts that social change happens and let me point out – it only happens from below.  Never from above and so we need to put our shoulder to the wheel really and work – listen to the people who suffer the most, the effects of oppression and marginalisation – learn from our brothers and sisters and work with them to change the way  people look at the world and you know, it’s very simple – the truth will set us free, it’s only by telling the truth that we will indeed achieve the kind of society where nobody is left out or pushed out.

The truth will set us free.  What a great way to finish.  Let’s do it – let’s all dream together.  John Falzon thank you so much.  There’s some information on the screen right now.  St Vincent de Paul’s website.  You can check them out.  Maybe get involved if you want to volunteer or if you want to be a part of dreaming the big dream.  Let’s change the community together.  Thanks so much John Falzon.

My pleasure.  Thank You.

Just Salvos:  Thank you.  See you.  We’ll see you next week on Just Salvos.

Dr John Falzon will sleep out on June 21 to raise awareness for homelessness in Australia. Click here to find out more how you can support the 2012 Ceo Sleepout.

Follow John on Twitter

About Vinnies

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

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