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What Pope Francis thinks about Abbott's Audit

Michael Mullins |  04 May 2014

National Commission of Audit launch

In its own way, the Australian Catholic bishops' Feast of St Joseph the Worker social inclusion pastoral letter is as remarkable as the report of the Federal Government's pre-Budget National Commission of Audit that was released on the same day. 

It brings to Australian shores Pope Francis' radical economic thinking centred on the dignity of the human person. This is in stark contrast to the Audit Commission's putting efficiency and capital ahead of human need.

The Commission says it's the 'sustainability of the nation's long-term finances' that should guide government spending. The Bishops, on the other hand, believe it should be 'animated by a concern for dignity of workers and their families'. 

It's hard to imagine a more stark contrast in thinking about priorities for this month's Federal Budget. 

The Commission does mention the need to 'protect the truly disadvantaged', though there is no thought for those who are relatively disadvantaged. In practice it leaves intact superannuation concessions and other tax breaks for high income earners, while targeting payments for those who rely on welfare benefits. 

The argument of the Commission is that spending cuts that produce a balanced Budget will make us all better off because we will have a stronger economy and more jobs. On the other hand, the bishops quote Francis' skeptical assessment of such 'trickle-down' economic theories in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:

This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Those excluded include the young unemployed. The Commission envisages that they would be required to move away from family and friends to areas of high employment, or they will lose access to unemployment benefits. 

Forcing young people to leave home for the convenience of 'those wielding economic power' is not only an offence against dignity but a recipe for alienation and the drug addiction and other social ills that follow. Invariably business does not consider moving jobs to areas of high unemployment because economic efficiency is regarded as more important than preventing rootlessness.

It's possible that few of the Commission's recommendations will make it into the Federal Budget, but that it will instead provide an ideological blueprint for government policy in coming years. Perhaps we are just being softened and we will be grateful to the Government for imposing a $6 co-payment for visits to the GP rather than the Commission's recommended $15.

But to the extent that the Government owns and acts upon the recommendations of the audit report, it will be at odds with Pope Francis and all who value social inclusion.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 



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Submitted comments

Spending cuts by governments (and consequent lowering of the tax burden) have proven beneficial for the economy in general and unemployed flesh and blood human beings in particular over and over again, in the US Depression of 1921; in the Great Depression, when the countries adopting traditional (non-Keynesian) policies recovered quickest, and likewise after the GFC. If Pope Francis' 'trickle down' remark is to be taken that he believes otherwise concerning this issue which falls outside the scope of papal infallibility, well, perhaps he's being poorly advised.

HH 02 May 2014

Michael Mullins says that if the government acts upon the recommendations of the audit report, it will be at odds with Pope Francis and with all who value social inclusion. But Papal pronouncements, like biblical texts and wax noses, can be easily twisted to fit. It’s very easy to proclaim concern for the poor. Judas Iscariot did as much. A more difficult task is to manage an economy successfully so as to give governments the capacity to protect society’s most disadvantaged. This has become increasingly difficult since the Sexual Revolution destroyed Christian morality and successive Western governments, from Gough Whitlam’s massive expansion of welfare, to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, resulted in profligate government spending that is now bankrupting every Western nation. Black economist Thomas Sowell noted that the black family had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination but “began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.” Noel Pearson similarly recognizes destructive welfare policies. But rather than admitting policy failures, Blaise Pascal foretold how a proud person would hate with a passion “that truth which reproves him and which convinces him of his faults.”

Ross Howard 04 May 2014

...a just 'trickle-down' theory: Tzedakah. The root of the Hebrew word is tzedek - justice, or righteousness. In the Bible, tzedakah means “righteous behavior.” We do not give to charity out of kindness alone. We perform acts of tzedakah as we seek to create a just world. The commandment of tzedakah is so important that the recipient of our charity is considered to be granting us a favor by allowing us to fulfill our obligation. The poor must also give what they can, so that they, too, are able to perform mitzvot. Acts of tzedakah are equal in weight to all the commandments. (Talmud) The levels of charity, Tzedakah, from the least meritorious to the most meritorious. 1) Giving begrudgingly. 2) Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully. 3) Giving after being asked. 4) Giving before being asked. 5) Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity. 6) Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity. 7) Giving when neither party knows the other's identity. 8) Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant.

Annoying Orange 04 May 2014

Pope Francis, I suspect, will be proven to have far, far more long term insight into what recommendations such as those by the Commission of Audit will have on the social cohesiveness of nations than those on it. Now would be the time to take his advice.

