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Hearing the unheard at Christmas


Language of the UnheardLast week Suzy Freeman-Greene wrote in The Age on the inadequacy of unemployment benefits:

A Senate committee investigating the matter received moving submissions on the dole's inadequacy but couldn't bring itself to recommend an increase. It's chairman, Liberal senator Chris Back, later told Age journalist Peter Martin there was a 'compelling' case for increasing Newstart. But it seems that since his party might be in government soon, he didn't want to make it.

It was disgraceful that the chair of this committee felt it wouldn't be right for the Opposition to support an increase to Newstart since they might have to pay for it if they got into government. It's also disgraceful that the current Government has so far refused to increase an unemployment benefit that has become so low that even the Business Council wants to see it increased as it has become a barrier to participation.

It is perverse to suggest that you can help someone get a job by forcing them into poverty.

The St Vincent de Paul Society is deeply worried about the new group of over 80,000 sole parents and their children who are going to be forced onto the clearly inadequate Newstart Allowance as of 1 January. Centrelink officers are already referring some of them to Vinnies and the Salvos because they know that a loss of around $100 a week could mean the difference between paying the rent and sleeping in a car.

The Government's response so far has been that they should just get jobs.

At Vinnies we are receiving letters and emails from many of these courageous women explaining how hard it is to find jobs that allow them to balance their caring responsibilities with employment.

It is time we turned our backs on the notion that social policy is best devised by those 'above' and imposed on those 'below'. It will take courage and leadership from both sides of politics to admit that this approach to disadvantage and inequality simply makes things worse.

It is time also to stop pathologising people and places, blaming them for their own exclusion and worrying more about the cost of providing adequate resources than about the long-term social and economic costs of keeping people in a state of exclusion.

In 2006 the then Prime Minister John Howard gave an address at the Westin Hotel in Sydney in which he referred to the 'zones of chaos' that wreck young people's lives. This continues to be the framework through which we seem to approach social problems in Australia.

The 'zones' discourse constructs individuals, homes and then communities as being either unwell or unlawful. Implicit in this is the affirmation of the place of these individuals, homes and communities within the normative economic, social, legal, moral and political framework that 'all of us' call Australia.

The individuals, homes and communities are thereby blamed for their own alleged pathology and/or criminality. Their condition is understood as a moral, as opposed to structural and historical, problem. And the problem is theirs to solve, albeit with a goodly dose of what Lawrence Mead described as 'the close supervision of the poor'.

The Northern Territory Intervention was the perfect example of this paradigm. It was especially characterised by a monumental lack of awareness or even interest in the analyses of those who would come under its control.

We must eschew the patronising notion that the local is somehow a world unto itself, a little pocket of chaos or excellence morally reflective of the degree of cleverness and hard work of its inhabitants.

As Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells has pointed out, the arena in which the so-called 'chaos' dominates is characterised by a network society, in which inclusion is an indicator of social security and exclusion is a ticket to the informal economy (crime), reliance on structures of public or private welfare, or poverty.

An exclusionary network is increasingly produced, outside of which the rights of the individual are denuded and the responsibility of society nullified. Indeed, the notion of a common good is deemed dangerous. Government might look hard at the spectacle of marginalisation, but only from the vantage point of prosperity. Which is how we end up with policies that are built on compliance and control instead of resources and self-empowerment.

The place to start is by asking which sections of society are regarded as garbage. The only explanation for the socio-political acceptance of the incarceration of asylum seeker children or the degrading housing conditions experienced in remote Aboriginal communities is that these sections of society are regarded as garbage.

Garbage is what you take out. You don't particularly care what happens to it later as long as you don't have to deal with it, or live with the stench or sight of it. The people who are treated like garbage are invited to recycle themselves into something socially useful; to go from being socially nothing to being socially something.

The existence of people who are treated like garbage in prosperous Australia and across the globe is the greatest reason we need revolutionary change as the most practical expression of solidarity and love.

Connections can be made between people who are pushed to the extreme margins and others who experience less extreme forms of marginalisation. The greatest power for progressive social change lies with this connection between the excluded.

It comes to fruition in the consciousness of an 'us' that firms up what is common between these experiences of alienation and exclusion, with a view not, in the words of Latin American author Isabel Allende, of 'changing our personal situation, but that of society as a whole'.

This Christmas I invite you to join me in saluting the people who experience exclusion and who are best placed to teach all of us how best to change society for the better.

John Falzon headshotDr John Falzon is an advocate with a deep interest in philosophy, society, politics and poetry. He is the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council Chief Executive and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. This article is an edited and expanded extract from his book, The Language of the Unheard, recently launched in Melbourne by Jeff McMullen and in Canberra by Paul Bongiorno. 

Topic tags: John Falzon, Newstart



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Existing comments

Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.

