Real stories betray Abbott's homelessness untruth

In 1994 I started working in community development in some of the large public housing estates around Sydney. There I learnt a valuable lesson: that everyone has a story. That might sound obvious. It is however the most obvious truths that sometimes need to be spoken.

Now is one of those times. On one hand we have a Government committed to the humiliating blanket imposition of compulsory income management on the basis of race and class. On the other hand we have a Leader of the Opposition who persists with the most offensive attitudes to our sisters and brothers who are doing it tough.

Everyone has a story. And they don't happen in limbo. They happen in the context of developing social and economic structures. Each person's story is a unique intersection of the personal and the political. Each intersection continues to change.

Tony Abbott's recent comments on poverty and homelessness reveal an inability to understand these intersections. If you don't know how intersections work you're sure to come a cropper!

The deeply offensive aspect of Abbott's comments is that he blames people for being left out or pushed out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Choices are constrained for those who have been systematically locked out of the nation's prosperity. There's not much choice between a rock and a hard place. But of course, such a world view lets governments off the hook. It denies the reality of the social.

When I was forced to engage with what was happening in people's lives I was able to see the bigger picture emerging. I found myself being completely re-educated on the causes of inequality and how these social relations intersected in the lives of the people who were pushed to the edges of society.

Every day the members of the St Vincent de Paul Society and many NGOs across Australia see and touch the Australian face of marginalisation. Many of us see this experience as a sacramental encounter. Many of us believe in the real presence of Christ in our disadvantaged and demonised sisters and brothers.

We are driven by the truth of what we see and touch. And the truth is that we, as a society, have within our means the ability to change the structures that cause or exacerbate poverty and exclusion. The question is whether we, as a nation, have the political will.

We continue to be subjected to social policies that mimic the paternalism exemplified in Margaret Thatcher's contention, 'there is no such thing as society'. Paternalism starts (and ends!) with a highly unequal relationship of power. It is described by Lawrence Mead, one of its leading US proponents, as 'the close supervision of the poor'.

The New Paternalism is a relatively recent version of this approach. The focus is on the supposed individual deficit rather than structural deficits. The very name bespeaks the manner in which people are objectified and treated like young children who have no capacity to make decisions or take control. Any decision imputed to them is roundly condemned by a moralising discourse from on high.

The New Paternalism is exemplified by such policies as compulsory income management or using the threat of financial penalties on sole parents or people in receipt of unemployment benefits.

The New Paternalism assumes that people are largely to blame for their own marginalisation; that people who are marginalised are naturally without power; that power naturally rests with those who deserve it; that those with power can, at best, use their power to bring about a change in the behaviour of those without power; and that the problems experienced by people who are marginalised are their own problems, but bleed into the 'mainstream' through increased costs, increased crime, loss of productivity, market constraints and disorder.

These assumptions are as pernicious as they are unproven. They lead to either treating people as if they are 'sick' (pathologisation) or as if they are morally bad (criminalisation). Being locked up often follows hot on the heels of being locked out.

Nothing good can come out of these approaches. They are cursed not only by their lack of compassion but also by their denial of justice. We should be listening to the people who are most oppressed by the structures that cause inequality and marginalisation. We are obliged to engage in bringing about the necessary social change.

The only lasting liberation is won collectively by the people who hunger for it, to paraphrase the Beatitude.

Jean-Paul Sartre once noted that no matter how terrible the situation a person finds themselves in, the impetus to seek change does not come automatically. Someone does not wake up one morning and decide that this is enough, that something must be done. Rather, you will do something about the situation only when you realise that an alternative is possible.

This must happen on a collective level if we are serious about creating genuine pathways out of homelessness and poverty. We must create the alternatives rather than condemning our own to be imprisoned in an oppressive status quo. More than this, we must have the courage to imagine the possible together if we are to build the kind of society where homelessness and exclusion are prevented in the first place.

John FalzonDr John Falzon is Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. 

Topic tags: John Falzon, tony abbott, poverty, homelessness, st vincent de paul



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Existing comments

"We must create the alternatives rather than condemning our own to be imprisoned in an oppressive status quo. More than this, we must have the courage to imagine the possible together if we are to build the kind of society where homelessness and exclusion are prevented in the first place."

