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Solidarity in the face of a neoliberal inferno



In the wake of the Robodebt scandal the Coalition says it has no duty of care for the people it has unforgivably harmed instead of helping. The government’s disdain for ordinary people is not just a matter of meanness. It is a matter of class.

Christian Porter during question time (Getty images/ Tracey Nearmy)

The Morrison government despises the working class. There is no other explanation for its behaviour. For all the ‘lifters and leaners’ or ‘workers and shirkers’ guff that we’ve seen over the years from this and past governments, the truth is that, according to the neoliberal worldview, whether you’re in paid work or on social security, you’re despised unless you belong to its own big money elite.

The Howard government, with WorkChoices, did all it could to make life harder for workers. As did the Abbott-Turnbull governments with their attacks on penalty rates and assorted forays into union bashing.

But the Morrison government, with its so called Ensuring Integrity bill, makes an art-form out of despising working people. In a feat of doublespeak that would make Orwell’s Big Brother regime envious, this government claims it needs to rein in unions precisely because it is on the side of workers and unions are not. It hates unions because it despises workers and unions improve the wages and conditions of workers.

The word despise is not an exaggeration. It comes from the Latin de specere, ‘to look down on’. This government looks down on workers. This is why it wants workers to see each other as the enemy instead of recognising and fighting against an agenda that seeks to divide them because it despises them.

If the government did not despise workers, how else could we explain why Attorney General Christian Porter is trying to undermine the rights of casual workers to sick leave? As things stand, Australia’s high rate of insecure and non-standard work is a symptom of the push by big business to further increase capital’s share of the pie at the expense of wages. When you are precariously employed, so the dismal theory goes, you are more likely to be grateful for what you’ve got instead of fighting for more, despite the Reserve Bank’s repeated warnings about the negative impact on the economy of wage stagnation.


'With so much contempt from the Coalition government, we need to resist the wedges it seeks to drive between us.'


Note the way the Attorney General has framed the issue of sick leave for casual workers (most of whom should, by rights, be in stable employment rather than subjected to this engineered precariousness). He calls it an issue of equity between employees, citing the argument that it is unfair that one group of workers might be seen as having greater rights than the other, completely turning the truth upside down about the employer’s deliberate actions in casualising employees and stripping them of employment security and stability.

And remember when we were instructed that penalty rates were an ‘equity’ issue and that workers in receipt of them were effectively stealing the bread out of the mouths of other workers, including those who are unemployed? We were promised a jobs windfall where penalty rates were removed. And what have we got? What we were always going to get. Nothing.

One of the greatest con jobs is the line that people receiving social security payments are doing so at the expense of other working people and that we should all begrudge this because it is ‘our’ taxes that go into ‘their’ pockets. It is a perverse and cruel notion to blame working people for being unemployed or underemployed, or for living with a disability, studying, engaging in the work of unpaid caring, being ill or being older, justifying cuts to the income that these sections of the working class need to survive.

So well has this lie worked in the past that we have not seen an increase to the Newstart payment in real terms since 1994. The government’s treatment of people who are unable to find work, the roll-out of the degrading cashless welfare card as a recent example, and others who need income support is further evidence of how it despises working people, seeking to set them against each other.

Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and ageism, these too are means by which working people are encouraged to see each other as the enemy instead of uniting against the common enemy of neoliberalism and the inequality it boosts and buttresses.

Italian author Italo Calvino writes: ‘...seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space’. Late neoliberal capitalism is like that inferno, destroying everything in its path through low wage growth, irrational handouts to corporations, the prioritisation of profits over people, failure to invest in social and economic infrastructure (including research and innovation), obscene increases in CEO remuneration, a flattening of the tax system, and unrestrained inequality. What is ‘not inferno’ is precisely what the government despises and what it most despises is what it most fears: the ‘threat’ of ordinary working people uniting together to advocate for an alternative vision for our nation, a vision that is both equitable and sustainable.

With so much contempt from the Coalition government, we need to resist the wedges it seeks to drive between us. This government, and the interests it represents, despises working people regardless of the industries they work in or, for that matter, that they are unable to find work in.

The government’s Ensuring Integrity bill is an attempt to pit workers against each other by interfering in their right of association and their democratic organisation of their unions. In this fabricated narrative, unions are the enemy of working people and workers would be better off without them.

Nothing frightens the elite more than when the despised are organised.



John FalzonDr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He is a sociologist, poet and social justice advocate and was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union.

