The way I looked at the world changed forever when I first read Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and great theorist of the confluence between the colonisation of land and the crushing of the spirit. Colonial Algeria, a site of incredible violence, seems like a world away from industrialised Australia in the 21st century. But it is not.
Not when we are living with laws that have been forced upon sections of our population on the basis of race and 'for their own good'. The Federal Government's shameful attempt to extend compulsory income management in an effort to get around the Racial Discrimination Act is nothing more than a cynical manoeuvre, a deliberate commitment to the American path of close supervision of people who are doing it tough.
This is insulting to the people we stand in solidarity with. This paltry effort to conceal racial discrimination leads the government into the equally dangerous waters of class discrimination.
Colonial Algeria is not a world away when the First Nations of Australia continue to live with the toxic fruits of historical colonisation and the perpetuation of the structures of internal colonisation.
It is not a world away when, in the language of the beatitudes — which, as Oscar Romero pointed out before his own violent death, have turned everything upside down — the people who hunger for justice here and now are really joined at the hip with those who hungered for justice there and then. When here and now we can make our own that poignant prayer on Fanon's lips: 'Oh my body, make of me a human who always questions!'
Good policy needs not only to arise from critical questions; it should itself provide a relentless critique of reality.
When, for example, we embarked in Australia on a road of universal free health care we were posing a question to the existing reality. The policy itself cried out: 'Who has been missing out? Why is healthcare not best left to the mechanisms of the marketplace? Why are people going to prison for failure to pay their medical debts?'
And yet, today we are burdened with a burgeoning system of private health insurance which is not only inefficient, as pointed out by such analysts as Ian McCauley, but is grossly expensive and unfair.
Recent proposals by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission, which more deeply embed the role of private health insurance will, as John Menadue says, lay the ground 'for the eventual demise of Medicare'. Menadue argues: 'The end result would be a two-tiered health service: a public tier for the poor and a private tier for the wealthy. Equity would go. Efficiency would go. And social solidarity would be a thing of the past.'
Good policy, of course, sees a diversity of issues as being whole cloth, as being interconnected.
Oh, and about Algeria, Professor Larissa Behrendt has noted this following alarming comparison:
'The data indicates anaemia rates in children under the age of five in the Sunrise Health Service region have jumped significantly since the Intervention. From a low in the six months to December 2006 of 20 per cent — an unacceptably high level, but one which had been reducing from levels of 33 per cent in October 2003 — the figure had gone up to 36 per cent by December 2007.
'By June 2008 this level had reached 55 per cent, a level that was maintained in the six months to December 2008. In two years, 18 months of which has been under the Intervention, the anaemia rate has nearly trebled ... It is nearly double the level it was before the Sunrise Health Service was established, and more than twice the rate measured across the rest of the Northern Territory.
'According to the World Health Organisation, levels of anaemia above 40 per cent represent a severe public health problem. At 55 per cent, the Sunrise Health Service results can be equated to early childhood anaemia levels in Brazil, Burundi, Iraq and Zambia; and are worse than Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Pakistan, Peru, Jamaica, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Algeria.'
With the exception of a couple of fanatical poverty-deniers who are taken seriously by nobody there is a broad consensus in Australian social science that we do have a serious problem with poverty and disadvantage, that this problem affects the lives of at least 11 per cent of the population, that the causes of poverty are primarily structural rather than behavioural, and that we can, as a society, address these causes.
Frantz Fanon reminded us nearly 50 years ago:
'What counts today, the question which is looming on the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it.'
We have been shaken to pieces by this question.
If wealth is correctly understood here as access to appropriate housing, health, education, transport, childcare, employment, social security and wholeness I would simply add that, in order to achieve this, there must be a massive redistribution of hope along with the redistribution of wealth.
I will never forget the first time I read the poem by Tomás Borge, a former Minister of Justice in the Nicaraguan Government. His wife had been raped and murdered before his eyes by the military regime he had fought against. In Christianity and Revolution he tells us:
'After having been brutally tortured as a prisoner, after having a hood placed over my head for nine months, after having been handcuffed for seven months, I remember that when we captured these torturers I told them: "The hour of my revenge has come: we will not do you even the slightest harm. You did not believe us beforehand; now you will believe us." That is our philosophy, our way of being.'
He then produced what I think are some of the most memorable lines of poetry in human history. A poem called 'Mi Venganza' personal ('My personal revenge'), addressed to his torturers. He wrote:
'I will be revenged upon your children when they've the right to schooling and to flowers ...
On that day I'll greet you with "Good morning!" and the streets will have no beggars left to haunt us ...
I will be revenged upon you, brother, when I give you these hands, which once you tore and tortured, without the strength to rob them of their tenderness'
A redistribution of hope is not happening quickly enough as we begin the 21st century. We are, however, witnessing the emergence of a new reality in which people are beginning to be united in their experience of exclusion along with those who stand in solidarity with them. In the prophetic words of the Nobel Prize-winning poet and advocate, Pablo Neruda:
'We will win.
Although you don't believe it,
we will win.'
Dr John Falzon is Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board.