Well said Dr John, but I can't agree with your personal denunciation of Mr Abbott. He could well write an article asking why the St Vincent de Paul Society, since its inception in this country in the late 1880s has not achieved what you are generally stating is the correct approach to poverty and homelessness.

Culture wars are an eternal current running through Churches and charities, even in the way that personal, individual stories are and could be collectively heard, so why this 'pointing out the splinter' in Tony's eye and missing the log in your own organisation's.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 18 February 2010

You have woven together the personal and an understanding of the dynamics of power and relationships. An excellent article John. The final comment about "having the courage to imagine the possible" is a challenge to those who keep the blinkers on because to take them off is painful. It means letting go of our egos and lots of other things besides.
Anne Lanyon | 18 February 2010

There will always be some people who have disabilities, illnesses or can't manage their lives for some reason. We will always have some homelessness. However, the rising problem now is due to the excessive rise in housing costs! All this is to help the building industries, the mortgage and land developers. The States keep getting flooded by migrants, all adding to the demand for housing. The existing population are being displaced and priced out of the market. With half a million for a median house in Melbourne, those on an average income find it impossible to pay back mortgages! No wonder our cities are becoming more violent as the stresses accumulate in Australia that was once known as a land famous for home-ownership!
Vivienne | 18 February 2010

Thanks, John. I found this article a very prophetic one, naming what has to be said if one is to take the gospel seriously. You have stated things clearly and strongly, and I believe, very accurately. I appreciate your words, and I hope that there are others like myself who are challenged by them.

It is easy to rationalise that my ways of seeing things are the right ways when often they are more self-serving. When people's stories are heard, then new possibilities open up.
Peter Dowling | 18 February 2010

"We continue to be subjected to social policies that mimic the paternalism exemplified in Margaret Thatcher's contention, 'there is no such thing as society'."


Surely it's the very opposite of "paternalism" to say as Thatcher did: "Don't automatically blame all your ills on other people and external factors and some catch-all called "society": - consider first if you can begin to turn things around yourself"?

Surely it's the epitome of paternalism to say "There, there, it's not your fault, your fate is completely determined by external circumstances, you can do nothing for yourself and that's why we're here."

Yet another example of how Mrs Thatcher's timely and perceptive remark has been completely twisted about.

The rest of the article is a disturbing mish-mash of left wing sloganeering. I fear for the St Vincent de Paul Society and especially for those it aims to help.

Hugh | 18 February 2010

I am the Carer for a lady with brain damage, but I am getting too old to do what I once could. Without the assistance of having my income to help pay rent she would be homeless. Add to that without hers I would too, but I am not going to be there much longer, so what does she do?

Please do not mention public housing, as she grew up in it, and for obvious reasons does not wish to return. Before her accident she had a very good income and could afford to buy whatever she needed or wanted. Now she can't even afford the rent let alone the ability to live anywhere near the services she requires as a disabled person.

She also refuses to ask for help, as she / we feel there are people far worse of than us. However on the few occasions we have asked for assistance the worst for providing help is St Vinnies. Walls are thin, and when you have to listen to the workers discussing your case in derogatory terms just on the other side of the wall I can assure you it is humiliating.

Tony Abbott is a product of this system, and he has no idea, just as many people who have never experienced homelessness or disability have no idea what happens when the system fails you. The old saying "walk a mile in my shoes" could apply here. Try it once I guarantee you won't like it.
Geoff | 18 February 2010

An example of how one structure penalises people was experienced by my Deaf friend who was informed his disability payment would be suspended by Centrelink because it couldn't contact him by phone even though it had documentary evidence that he was, in fact, profoundly deaf and couldn't hear to use a phone. Centrelink's letter even implied that he was deliberately making himself unavailable by phone! In effect, Centrelink was blaming him for his disability but found it was unable to respond to my request for an apology for its mistake even after he responded to the demand to present himself in person to be "assessed" when it already had the required proof. It caused him unnecessary anxiety and proved to be a waste of his and Centrelink's time.

