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Vote for hope

Last week I took part in the joint launch of a Reconciliation Action Plan for two Canberra NGOs, ACTCOSS and Woden Community Services. Ngunnawal Elder Aunty Janet Phillips gave a beautiful Welcome to Country. One of the things she said was that 'for Aboriginal Australians there's no such thing as justice; there's just us'.

Auntie Janet's words sound harsh. But they should come as no surprise. Reverend Doctor Djiniyini Gondarra from the Arnhem community of Galiwinku, for example, has just arrived back from the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva. He reports that many aspects of the Intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities were heavily attacked as being unjust.

Some might also find Auntie Janet's words to be lacking in hope. Nothing could be further from the truth. When she says 'there's just us', this is not a cry of despair but rather a moral call to arms.

So these are the questions I believe we need to ponder as we approach the election.

1. Who do we think of as the 'us'?

The greatest cause of inequality and structural injustice is the acceptance of the false notion that 'they' are the ones who are in the boats seeking asylum, or having half their meagre income 'managed' because 'they' are Aboriginal or on a social security benefit; that 'they' are young and jobless or old and isolated; that 'they' live with a disability or are working hard to raise their children alone on an inadequate income; that 'they' are living in their car because 'they' couldn't keep up their rent payments ...

So who are 'we'? Do 'we' need to keep 'them' out? Do 'we' really need to punish and humiliate 'them' for doing it tough on the fringes of the labour market? Or do 'we' want a society where there is no alien 'other'; where there is, in Auntie Janet's prophetic words, 'just us'?

2. How can we turn this election into a building block for a more equal society?

The supplementary question, of course, involves weighing up the known policies and track-record of both sides of politics to assess their impact on the growth of inequality.

At the heart of 'us' there has to be at least a sense of travelling towards greater equality. Otherwise the 'us' becomes a travesty. Forget the so-called rising tide that lifts all boats. Solidarity means being in the same boat.

Australia continues to be a highly unequal society. If we care to dig a little deeper through some of the rhetoric that calls on the people doing it tough to lift their game, we would discover that inequality of income and of access to essential services lies at the heart of disadvantage in Australia.

Australian National University economist Andrew Leigh and Oxford University's Tony Atkinson have recently analysed a 30-year trend of rising inequality, with the rich boosting their share of Australian income significantly over the last five years. The trend for wealth inequality is worse, with the richest 20 per cent of households owning 63 per cent of the net wealth. It's not just about income and wealth.

There is the need for a redistribution of services and resources. We need to understand the basics of life as social goods rather than as sources of profit. The right to live in affordable housing, for example, is enshrined in the United Nation's Declaration of Human Rights which says in Article 25:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of him[/her]self and of his[/her] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.

The project for greater social equality is anchored in a redistribution of hope. Auntie Janet's formulation creates powerful grounds for this fundamental redistribution.

The private rental market is notoriously bad at providing affordable access to appropriate housing for low-income families. Governments have a responsibility to do what markets cannot. But even when governments accept their responsibility they do not give hope. The role of government is actually to create the legislative, social and economic frameworks in which hope can be realised.

Charities are often described as the givers of hope. But hope isn't given by charities any more than it is by governments or charities. Hope isn't something that can be given from above. Like social change, it has to be created from below. As the poet Bertolt Brecht put it, 'the compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable. It is the world's one hope.'

Governments should be measured by the degree to which their policies create the space (and provide the infrastructure) in which this hope can be collectively made. By us! Those of us who are members of NGOs would do well to analyse our own contribution to a better society in these terms as well.

3. How can we work on the social equality project beyond the Federal Election?

There is entrenched inequality in our midst. Our job is to generate the political will to address its structural causes rather than to manage its manifestation. As Italian theorist, Domenico Losurdo, put it: 'Democracy cannot be defined by abstracting the fate of the excluded.'

We must remember one crucial factor in the history of progressive social change in Australia. Without the organised analysis and agitation of ordinary people we would never have seen gains in the fields of industrial rights, women's rights, the establishment and public funding of refuges for women and young people, tenants' rights, environmental justice, workers compensation, citizenship rights for Aboriginal people and so on.

In the years of the Great Depression when the families of the unemployed were being thrown out of their homes by landlords, a movement of resistance sprang up against these evictions. People gathered around the home of the soon-to-be evicted family and fought back against the police force sent to carry out the law.

