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Australian democracy needs an intrusion of the excluded


'Intrusion Of The Excluded' by Chris Johnston. White middle class male voter is surrounded by people of various backgrounds holding 'how to vote' slips bearing the slogans 'A place to work', 'A place to learn', 'A place to live'We're well into the election campaign and everybody is talking about the economy. The word 'economy' has a Greek etymology. It comes from oikos (household) and nomos (law, order, management). In the contemporary context it is generally understood to refer to a set of figures, such as GDP, rate of growth, inflation, employment, balance of trade, the deficit. But maybe the number of people experiencing homelessness in Australia is also a measure of the economy? After all, it provides us with a picture of how many people are actually without an oikos!

The truth is that we could look at ourselves as enjoying a thumping record of economic growth while viewing the number of people experiencing homelessness as somehow incidental to this rosy picture. Likewise for the 2.3 million people living in poverty, including 600,000 kids!

In a poem entitled 'Economic Report', poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal wrote prophetically about the kind of internal revolution that is demanded by the Gospel; a Beatitudes-like inversion of our values and practices to the degree that we might be able to say that 'economics now is love'.

In truth the popular mainstream notion of 'economics' is ideologically loaded. It is a reference point not for love or for the 'public good' but rather a paean to private gain, private profit, and the accumulation of wealth — regardless of the concomitant accumulation of misery, both here and in those parts of the world where people are savagely exploited and plundered of their natural wealth so that our standard of living might be augmented. 

It is predicated on the assumption that wealth generated for the rich will eventually trickle down to everyone else. Poverty, then, is seen as a symptom of personal failure. People are pathologised and many are eventually criminalised; for the criminal 'justice' system is the logical end-point for those who find themselves outside the household, neither producing nor consuming according to the rules of the household. 

John Berger, in A Seventh Man, his moving study of migrant workers in Europe, wrote: 'According to the capitalist ethic, poverty is a state from which an individual or a society is delivered by enterprise.' Poverty and homelessness therefore are constructed as a lack of enterprise, a moral failing. Berger goes further with this analysis of how exclusion is justified, and utters the terrifying judgement that 'to be homeless is to be nameless'.

It is time for a new beginning. The Prime Minister says we need a 'new politics' or a 'new way'. The Leader of the Opposition responds that we'll only get a new way by electing a new government. What is missing is the recognition that we actually need a new kind of economic democracy: a reconfiguration of our economic decision-making and prioritising, away from individualism towards a sense of the public good, the common good, the participation of all rather than the exclusion and marginalisation of many.

We need to broaden our revenue base in order to provide social goods such as education, healthcare, transport, housing, childcare, disability services, and employment services. We need to be unafraid of removing some of the massive and wasteful concessions — such as superannuation tax concessions that cost the taxpayer about $32 billion a year, according to Treasury, the bulk of which goes to middle- and upper-income earners. Many such potential savings have been identified in the Henry Tax Review.

We do not need to take from the poor to give to the rich. We do not need to cut payments to single mums or the unemployed. We do not need to cut expenditure on health or social housing or education.

In a recent opinion piece I put the following three questions to both leaders.

1. What will you do to make sure that everyone has a place that they can call home?

Over 105,000 people are homeless. This is not worthy of a nation that prides itself on being progressive. Thirty-nine per cent of these people are living in severely overcrowded conditions. Eighty per cent of the people seeking help from housing and homelessness services are trying to survive on a social security benefit. The factors contributing to homelessness include poor health, housing stress and the need to escape domestic violence.

Safe, affordable housing is a human right for all, not a privilege for some. The 2008 Homelessness White Paper sets the target of halving all homelessness by 2020. It costs more, in the long run, to manage homelessness than to end it. And you don't end homelessness by blaming people who are homeless any more than you can fix unemployment by blaming the unemployed.

2. What will you do to make sure that everyone who can work actually has the chance to work?

We all want to be treated fairly and respectfully in the workplace and receive an income that allows us to keep up with the cost of living. While people are looking for work or are outside the labour market because of caring responsibilities, they should not be forced to wage a battle for survival from below the poverty line or be treated in a punitive or patronising fashion. If there was anything we should have learned from the Global Financial Crisis it is that unemployment and underemployment are, in the main, structurally rather than behaviourally caused.