In my experience with Centrelink this kind of thing isn't an isolated incident. This is real life experience with one structure that deals with the most vulnerable in our society, not left-wing sloganeering.
Revd E. McAndrew | 18 February 2010

Dr John Falzon's malicious attack on Tony Abbott is an indication that he leans towards the left-wing ideologies. Tony Abbott is straight talker, honest, compassionate and is prepared to help the community through his voluntary activities. Tony Abbott is a loyal Catholic, Pro-God, Pro-Family and Pro-Life.Maybe Dr John Falzon should resign from the SVDP Society and stand for pre-selection in a safe Labor seat for the forthcoming Federal election.
Ron Cini | 18 February 2010

Hmm, can I be middle of the road and sit between Tony Abbott and John Falzon?

I have to agree with Tony Abbott that some people are homeless through their own choice. e.g some mentally ill people would not take advantage of homeless shelters or boarding houses because they would not be allowed to take their pets ( or they fear violence from other residents).

Abbott is right that it is not a perfect world,we can improve the world but perfection is unobtainable.

Some people always want to blame society, the government for every ill that befalls them. e.g. the stolen generation, likes to blame past Australian governments for them being taken into care but some of them were undeniably victims of parental neglect, alcoholism , abuse etc. Judging by the reported incest, communities I would say many Aboriginal children should be removed from their parents but authorities are now too frightened to intervene for fear of being accused of creating another " stolen generation" so kids are left to rot in terrible conditions.
Catherine | 18 February 2010

Mrs Thatcher's "no such thing as society" remark is part of a denial of all relationships other than those within a family, and between members of that family and the State.

Hugh quite rightly points out that Mrs Thatcher exhorted her listeners to pick themselves up, and look to help themselves and other people (not contribute to a society, note).

Such remarks do not, however, indicate awareness of humans as social creatures.

I ask Mrs Thatcher and Mr Abbott: which has been more valuable for human progress ... opposable thumbs, or language?
David Arthur | 18 February 2010

brian | 18 February 2010

What a brilliant article - thank God for such great leadership in Dr John. The SVdP is in good hands (but we just need more of them!)
KP | 19 February 2010

I applaud the courage of a number of respondents on this page who by telling their stories have pointed out that denial of personal dignity is as equally pernicious as poverty. This article clearly makes this point to. Compulsory income management based on class and race denies dignity to those victims. Once again Falzon utters words so many do not wish to hear.
L Beriya | 19 February 2010

I'm not sure what it is about the St Vincent de Paul Society's attitude and approach to homelessness and poverty which the delegate from Delegate, Fr Mick Mac Andrew, finds wanting. Certainly there are members of the Society who are judgmental and paternalistic.
Dr Falzon would probably be the last to deny that. But to speak out against Mr Abbott or anyone else who is deliberately confrontative and dismissive of our responsibility to help the poor is the duty of any of us who would claim to call ourselves Christian.
Pat Mahony | 19 February 2010

David thanks, but you seem to be saying that by taking responsibility and helping other people out, as Mrs Thatcher urged, one is not necessarily contributing to society! Is that really what you want to say?

Mrs Thatcher's points were: 1. That, at the time in Britain, “too many” people (not everyone, note) were blaming their woes on abstract entities like "the government", "society", or "the system" and 2. That instead of sitting around waiting for the "government" or "society" to help that person in need in front of them, and shrugging shoulders when no help was forthcoming, they should be asking "What can I myself do"?

Who can disagree? Who hasn't met such people here in Australia today - nay, faced these very temptations themselves at one time or other? And who, be they for or against it in principle, seriously thinks these are not attitudes fostered by the welfare state?

Hugh | 19 February 2010

I applaud you for your understandings about poverty and homelessness. In my experience, I don't think that people will do something about the situation only when they realise that an alternative is possible. This is still a response to injustice based on fear and insecurity. For me, it has always required a Prophetic voice & action - and that is, in Jesus' understanding, always given to the little people (the anawim) - in order for an alternative to emerge.
Mary Tehan | 21 February 2010