From home after home the families were evicted, and the women, men and children and their goods were forced to make the street their home. Their supporters had the intellectual honesty never to stop being shocked by this brutality.

People were radicalised by reality, by their concrete analysis of the concrete conditions.

Good policy was born from such struggles. As Pablo Neruda put it: 'The word was born in the blood ...'

Our creative mission is both personal and collective. Despite the best efforts of some, it must resist the paternalism that seeks to undermine it. As Lilla Watson and a group of Aboriginal activists in Queensland in the 1970s wrote:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

John FalzonDr John Falzon is a sociologist, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia, and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. He has written and spoken widely on the structural causes of marginalisation and inequality in Australia and has long been involved in advocacy campaigns for a fairer and more equitable society.

Topic tags: john falzon, election 2010, labor, liberal, abbott, gillard, asylum seekers, intervention



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Existing comments

Thank you John; I agree. As a Pope once told me: `you can only achieve salvation in the context of the society of which you need to be a part` ... or words to that effect. There were another half-million people there, but it was a very personal message.

Eugene | 19 August 2010  

Dr Falzon asks "How can we turn this election into a building block for a more equal society?", suggesting "weighing up the known policies and track-record of both sides of politics", begging the question: Which are the two sides?. As far as social equity goes, on one side we have the coalition, that view social policy entirely through the lens of the economy, and while in government happily suspended the Racial Discrimination Act to implement the NT intervention, a policy measure continued by the ALP government, with neither party having a coherent social policy, and then on the other side we have The Greens, who have clearly laid out principles, goals and measures in the social services area (as well as most other areas of government). Party policies can be view at their respective websites: liberal.org.au, alp.org.au and greens.org.au.

David Letham | 20 August 2010  

These are timely reflections for those of us whose cynicism seems to be exceeded only by the candidates. Thank you.

patrick | 20 August 2010  

Thank you. The Other are Australia's shame and motivation for caring. We have an indigenous population of some 100,000, a majority of whom live in a degree of social extremity and have a life expectancy which is 25 years lower than the ABS average.
We have a population of 600,000 seriously mentally ill (SMI, with the incurable diseases of schizophrenia, bipolar 1 and/or severe clinical depression). The Mental Health Council of Australia noted, 2009, that only 35% of these very ill are able to receive care by specialist doctors or hospitals when crises occur. The suicide rate is deliberately under-estimated by all states (MHCA,2009;ABS, 2008).
The SMI life expectancy rate is 25 years, or one third less, than average. Some 50,000 SMI are said to be homeless, by charities and NGOs who try to care for them.

No government entities attempt to collate the homeless, or their natural, homicidal or suicidal deaths.

For decades the SMI have borne 13-14% of the health burden. They have generally been given 6 0r 7% of the health budget Many have fought against this disparity. The Rudd health budget, 2010,gave the SMI 2% of the health budget. God help these 700,000 Australians.

Caroline Storm | 20 August 2010  

I guess I come at things from a radically different direction than Dr Falzon. Though I don’t question his bona fides, Dr Falzon’s is not a particularly Christian thesis. It stems rather from a particular economic and political ideology: one that I, another Christian, don’t share.

Inequality as such is not a problem for me. I don't lie awake at night ruing the fact that I can't create wealth as rapidly as Andrew Forrest or Bill Gates. Inequality is a phobia of the left which stems from the belief that wealth creation, even in the absence of fraud or theft, is a zero-sum game. I don’t think it is.

Moreover, I think that systemic poverty is invariably a symptom of excessive state regulation, not insufficient. The freest economies in the world are those with the least poverty (they also tend to be more equal, if that’s your beef.) A study of the economic fortunes of nations over the last three hundred years will confirm this. Probably the most dire economic and social situations in Australia today occur in the entirely welfare-supported “remote” communities, the crazed concoctions of ‘60’s socialists such as Nugget Coombs. Abolish them and inequality will significantly diminish.

HH | 20 August 2010  

Let me put it squarely: if inequality is not a problem for HH, I can only conclude he has absolutely no experience of what it is like to be on the downside of being unequal. I put this to the forum: try being expected to survive on a starvation pittance and be humiliated and demonised at every turn. Engage your intelligence and ask whether the kind of society you want is one where the rich or comfortable are rewarded and the disadvantaged and vulnerable are told to build pyramids miles away for a mess of pottage.