It is a matter of deep shame for a wealthy nation like ours that our unemployment benefits have been kept deliberately low as a means of humiliating the very people they were designed to assist. We support helping people into the paid workforce. The time has come, however, to abandon the foolish notion that forcing them into deeper poverty improves their chances of employment. You don't build people up by putting them down. You don't help them get work by forcing them into poverty.

3. How will you ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn?

Education is a game-changer in the fight against poverty. Every parent in Australia should feel confident that their child is going to have access to the highest quality education and that this should never depend on what they can afford or where they live. And education should not be seen as something that ends at year 12. University, TAFE, apprenticeship training and adult education should be accessible and affordable for all. Education is not just something we benefit from individually but also collectively as a society and as an economy.

It's hard to be able to look for, or keep, a job when you don't have a place to call home. It's equally hard for a child, or an adult, to engage in formal education, in circumstances of homelessness, including overcrowded housing. It's hard to find work when your literacy and numeracy levels are not up to standard and it's hard to keep a roof over your head when you're out of work.

The message is clear: A place to live, a place to work and a place to learn are deeply interconnected fundamentals for building the kind of Australia that deserves to be called progressive or fair. And this means for everyone: the First Peoples, the most recent arrivals, and for everyone in between!

It's time to move beyond the politics of marginal seats to a politics that listens to marginal people. A good society is one where the people treated as the most marginal enter the public space and teach the rest of us what really matters. This 'intrusion of the excluded' as Slavoj Zizek calls it should be the true measure of our democracy.


John Falzon headshotDr John Falzon is a political sociologist, poet and author of The Language of the Unheard (2012). He is Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent Paul Society National Council of Australia.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston.

Topic tags: John Falzon, homelessness, election 2013, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, St Vincent de Paul Society



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Existing comments

The first symbolic step might be to put the word 'Commonwealth' back in to the name of our nation and our parliament and on to our bank notes.

Ginger Meggs | 16 August 2013  

Thank you John for speaking out. I wish you were a voting option on he "How to Vote" cards. Narelle Mullins

Narelle Mullins | 18 August 2013  

Yes John I agree with you. And if you read Tony's book you'll see that he agrees with you too.

Ian | 18 August 2013  

Thank you for this sanity. Australians suffer, Australians die, in order that budgets have a "surplus". Neither potential leaders offer hope this will change. Both 'profess' to be Christians.

Caroline storm | 18 August 2013  

Good as far as it goes John. But it also needs to be remembered that we have one of the most re-distributive tax systems in the world and that needs to continue, with even more focus on supporting those who really need it. There has been increasing distortion of this focus by middle-class welfare and this urgently needs to be paired back. I don`t think super should be fiddled with again, apart perhaps for the very rich. But negative gearing for investments should be phased out, with government stepping in to prevent a crash in the rental market as happened the last time it was tried. A government housing commission may need to directly buy property at the lower end for rent, to prevent such a crash.

Eugene | 18 August 2013  

The responses John received from both leaders are the stuff of news broadcasts and newspapers over these last two weeks, to be repeated ad nauseam over the next three. While at the facile level of cheap words, both leaders agree with John, their actions speak louder and with more authority. Unfortunately the bulk of the electorate, i.e. we voters who are well enough off to live comfortably, demand more of the same from our political leaders. Only when family members or close friends are out of work, even homeless, do many of us even notice the great divide between us, the comfortable majority, and those citizens whose vote apparently doesn't count. With their focus on maintaining the majority vote, neither leader will take the economic steps necessary for a more even distribution of opportunity in our overall wealthy nation.

Ian Fraser | 18 August 2013  

The challenge is to translate these thoughts into mainstream political action. I am not sure how we can make that happen given the loaded nature of Australia politics. By the way, Ian, I wonder what you refer to when you write "Tony's book".

Janet | 18 August 2013  

Not just a good article John, but one with a grounding in economic and sociological reality. I despair when I hear politicians, such as Andrew Robb, who recently said an oligopoly in certain sectors was a good thing. It certainly isn't for some workers and providers in the agricultural sector about which he was speaking. G K Chesterton was unenthused about it when it was termed Monopoly Capitalism. Neither was the late Bob Santamaria. On an international scale it can wreak terrible havoc. I think we need to look at the sort of encultured approach to welfare; education and lifting people out of poverty they have in Scandinavia. It is far more realistic and humane than ours. Countries like Norway have harnessed their oil bonanza so that they have a nest egg for when the oil runs out. We need to realise that "social justice" is not just a topic for the opinionati but a national discourse we urgently need and one that doesn't only concern politicians or their favoured "experts".

