By John Falzon
Since the St Vincent de Paul Society indicated why we would not be signing up to the Government’s new case management scheme for breached welfare recipients we have been heartened by the wonderful support we have received from so many sectors of Australian society. In addition, almost all the Christian charities have either refused to join up or pulled out of the Federal Government’s new case management program for breached welfare recipients after only a few weeks.
For the St Vincent de Paul Society, the decision not to participate was guided by our commitment to social justice, our solidarity with the marginalised, and our collective hunger for justice, following the imperatives of the Gospel.
For this, we, and the other NGOs that took a similar position, were accused by one Government Minister of turning our backs on the poor. We could never turn our backs on the people who are pushed to the margins of society. We are, however, turning our backs on the Government’s punitive welfare laws and we’re doing it because of the duty we owe to the people we assist.
We do not look at this as some kind of victory. We’re all missing the point if we see this simply in terms of a battle between the churches and the Government. What’s at stake here is the daily struggle of those who are already pushed to the margins. As far as we are concerned it is they who are suffering and are going to suffer even more keenly, the effects of the punitive welfare laws that have come into play, especially when combined with the Work Choices legislation. People are going to be pushed onto even more meagre Centrelink payments and then into a more deregulated and unprotected low end of the labour market. All of this is, of course, accompanied by the threat of a family’s income being completely suspended for up to two months. They are systematically being herded into an ever-cheaper pool of labour that is going to benefit some sections of society enormously. The breaching mechanism is a blunt tool, in terms of actually delivering any positive policy outcomes, but it’s a very sharp weapon in terms of cutting into the hearts of families, who are already hurting incredibly.
This debate does, however, shine a light onto the bigger problem of what is structurally and systematically being done to further marginalise those who are at the margins of Australian society. In that sense, this debate is a very useful one, because certainly our experience at Vinnies is that people are being made to think, and to think very critically and analytically about what is happening due to this Government’s harsh legislation.
We are all being forced to think about the real causes of marginalisation and exclusion: the lack of affordable housing, the paucity of access to healthcare, education and training, childcare, and transport.
The fact that we’ve spoken up quite clearly saying that this breaching regime is immoral and that we will have no part in this breaching regime has been very important in galvanising our own ability to prophetically analyse from the perspective of those who are at the bottom..
Blessed Frederic Ozanam, our founder, said, “Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is justice’s role however, to prevent the attack.”
As far as we’re concerned, in 2006 in Australia, it is the role of the St Vincent de Paul Society to do everything we can to prevent the attack, not to go into partnership with the attacker. We will continue to pour oil on the wounds of the traveller. We will always be there to provide charitable assistance to those who’ve been wounded as it were, by oppressive legislation and by the economic forces that have pushed them to the margins. We’ll provide the charity but it is justice more than anything else that these people have a right to, and we will not cease to clamour for justice. As St Augustine put it so well: “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
There are some who would like to see us doing the bidding of those who are oppressing the marginalised. There are some who long for the consolation that we will provide charity as a substitute for justice. Nothing could be more alien to the spirit of the St Vincent de Paul Society. There has been a 25% increase in the number of people in custody over the last decade. Is this the kind of Australia we want? People are forced underground because they are desperately trying to salvage their dignity. Some resurface in our prisons or on our streets. The labour market, we are told, must be flexible but this system of social control is utterly inflexible.
The people we stand in solidarity with, the people we come into personal contact with every day, in their homes, in our centres, and in our special works; these people are for us, a living sign of the sacred. They entrust to us their stories. We owe them this: that we will honour their sacred stories by bearing witness to their truth.
Dr John Falzon is Chief Executive Officer for the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council.
This article was taken from the The Record – Summer 2006-2007.
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.