I'm glad HH can sleep at nights. There are many who cannot, because their minds ache with worry and their stomachs growl with hunger and between their bed and the street is just an eviction notice.

smk | 20 August 2010  

For what it's worth, SMK, I earn less than the minimum wage. And have done so for most of my working life, having been a carer for a significant slice of that time. And your concerns about people in poverty are mine. But for heaven's sake: who cares if they're "equal" or not? To repeat: I don't give a fig. What should matter to Christians is poverty in absolute terms, and the best system for moving people out of that situation. Now THAT'S something I lose sleep over, and more so when the noble-minded but pixie-land Dr Falzons of this world have their way.

When it's not based on the looney Marxist "surplus value" theory, resentment about inequality as such is simply envy. Envy is and always has been a destructive force in human society. I recommend Helmut Schoeck's book on the subject: "Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour" - not a work that too many on the left have the guts to confront.

HH | 20 August 2010  

It is facile, HH, and false, to attempt to belittle or reduce either Marxism or any structural social justice agendas aimed at redressing the problems caused by inequality to "envy". It is a well-worn and baseless slur.
The feelings one has when hungry and humiliated are pain, anger and despair, and if you have an ounce of empathy you will realise that and moderate your opinion. Some people use "poverty in absolute terms" as simply an intellectualisation.

So long as there are people who think the deprived are merely envious, and that the critique of inequality is based on "looney" or "pixie" ideas, needless pain and suffering will continue to be callously ignored or accommodated.

Perfect equality may never be realised, but it remains the most concrete, comprehensible benchmark/aim for the idea of a just community where the needs of the weak are not subordinated to the preferences of the strong.

smk | 20 August 2010  

SMK read my words. I didn’t reduce Marxism to envy. I clearly distinguished (i.e. “When it is not” …) between 1. Marxist­ type theories which erroneously attribute poverty to inequality (“the rich are rich because the poor are poor”) and 2. resentments of inequality based on envy. If you can’t grasp that, I suspect you’re not really on board for a constructive dialogue. And your offensive implication that I held that the poor are envious (easily demolished ­read my posts again) adds to the suspicion.

So what if some people intellectualise about absolute poverty? I’m sure some people intellectualise about equality as well; say, a phalanx of hairy, well­fed, tenured academics littering humanities departments in universities across the Western world. They’re the type that came up with those “perfect equality” theories you’ve spruiked here, all the while averting our gaze from the real world historical experiments which tried to implement the idea, ­ eg those of Pol Pot, Mao, Kim and Stalin.

Tell me: why should I worry that Andrew Forrest is vastly more talented at creating wealth than I am, any more than that Shane Warne is a better leg spinner, or that Simone Young is a better conductor? Why should I stop celebrating the exercising of native talent? Why should I not thank God for creating a unique and diverse arrays of gifts in every person?

HH | 21 August 2010  

Your closing questions, HH, are trivialisations of the issue Dr Falzon focused on: Andrew Forrest's business abilities, a leg-spinner's expertise or a musical talent and the fact that you or I don't have these, are not at issue. It's the question of the will and ability of society to remedy the consequences and prevent the causes of the suffering and division caused by social, economic and political inequality.

There are different theories about how society can do this or whether it should. It's clear we disagree.
But there's another thing. I may have conflated a couple of your scornful dismissals rather than distinguished them surgically but in the end your admonishment is hair-splitting. Your disdain for the writer's article and those of like mind is unmistakeable. Moreover, I don't think, HH, you can talk about constructive dialogue. Your posts include several sweeping pejoratives: inequality is a phobia; Coombs' concoctions were crazed; the writer is pixie-land; surplus-value theory is looney; not to mention your phalanx of hairy academics. It's all very pamphleteering and a pity you couldn't argue a case without resort to ridicule of that sort.

smk | 22 August 2010  

SMK, I think we can agree: I have a thoroughgoing disdain for yours and Dr Falzon's enthrallment with "equality" - particularly when (as here) it is solemnly intoned without a shred of reasoned support, as if it's some incontestable axiom that all Christians must take on board. And when Dr Falzon calls for governments to do "what markets cannot" in the realm of cheap housing, I'm just speechless, considering the myriads of ways governments have actively prevented the market from providing cheap housing. "Pixieland" is not strong enough a word.