Edward F | 18 August 2013  

Political Sociology is the Cinderella in the Political Science family. The Ugly Sisters are Realpolitik and Psephology. I tried my hand at politics in a small way in the trade union movement. I was elected to an executive position by a significant minority on a platform of "Conditions are more important than Pay". Management in my particular workplace offered me a seat at their board meeting when Conditions were being discussed. I refused because the condition of my being present was that the discussions would be confidential. I saw this as muzzling the dog. I regret to say workers at my workplace thought it was better to have someone inside the tent and they voted me out at the next election. As far as I am aware Conditions at my former workplace have lagged behind improvements in similar industries. Interestingly several of my successors moved on to management positions. Power, wealth and prestige are the major factors in political life. There is little attention paid to those who are weak, poor and despised. The more Pope Francis (and Dr Falzon) draws atention to them the more the-powers-that-be will attempt to subvert them. They have their ways, you know!

Uncle Pat | 18 August 2013  

How about extending negative gearing option for low income earners with a mortgage? Sometimes I think I would be better off giving up on the vicious circle of work/debt/stress/survival and settle for public housing, try to fake a disability pension claim and smell the roses a bit.

AURELIUS | 18 August 2013  

maybe it's an atavistic throwback to convict days to treat newcomers with cruelty unrelenting, but to be a humane society, Australians need to practice compassion at the macro and micro level. As Paul McCartney put it, "Let Them In."

walter p komarnicki | 18 August 2013  

A curious mixture, Dr Falzon, of the Christian application of social justice and the communistic liberation theology of South America. Is the poet Ernesto Cardenal the very same who together with his fellow Jesuit and brother formed the core of the junglegreen-wearing rebels bearing automatic weapons who raided John Paul II's outdoor Mass in Nigaragua and replaced the Crucifix above the altar with the Hammer and Sickle? It might be that if our society is to embrace true justice for all we should devote our energies to a return to belief in a god creator, seeded as such belief is in the love and compassion for all God has created. Great vision for the underprivileged in your writings. However the money has to come from somewhere and in a democracy, as opposed to the Cardenal brothers' objectives for a "just" society, a large part comes from taxation and product earnings from domestic work. If we can believe politicians and international policy analysts we seem to have the economy pretty well correct in this country. What we have abandoned in this sad and miserable yet wealthy country is God, particularly that God which Jesus Christ represented to us in his teachings.

john frawley | 18 August 2013  

it is interesting that 3 of the greatest enemies of the Common Good are 1. The tobacco industry, which seek to make money by bringing sickness and death to millions. 2. The mining industry which seeks to make money by stripping our finite natural resources and promoting the pollution that brings about climate change. And 3. 70% of our media, which seeks to make money by undermining the infra structure, the NBN, so as to promote its own money making schemes. It is also interesting that these 3 organisations support, and are supported by the Liberal Party

Robert Liddy | 19 August 2013  

"Poverty and homelessness therefore are constructed (by capitalism) as a lack of enterprise, a moral failing." Such a ridiculous attribution makes me wonder if leftists ever bother to read books by pro-capitalists. Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, Rand, Bastiat, Peter Bauer, etc, - all would hotly deny this proposition. These thinkers attribute poverty largely to government interference in the property rights of the hapless citizenry. Supporters of capitalism believe that, left to live their lives in freedom, most people tend to be productive and thrifty, not shiftless layabouts. Any lack of enterprise is almost always due to the strangling effect of unjust laws and regulations, rather than a moral defect. [That being said, if government subsidizes people to live an artificial existence cocooned from ordinary economic life, chances are they will tend not to go looking for work - predictably enough. Such is the case in the state-mandated regime in the aptly named "remote communities" - as remote from any functional modern economic community as they are from the authentic aboriginal hunter-gatherer lifestyle, thanks to leftist bureaucrats and academics.] And the capitalist theorists have history on their side: it bears abundant testimony that the more free market an economy is, the quicker it lifts the general populace out of poverty. Hong Kong 1950 onwards being the definitive example.

HH | 21 August 2013  

Further to last post, allow me to share my pithy pro-capitalist t-shirt slogan; "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Remove crippling red tape and taxes and he and his mates will have a lucrative fishing export business up and running inside a year."