Bernstein | 21 December 2012  

Gary & I appreciate your article. I hear myself forever countering the language and catchphrases of the j howard person that encourages the cancerous development of 'them & us' in too many people's minds, now the cult mindset of fox news which I was horrified to see for the first time this week. Blessings, Trisha Bouma

Patricia Bouma | 21 December 2012  

You are most inciteful, John Falzon. Dale Carnegie might have called you perspicacious. The excluded individuals become 'persona non grata' and are treated as objects of a class of people that must be managed. It's very difficult for one's opinion to be heard when you have no title of authority. The power of the logic of one's argument serves as the only Hope to break the cycle of Poverty.

The Ghost in the Machine | 21 December 2012  

A big hear! hear! from me. You are to be congratulated John for your untiring advocacy of the excluded, starving and otherwise marginalised. Goodness gracious! It makes sense, questions of justice and humanity aside, to cease punishing people for being single parents or unemployed etc, purely out of self-interest: we are most of us only an unforeseen hair's breadth distance from accident, retrenchment or other calamity reducing us to the same situation!

smk | 21 December 2012  

It's a complete misrepresentation, and a gross injustice, to attribute the appalling housing conditions in remote aboriginal communities to a widespread perception of aborigines amongst Australians as "garbage". Nor does it help them one iota. Basically, these communities are non-traditional, artificial creations based on zany left-wing "noble savage" notions that were fashionable in the 1960's, and pursued chiefly by "Nugget Coombs" et al. (And even then, as looney as those notions are, they clearly didn't spring from any ill-will on the part of Coombs. On the contrary.) There is a very simple solution to the plight of these communities, that doesn't involve the futile guilt-ridden self-flagellation urged upon us by Dr Falzon: These communities, based on dangerous political fictions, should be dissolved. Those aborigines who wish to revive the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle of their ancestors in remote should be permitted to, free of any state interference and/or assistance (including, needless to say, alcohol or food or modern medical assistance). Those who wish to integrate with the Western community of the rest of Australia, as thousands have done successfully over the decades, would equally be welcome to do so. If this policy were implemented, the housing, alcohol, and other problems would simply vanish. And the sense of self-worth gained by leading an authentic lifestyle - traditional aboriginal or Western - would replace the current despair. The real crime is that in the politically correct age we are in, this solution is not allowed to be even whispered in the corridors of power, thus ensuring the real suffering it would immediately ameliorate is permitted to increase.

HH | 21 December 2012  

Thank you John. Your description of 'garbage' permeates a greedy culture in our very wealthy, ungrateful country..I cannot help thinking we were in such a 'good' economic place when Howard left office, precisely because he did not address or maintain infrastructure and funding to poverty,health and education...let things go ...languish and then declare these rundown places as "zones of chaos"..too disturbing distressing,confronting, so unpalatable..SO UNCIVILISED No one likes to consider their own garbage, let alone anothers'.So fundamental is it to mental, emotional and physical health all to feel loved,engaged and worthy..(treasured).Your words relieved my sense of despair, knowing you are speaking with experience and authority,in a very public position and we all must make louder protest NOW. Christmas is expressed as a stressful time for even those with money, unveiling the real poverty of spirit and unconnectedness and an especially sad for those who are made to feel shame for their situation trying to keep invisible. Very childish,we know but need constant reminding..the adulation of mega material wealth and celebrity, the self-centred, egotistical branding of success as a GOOD LIFE.. GOOD equals sanitised and empty ,no garbage!!. We have given responsibility to governments..we wash our hands but garbage builds up and we will find it is not 'fixed',not going away. I will be writing /emailing Penny Wong, all of them... an election is the only time they really take notice. * My intelligent son badly hurt his back just as he finished his apprenticeship..Now,after 4 years on a disability pension, severe depression, loss of relationships and vital independence, he has struggled to find casual jobs, housing, transport..and slowly building a life. He has come across many young people in similar poverty and disenfranchisement..It is a zone of chaos alright.As in "war-zone"- Another country,

Catherine | 21 December 2012  

Thank you , John, for being an ongoing voice with integrity.

Alex Nelson | 21 December 2012  

I don't want to compare poverty in Australia with a war zone in Afghanistan .I am just describing the hidden poor..and the toll on mental, emotional and physical health poverty brings in this very wealthy 'lucky' country. My son is very lucky.. he has family,education and skills.He is empowered,but it would be very easy to become homeless as many others are.It is abominable that single mothers and children now are facing a great threat homelessness, in 2013.We have not moved forward at all. I'm very disappointed in traditional Labor values for ordinary working class people being buried.There is no national wealth if it is all foreign owned ..Mining taxes could be extended to media/banking shares and capital gains of the very wealthy..and why have electricity and gas bills doubled?? the poor cannot pay any more for dirty carbon-producing fuels! Yes,homelessness and 'garbage'will be increasingly permeate every suburb/town across the land.