My remarks are proportionate responses to your cynical attempt to sidestep my challenge re. absolute poverty, not economic inequality, being the real issue, by references to "intellecualization". Cheap shot.

I believe there will always be inequality in wealth generation, just as there is inequality in sport, artistic abilities, and so on. I would much prefer a society of wide disparities of wealth in which the lowest ranked in wealth were reasonably well off, than an equal society in which everyone was poor. The lessons of economic history to me are: go for equality, you get poverty all round. Go for economic liberty, you get rapid upward mobility from poverty. Example: Hong Kong, 1950 - 1997+.

HH | 22 August 2010  

I think, HH, you may have confused economic liberty with economic libertarianism. At any rate, attributing poverty to equality because highly capitalised mercantilist economies produce more is dubious logic. The challenge here is the twofold one posed by the article: how a society like ours continues to have people who are not, as you put it, “reasonably well off” and why, in both the public and private realms, there continues to be marginalisation and demonization of individuals/groups as the “other”. At the heart of Dr Falzon’s article is a recognition that people are not simply economic units to be evaluated by their ability to consume and that there is a real question to be asked about the nature of justice and the interconnectedness of true liberty, dignity and economic well-being as social goods. And his underlying thesis that the effort for all these things is inextricable from a conviction that we are or should be equal - in all three - is not disproved by material proliferation that continues to fail to eradicate all of the absolute poverty to which you’ve referred. It highlights a real concern that significant disproportions in wealth mean - either as cause, effect or essential condition of - significant disproportions in freedom, empowerment and dignity.

smk | 22 August 2010  

SMK. Mercantilism = trade surpluses through, if necessary, heavy government intervention (such as tariffs). Hong Kong was free trade, and laissez­faire.

My “logic” is that Hong Kong in the 1950s was poor, and had to cope with large influxes of penniless refugees over the decades from Communist China. She nevertheless became highly capitalized, and poverty-free in absolute terms through the largely laissez­-faire policies of the British colonial rulers. A diametrically opposed result to that of her equality-­obsessed red sister ­ until, of course, the latter woke up and began to make market ­oriented concessions from the time of Deng. Why is that dubious logic? (Note: I’m not saying that equality as such is the root cause of poverty. It’s the attempt to achieve equality through coercive state intervention which is the problem.)

The challenge you outline I’ve met. We should end the misery in the remote communities by abolishing all special government assistance to them. The residents can then choose to live traditional lifestyles in a more authentic way (hunting, gathering, bush medicine, etc) or take up a western lifestyle (as more than half of the aboriginal population do now with the greatest of ease), or some mix of the two, but without the state queering the pitch. The biggest “them” and “us” divisions are the result of benevolent but bumbling politicians and their ivory-­towered academic advisors.

HH | 23 August 2010  

Your solution, HH, to end misery in remote communities - and presumably, if consistent, misery anywhere - by abolishing all special government assistance, would represent a drastically different idea of nation, state or shire and deal a large blow to the idea of, or aspiration for, any of them as a community based on shared fortune, and solidarity rather than entrenched divisiveness.

It’s not clear how misery would be removed simply by withdrawing it and expecting all people to survive and adapt or prosper. Considerations include the diverse mix of cultural aspirations, including the realistic extent to which they can self-determine, economic need, any grievance, and the real resource deficits many suffer.

Your solution, I fear, would represent a throwing-into-the-deep-end in the expectation a few will swim to the edge, in effect, a reduction of the equation to a policy of the survival-of-the-fittest.
Well, there’s the divide between us: I don’t think state intervention is “queering the pitch”, as if a pitch was inscribed in the blueprint of human nature and intervention could not be corrective.

I’ll conclude my posts by saying I think rather if we cease to believe the pitch can be whatever we have the will to attempt, and that the state is an extension of ourselves-in-common, we limit our options and readiness to improve.

smk | 23 August 2010  

SMK: reality check. Aborigines in remote communities are extraordinarily vulnerable to violence, child/teenage/early adult sex abuse, depression, suicide, alcoholism, petrol sniffing addiction and so on. Remote communities are artificial constructs. Their "communities" subsist totally on taxpayer handouts. Their "communities" are not in any sense economically sustainable. Their "communities" are manifestly not recreations of natural aboriginal communities that functioned healthily for - some say - 80,0000 years without what aborigines themselves damningly refer to as "Sit Down Money".

