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Opening statement to Senate Inquiry into Stronger Futures

By Dr John Falzon

The wound of colonisation is a wound in the heart of the First Peoples of this land.

The legislation that is before this Committee will deepen and broaden this wound.

It contains policies that hurt, humiliate, punish, and control.

Like all forms of colonisation it denies the full humanity of those who are subjected to it.

These are policies that have been shamelessly trialled on the Aboriginal People of the Northern Territory and that are now to be not only deepened in those communities but also broadened to include other so-called areas of disadvantage across Australia. The degrading trail of internal colonisation continues, discriminating one moment on the basis of race and the next moment on the basis of class.

The “Stronger Futures” legislation will not strengthen when it is so inherently disempowering.

As Elaine Peckham of Alice Springs said in this place during another Inquiry:

“We don’t want the Basics Card. We want basic rights.”

I would add: we don’t want social control. We want social justice”

Back in 1993, Mick Dodson explained what social justice means to him. He said:

“Social justice is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination.”

You don’t build a community up by putting its people down.

You don’t build an inclusive society by locking people out or locking them up.

It is to the Federal Government’s credit that in defining its own Social Inclusion Agenda it gives pride of place to the right of people experiencing exclusion to have a voice, influencing the decisions that affect them. How sad then that this principle is disregarded as paternalistic policies such as compulsory income management are imposed while the obvious need for income adequacy, whether one is currently outside the labour market or stuck at its lower end, remains unheard.

Good policy is organically connected to self-empowerment and a redistribution of resources as an essential element of that empowerment.

Paternalism, on the other hand, starts (and ends!) with a highly unequal relationship of power. To “supervise the poor”, as US academic Lawrence Mead advocates, is really to control and coerce people on the basis of race, class, gender, and disability.

The New Paternalism is exemplified in such policies as compulsory income management or using the threat of financial penalties on people in receipt of Social Security Benefits, as if this could improve a person’s chances of employment or address the actual reasons for school non-attendance.

As the Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondara put it:

“Inequality cannot be addressed by the removal of control from affected people over their lives and their land.”

The truth is that legislation like Stronger Futures is a recipe for greater social disorder and higher rates if incarceration.

As of the 5th of January this year the 270th Aboriginal person died in custody since the Royal Commission handed down findings over 20 years ago.

Have we learned nothing?

Where you attack people’s dignity you will create disorder, be it a disorder of the mind or a disorder on the streets.

Our problem is not the bad behaviour of a so-called moral underclass. Our problem is inequality. When we deny that this is the problem we end up looking for solutions in all the wrong places. We also end up re-framing the question incorrectly, so that it becomes a question of compliance and control.

So we end up with solutions that worsen the problem of inequality. As if compulsory income inadequacy, or its accursed cousin compulsory income management, could actually help create the space for dignity and liberation! We should note here that compulsory income inadequacy occurs on both sides of the employment/unemployment divide.

It’s not just about how much is spent though. It is about where and how it is spent. It is about making sure that the spending responds to the stories instead of the spending requiring its own carefully crafted story.

A Vinnies member in the Northern Territory said to me recently that the Intervention will go down in history as being as being a cause for shame for the Australian Government. No one was consulted, she said. No one was listened to.

The injustice of the policies that we of the St Vincent de Paul Society are taking a stand against today is that they treat people as if they are nothing.

We are on the side of the people who are treated as if they are nothing.

I urge this Senate Committee to have the courage to recommend that this legislation be scrapped.

How many people need to come here to tell you that this is the deepening and broadening of a wound that a future Prime Minister will need to apologise for?

You have an opportunity to start again; to listen to the people instead of manufacturing consent.

Now that would be a way to make a stronger future.
 

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.

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