HH | 21 August 2013  

JOHN FRAWLEY, I guess you would also criticise El Salvador's Archbishop Romero who was inspired by those same "communistic" Jesuits and was shot dead in the head while saying Mass for his efforts? The same conservative Oscar Romero who is now venerated by the church and a candidate for canonisation.

AURELIUS | 22 August 2013  

I always considered the "Teach a man to fish" line to be socialist (democratic). The capitalist version would be "Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll buy a funny hat. Talk to a hungry man about fish, and you're a consultant."

AURELIUS | 22 August 2013  

Even some traditionally left-aligned showbiz celebs who get to dirty their hands are now waking up to the real causes and cures of poverty. Dare we hope that academics might follow suit someday?... "In a recent speech at Georgetown University’s Global Social Enterprise Event, Bono admitted that even he himself finds it hard to accept that he has become a rock star who preaches capitalism. “Wow; sometimes I hear myself and I just can’t believe it,” he said. Bono is well known for leading charitable organizations and initiatives that are fighting poverty and disease in Africa. At the Georgetown speech, Bono made the following statements: “Aid is just a stop-gap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid. “In dealing with poverty here and around the world, welfare and foreign aid are a Band-Aid. Free enterprise is a cure. “Entrepreneurship is the most sure way of development.”"

HH | 22 August 2013  

Like kiddies on the joy wheel at Luna Park, the big parties fight each other out of the way to get to the middle where it’s safe. Those on the edge, the fringe dwellers unable to sustain societies’ great centrifugal force of individualism and greed, fly off into oblivion. Let us heed the prophetic words of the great Irish Nationalist poet W.B Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” Let us also heed these prophetic words of John Falzon, Our own Nation’s Great poet!

L. Beriya | 23 August 2013  

How sad there are so few people like Dr Falzon who both care about the marginalised and who are able to speak on their behalf. “A place to live, a place to work and a place to learn”. Such simplicity – why are we not hearing this? A terrific article John - Thanks

Mark Meehan | 23 August 2013  

What about the red tape created by the so-called entrepreneurial capitalists? Like shopping centre developers who only allow Woolies or Coles to take leases? Or Woolies andf Coles forcing down the prices of milk and bread? Sounds more like dictatorial socialism (price control as we see happening is socialist Venezuela) And what the about the capitalist ideals of Nestle who own in increasing bigger chunk of the food market - and now even Australia's health food market where they stuff "low-fat" foods with sugar and cheap starch? Big western corporations are not much different to the current Chinese Communist Party.

AURELIUS | 25 August 2013  

Aurelius, since when is deciding who is and who is not allowed to run a business on your own property an example of "red tape"? You should be complaining rather about the government zoning and planning red tape which prohibits competitors to Woolies and Coles setting up shops in nearby land, by zoning it strictly for housing or other non-retail uses. And since when is offering bread and milk at prices attractive to poor people while not forcing other companies to do so (a) evil and (b) an example of socialist "price control"? As for Nestles - I'm not aware of the case. You could be right - there will always be fraudulent merchants. Just like there will always be corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats and politicians.

HH | 27 August 2013  

So by offering prices attractive to poor people, you then make the people producing that product poor - how is that just? And do you think poor people live on bread and milk alone? And it's true that the food industry is resisting moves to correctly label the nutrition value of their products more accurately because of fear their "health products" will be revealed as unhealthy. And there's nothing wrong with deciding who takes leases on private property - but it's still red tape and it's not in the interests of the public.

AURELIUS | 27 August 2013  

Actually, farm prices have held up over the last few years while retail food prices (not just bread and milk) have come down at Coles and Woolies. So farmers are no worse off, while consumers have benefited. What's changed is C & W have lowered their margins. Nevertheless, it is a fact that governments create red tape barriers to entry, eg, by zoning land around large shopping complexes in a way that deters competitors and thereby advantages incumbents like Coles and Woolies, which means prices might be even lower (and so the poor, to that extent made richer) in a more truly free market regime. "Red tape" means coercive government regulations which effectively inhibit or prevent me from doing what I want with my property. Making decisions about what I want to do on and with my own property as long as I'm not interfering with other people's corresponding rights is not "red tape". It's called "exercising the right to private property."

HH | 28 August 2013  

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