The "them versus us" narrative is, frankly, pathetic: under analogous conditions any human community - white, black, or brindled - would (and do) evince similar pathologies. If you (or Dr Falzon) have any lapidary, devastating, academically rigorous, evidence to the contrary, it is your moral duty to provide as much. I'm listening. (Obviously I don't mean some politically correct tracts masquerading as serious research. I'm sick of those. Some of us on the "Right" actually care about this pulverised lot, did you know?) Otherwise you are hereby flung from your putative moral high horse.

And I note you haven't responded to my observations about historical efforts to impose equality, "perfect" or otherwise. Too uncomfortable?

HH | 24 August 2010  

Not uncomfortable at all, HH, just not pivotal to the article’s theme, which argued for a change of ethos in our society, whereby the alleviation of sufferings or deprivations would become a serious priority agenda, for us both individually and collectively. Inequality is consistently reported as growing within Australia, the developed world, and globally. Pointing to the extent to which pre-capitalist economies like Russia or China may have been less productive or achieved lower per capita levels of consumption, compared to modern western counterparts, proves nothing except that: what it does not show is the comparative extent of material adequacy distributed throughout the society; in other words, whether sub-survival poverty, say, is less or not. Now I don’t know the answer to that, but, for the purposes of Dr Falzon’s article, the point is that the existence of it at all is a symptom or effect of structural failure. And the kind of trickle-down beneficence which you extol in your economic role-model is self-evidently imperfect because it does not eliminate sub-survival poverty within it either. All your comparison with our modern experience of large scale communist economies simply shows they’re imperfect also. But the kind of restructuring - of our mindset, as much as productive ownership - implied by the article is not a Stalinist or Maoist one.

This is where I think you’re missing the point. You say Dr Falzon’s thesis is not particularly Christian. That may or may not be true, or even necessary. Readers can form their own conclusions. But it’s interesting that, opposed to the social laissez-faire you espouse, there’s a persistent and recurrent diverse expression of a commitment to equality underlying the communalism of early apostolic groups, Benedictinism, Shakers, Bruderhof, and many others.

smk | 24 August 2010  


1. Benedictines - for example - don't commit to equality. They commit to poverty, chastity and obedience, renouncing perfectly worthy institutions (private ownership of property, marriage, etc) 'for the sake of the kingdom'. Above all, theirs is a voluntary community, not imposed by the state, and perfectly compatible with a laissez-faire economy. Also, Benedictines sell their wares for a profit on the open market with an undisturbed conscience.

2. Contrary to your implication, small scale equality-driven societies fail, too. Even voluntary ones: the 'Mayflower' Pilgrim colony was famously reduced to starvation point within two years (1621 - 1622) under conditions of highly motivated "communism" inspired by the New Testament. They instantly began to flourish when private property (ie: tolerating an inequality of economic outcomes) was permitted in 1623 and never looked back.

3.'Trickle down' is an ignorant caricature. The 'water' is not accidentally caught from above. It will flow from each individual under conditions of economic freedom. The Pilgrims, Hong Kong, and countless other examples from history demonstrate that private property, free trade, and minimal state economic interference allow humans to express their natural productive powers.

4. As I've put it to you, the worst examples of misery and poverty in Australia today are the result of state repression, as are the less grave situations cited by Dr Falzon (eg, housing).

Your noble-sounding equality theory simply has no explanatory power. It is a false and doomed trail.

HH | 25 August 2010  

Well, HH, I guess we’ll just have to remain in irreconciliable disagreement. We'll have to leave it to readers to decide whose response to Dr Falzon’s article and whose theory of societal improvement they prefer. Will they agree, with you, that Dr Falzon’s vision is delusional and destined to fail, or, with me, that yours is ultimately either callous or at least content with an imperfect status quo?

smk | 26 August 2010  

Indeed, SMK. Thanks for the conversation & all the very best.

HH | 26 August 2010  

A gracious conclusion, HH, I readily reciprocate. Thanks, and the same to you.

smk | 26 August 2010  

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