Edward Fido 05 May 2014

I cannot believe the woolly thinking demonstrated in this report. To provide for the poor and needy you need money. To provide basic services for the community you need money. If you don't have it there is a limit to what you can borrow. Keep borrowing and you end up with massive unemployment impoverish the nation and end up without the money to care for the poor and needy whose numbers will multiply

Leo Donnelly 05 May 2014

I thought that the underlying premise was that we could no longer afford to spend tax-payer money on rich(er) people, especially for political populist reasons , so that we could afford to provide adequately for the poorer members of society. We currently waste a vast amount of public money and that has to stop. We need a successful economy and one which can afford to look after the truly vulnerable. It is also true that single parenthood and marriage breakdown are major sources of poverty and vulnerability, and community standards and related government policy needs to respond to this. We need a really good look at ourselves in Australia and develop a mature political culture. I hope Joe Hockey becomes Prime Minister asap.

Eugene 05 May 2014

Do you mean that churches and other "not-for-profit" organisation should start taxes?

Beat Odermatt 05 May 2014

I am but a collapsed catholic but even i can see that what the pope is saying makes sense. Why cant the Government take away the miners diesel subsidy? Or tax rich retirees super or cut out salary packaging of cars? Maybe even take away Cadbury subsidy? There are so many ways it could boost income without touching pensions students fees or anything else. Having read some comments here I wonder if some of you could be good Catholics but not very good Christians.

John 05 May 2014

The concept of 'the dignity of the human person' is so ill-defined in papal documents as to be of no use in moral reasoning

FRANK MOBBS 05 May 2014

I guess Ross Howard would have those on benefits rely on the trickle down generosity of the well-off, like a feudal Lord of old. Pope Francis isn't making an infallible pronouncement (as if!!) but he's pointing out the fallacy and naivety trusting "goodness of those wielding economic power." I agree that managing an economy is difficult but no more difficult than other governments have faced in the past. The article is simply pointing out that people rather than a budget bottom line should be given priority. What is wrong with that?

Jeff Kevin 05 May 2014

I meant that the pope may want churches and other "not-for-profit" organisations to pay taxes like anybody else. We must have too much money in the budget or we could not have paid for the royals to have a luxury holiday in Australia.

Beat Odermatt 05 May 2014

Fine article, with the most radical idea I've yet heard: businesses should move operations to areas of high unemployment (as opposed to low costs like China).

bz 05 May 2014

Who in the world doesn't like Pope Francis and his words of encouragement reminding us to strive to do things better ..Be just as kind to a government which is running the risk of criticsm by inviting us t o look at the problems we are going to have to deal with in the years ahead

Brian 05 May 2014

I've worked in the community sector long enough to recognize that there's some truth in Joe Hockey's remarks about the 'age of entitlement'. However, the answers the government proposes seem too focussed on a predicated future, at the expense of a realistic assessment of the immediate results of such sweeping changes. For example, what happens to a young man in a region of high unemployment who's currently collecting the Youth Allowance, and hears he'll have to collect it until he's 24 or move away from family and friends to an area he doesn't know and where he certainly can't pay rent on NewStart? Michael is right - this alone is a recipe for alienation. Still, it will create employment, building prisons and training more police and corrective service officers. A great job creation strategy, Joe.

Joan Seymour 05 May 2014

The Great Depression in the USA lasted because Keynesian deficit financing was not adopted quickly when it was needed. As Ecclesiastes might have said, "There is a time for spending and a time for taxing". Australia avoided the GFC because of Keynesian deficit financing of the small people, not big business. Other countries either: financed big business and there was no trickle down, but big bonuses for failure; or they insisted that debt be cleared first, as in Europe. Yes, in Australia, projects were rushed and badly managed leading to waste frequently, or death and injury in the worst and fortunately rare cases. As for "trickle down", there is no evidence that it works. I'll believe when I am convinced that there is a mechanism to make trickle down work. Show me the "invisible hand".

Peter Horan 06 May 2014

PH, Keynesian-type spending was the feature of the Great Depression from the outset, beginning with Herbert Hoover, who turned a 1929 $700 million surplus inherited from Coolidge into a $2.6 billion deficit by 1932. As a percentage of the budget, it would have totalled a whopping $3.3 trillion of the US 2007 budget (instead of the actual deficit of $162 billion of that year.) FDR himself railed against these unprecedented peacetime deficits in the 1932 campaign before reversing his position in the course of his presidency. Australia with its conservative response recovered from the Depression much faster than the proto-Keynesian US. Australia avoided the GFC because its economy was hitched to China via the mining industry, it was the only country in the world to enter the GFC with no deficit and no public debt (thanks to Peter Costello), the Federal Reserve largely avoided the Keynesian dash to low interest rates, and its banking system was in relatively good shape, having no toxic assets such as the sub-primes that evolved from massive government intervention in the U.S. housing market over 2 decades. The Rudd Keynesian responses made the crisis much worse than it would otherwise have been.

HH 07 May 2014

Thanks for this thoughtful article exposing the greed and heartlessness of the Abbott government. Let us all unite to tell them that this is not acceptable.

Ruth Russell 08 May 2014

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