An interesting article and various comments. I believe that the real social/human rights issue in Australia is that a significant number of people (approximately 20% or 4 1/2 million) have become marginalised in the past 20 years. This marginalisation has resulted in them being alienated from full time work and a good income. Most of these people live in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. Very few of them live in poverty, because of our reasonably good social welfare system which provides government income as well as various services from NGO Charity organisations. The only people who live in poverty are Aboriginal people in remote areas who do not have acceptable standards of housing, education, health and job opportunities. The main reason for the marginalisation of people in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne plus places such as the northern and eastern suburbs of Geelong and the northern suburbs of Adelaide is lack of education. This lack of education started with the neo-liberal economic rationalists in the 1980's, who convinced governments to cut funding for government schools. Dennis Altman, who is a political scientist at Latrobe Uni., wrote a good article on this issue a few years back. This lack of education has resulted in these people having poor literacy and numeracy skills, poor intercommunication skills, lack of discipline, poor standards of moral and ethical behavior. They also do not have a trade or professional qualification to gain a full time job.I do not believe that things such as homelessness and mental health are significant issues. It is my understanding that most of the so called homeless are without a permanent home for a few days because of domestic violence and dysfunctional family relationships - a significant number of men in these dysfuntional families are misogamists who have little, if any, respect for a woman's view. I also believe that most of these people have intelligent potential, but without a good education they do not achieve their potential
Mark Doyle | 22 February 2010

John, this article is as good as the one I read, not long ago in the Canberra Times! I and many others, totally agree with you that so many 'pollies' just don't want to understand what poverty & vulnerability are. Their minds just work on: where do we get the most votes! Poverty? Mental Illness? etc, etc, they just will not consider it. Thatcherism is in their minds, as they run for office. I notice it here in Canberra with the pre-selection of candidates! I very much hope you continue to write and express what so many of us can't effectively say.

nathalie | 22 February 2010

I applaud this article which provides much food for thought. I would like some practical suggestions from Dr. John Falzon as to how any of us may be able bring dignity to those struggling with certain difficulties, which may make them vunerable.

There are so many obvious answers, like looking after those in your 'own back yard' trying to live a Christian other words becoming involved.

Many people are living this way, but it seems to me a more public stance, may be needed.
This is where I would ask this author....Is he trying to encourage us to go one step further. if so what would be that step?
We can hear , and do hear continuously the plight of the vulnerable, and we might just listen to that 'same old story'. and feel it is too hard.

Some solid, perhaps challenging suggestions might be in order.
Many thanks for help constantly given.
Bernie Introna | 23 February 2010

Dr John: I am with you entirely in your sentiments on poor and homeless people. Another cause I do know, and that is of the children who have been maternally rejected since birth, and who only develop 'naughty' ways of attracting attention. These poor kids are expert at wearing out their welcome wherever they are, and at sabotaging themselves. I do not know to what extent this is a symptom of poverty, however.

Apart from that, the one thing I missed in your article was an address to the harder question, what is to do about it all.
Murray Alfredson | 08 March 2010

Can we picture our society if (so called leaders)such as Abbot would have their way.

Comments made by Abbott that the Homeless choose to be homeless and that its no use making targets to reduce homeless numbers as they are just for politicians trying to big note themselves and make sensationalist claims.

How out of touch is this guy, I have worked with the disadvantaged over the past 6 years and have been sleeping rough, and at the time I was unwell with substance abuse and depression issues.

We are confronted with choices all through our lives and can any of us picture making those decisions without any support what so ever.

No friends or family, in poor health, no finances, and possibly drug/alcohol and or mental health issues.

If we as a society are going to move forward and except that hmoelessness is a bi-product of a range of illnesses, disease, and socioeconomic problems. Including poor or limited education,peolple who are continually subjected to abuse. And many short and long term homeles develop a range of complex personality disorders and a various learned behavioral and coping mechanisms (to simply just survive).
We need to make people of Abbots standing responsible for the damage they do with unsubstantiated claims. That unfortunately many many people take these comments as gospel. Which puts us healthcare workers and the industry further and further behind other civilised countries.

And what's even more worrying is this Buffoon may be our next country's leader
Adrian Josepf Garraway | 22 August 2010

For the first time,after living in Australia 20yr,A man (Dr john Falzon)who sees and speaks out for the disadvantaged in are society...I now join the ranks of the unemployed,and no through no fault of my own ,i was in an armed robbery and was pay for the likes of mr Abbott...who should remember this saying...there go i by the grace of god....Dr john falzon should run for leadership of this country,as he sees the real life situations of the people....
Elaine | 09 April 2011


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