Catherine | 21 December 2012  

HH, Thank you for the sense of your comment in the midst of irrationality. It is never-the-less unlikely that many would choose to return to the traditional life of the noble Australian aborigine. Too difficult,no money, loss of skills to live off the land etc, all, of course, not the fault of the aborigine but of the British colonists and handed down over generations by white colonists and their Australian born descendants. The aboriginals of modern Australia are also very difficult to help as Noel Pearson has vocalised on numerous occasions and as I found some years ago working as a doctor in an aboriginal community. It's time!! Time for the social commentators to join the real world.

john frawley | 21 December 2012  

"...the people who experience exclusion and who are best placed to teach all of us how best to change society for the better." A further weakness of this piece is the unargued assumption that the "excluded" are somehow epistemically privileged as to understanding the causes and cures of their plight and can "teach" the rest of us what to do to make things better. Strong gestures of humility here, but in the end, just patronization. It's no more probable than the proposition that people who are sick are on that account better than healthy people at diagnosing their medical condition and identifying a cure. A higher order of error is that those arguing this kind of rubbish are usually passing off their own socio-political line as what has "emerged" from the alleged teachings of the excluded. A perfect example was the Liberation Theology movement which discovered, after years of "listening" to the down-trodden in Latin America that, wonder of wonders, these illiterate peasants had a narrative of their oppression which lined up exactly with Marx and Lenin and ... the theologians themselves! Who'd have guessed?

HH | 22 December 2012  

John, The 'Voice of the Unheard' is getting louder and will continue to get louder until we all realise they are part of our common humanity and deserve to be treated with respect, compassion and love. We neglect the alienated and disadvantaged at our own risk! Your book is a wake up call for all Australians. Thank you Wayne

Wayne McMillan | 24 December 2012  

I think that the Catholic church, not only through its social welfare institutions, but through its extensive parochial structure, is uniquely placed to address some of the general issues raised by the dogged John Falzon. Tho' I'm unsure about some of his analysis re particulars, its heartening to hear him again bellow out the scandal of unemployment benefits. And this time, excitingly, within a wider social analysis, including surprising reference to Manuel Castells. You don't have to be convinced of his starting point, or all of his prescriptions, to appreciate that Castells has much to offer. John reminds us that Vatican 2 authorised (or required?) the church to think about structural change – economic & social issues – in addition to its impressive welfare and charity responses. Wouldn't it be good if there could be a campaign to promote and revive consciousness within the church – from the professional lay managers of its large institutions to its ordinary Sunday mass-goers – of the church's social teachings. (By the way, YCW founder Cardinal Cardijn left the church with one very potent, grass roots, personal and social transformation and empowerment model - its shorthand was 'see judge act'.)

David Moloney | 26 December 2012  

Aboriginal people would not be treated like "garbage" today if they had not been treated like vermin since the arrival of white settlers in the 1700s. The Indonesians didn't seem to have any problem cooperating with Aborigines in the Northern Territory over the centuries. Let's not get into HH's left/right wing political dichotomy again - it's just about racism.

AURELIUS | 02 January 2013  

John Frawley, thanks for your empirically-based input: I'm in total agreement. The number of aborigines who would resume their traditional authentic hunter-gatherer lifestyle is, I suspect, close to zilch. And perfectly rationally so, notwithstanding there may be some aspects of that lifestyle that we Moderns could greatly benefit by, by incorporating. What needs to be exposed for the tragic myth that it is, is the line assumed in this post, that our "remote" communities are somehow iterations of authentic aboriginal lifestyles, when they are preposterous fabrications of Enlightenment, Rousseauian ideology - to the obvious detriment of the hapless aborigines themselves. Who cares if my suggestion is a "left" or "right" solution? For the sake of this glorious people, and the truth, the obvious solution is that the error grounding these fake, manifestly inhumane, constructions should be exposed for what it is.

HH | 07 January 2013  

From my reading of comments, I haven't seen anyone mention the mythical and idealic "remote" Aboriginal communities. HH and Frawley's so-called "empirically-based" assessments mean nothing unless there is a real connection between white and black Australians. It's not about being scientific and "empirical" - it's a personal issue. The Aboriginal community in Redfern could be just as "remote" as a camp outside Alice Springs.

AURELIUS | 11 January 2013  

Half the population cannot read or write properly. Yet we hang on to the difficulties of our writing system, while other modern languages update these. Even Chinese and Japanese have an easy writing system for beginners. We could have Parallel Texts, for example, with cribs next to normal spelling, but without its surplus letters (6%) and changing misleading letters (4%), so that beginners could read it easily. http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/spelling.htm http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/spelling.htm#word Can you spell? The best of us may not be perfect. Yule, Valerie, 2002. Research in cutting out surplus letters in words. http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/spellresearch.htm Yule, Valerie, 2011 Yule, Valerie. Recent developments which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print intact. English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67 http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A839oLF6

valerie yule | 13 February 2013  

Thank you John. I thought that the concluding sentence could have been, " Thus saith the Lord," you sound like a modern version of the 7th century prophets.

david | 17 December 2013  

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