Main image credit: Christian Porter during question time (Getty images/ Tracey Nearmy)

Topic tags: John Falzon, capitalism, unions, Christian Porter, neoliberalism



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Existing comments

Succinctly written, observant and accurate. Capitalism relies on organic and acquired growth to work; the business model requires feeding with an endlessly increasing stream of product consumers being able to pay incrementally inflating prices... no growth, no investors. Aside from the lower classes having higher % disposable income they're unattractive to the model because they don't have much income to start with; the government solution being to increase immigration and import a better class of spending consumer. Migrants have to buy everything after arrival, conversely, a domestic union worker or unloved Newstart dweller has less purchase potential and even less foothold on the social ladder. What does frighten the elite more than when the despised are organized is when they become collectively egregious in ways which confront the polity: quiet Australians given a voice. The very name of the bill "Ensuring Integrity" must be conjured by the same marketing think-tank which gave us the ironically named "Newstart", equally ironic that it alleges the bill is conceived by those with any integrity. It will be interesting to see how the Act impinges Peaceful assembly and Freedom of Association (Qld) - but undoubtedly will be Federal and incorporate criminal records.

ray | 03 March 2020  

Bravo John Falzon. Your article says it all.

Edward Fido | 04 March 2020  

Excellent discussion especially after Scotty from Marketing on 7.30 Report with Leigh Sales last night. It totally underlined where he is coming from. Also What is his rapid blinking saying.? One for the body language experts.

Mary Fraser | 04 March 2020  

John, all I can say is "Amen! Amen! Amen!" Social Justice has been the hallmark feature of Catholic teaching and principles. So often in the past you have reminded us that Christian/Catholicism demands making this fundamental option for the poor. Yet where is the contribution of the Australian church in speaking out these days for those who have increasing "no voice" Is there any such agenda listed for the coming Plenary Council? It would appear that this much touted gathering is far more concerned on an gazing with an inward perspective rather than proclaiming a time of justice, love and peace. Thank you for reminding us of some of the signs of the times in our Australian society that calls for a genuine and efficacious response. Michael Schell

michael schell | 04 March 2020  

I am in total agreement with this article, it does not take a Rhodes Scholar to understand the ideologies of this government. They are not interested in our community they are Neo Nazis with an Agenda that desires to squash who they see as common place people without ability to further their social status in life no matter that they are the reason ordinary Australians are kept in a pool of stagnating poverty and quicksand swallowing up any

Mavis Jean Symonds | 04 March 2020  

Thank you again, John, for the kind of spiritual leadership that is becoming increasingly difficult to find elsewhere. Of course your comments will once again attract charges of Marxism. If you’re a Marxist, can you kindly advise me how I can join?

Peter Downie | 04 March 2020  

Thanks go to Dr. John Falzon for his in depth reflection on Capitalism in Australian Society today. My own observations of what is happening in Australia today supports what he has written although it is nothing new. Societies have existed under feudal law, risen up to a degree, given the right to vote but kept in a place that does not welcome growth or competition with the Elite. We only have to look back in history to see the results of this type of government that has an "all for the boys" type of ideology and to become one of the boys, one has to belong to the same social class, have a background of money old or new, preferably old and only be satisfied if everyday Australians are kept in their place. I do not have a background in economy but in Community Development and Welfare so have seen both sides of the coin and I have often thought the kind of Government we have now can be seen as reminiscent of Imperial Russia under the Tsars and other countries governed by Imperial Rule.

Mavis Jean Symonds | 04 March 2020  

The evidence for this attitude of contempt towards those who are not part of the wealthy elite is overwhelming - in both what this government and its wealthy allies say, do and in its legislative agenda. Thank you for expressing this so lucidly and for your righteous anger.

Margaret | 04 March 2020  

This article is very anti government. There is no mention of what big business is doing to workers or what the Labour Party is doing for workers. . The prime example at the moment is the highlighting of many big businesses under paying their Staff. There are other businesses involved in this practice but as yet have not been identified. This was a major concern & provided the Labour Party with an ideal opportunity to attack these businesses but to date this had not happened. Also the question has to be asked how many people are working part time particularly those under 25 years & are being exploited. A balanced view would be appreciated.

Swift Sue | 04 March 2020  

If John Falzon had read reports only yesterday of the workers belonging to various unions he may have been more circumspect. The CFMEU was yet again find hundreds of thousands of dollars for the way it treats the public and it appears its members membership is used just to pay fines. He resigned from a charitable organisation to seek pre selection as a Labor candidate (note that there is no ''u'' in labo''u''r). He wants justice but it the unions that do not give justice to its members or the community. It is the very same unions who are fighting against justice for all doctors and nurses who work in the Catholic and other religious institutions who want to protect their rights to deliver quality health care in accordance with their faiths. And how can he deliver justice to the unborn who are aborted or the people who are euthanased, where is their justice. The vulnerable are yet again disposed of. he calls it progressive change. If any government is serious about fighting inequality instead of boosting and buttressing it, it must start by listening to the people who bear the brunt of inequality he has said. Well he has not been listening to many of the most vulnerable and now he attacks the government. He would not dare attack Labor or he would be thrown out of the party. Maybe he should have told us at the start of the article he was Labor through and through but as mentioned before there is no ''u'' in Labor

PHILLIP ROWAN | 04 March 2020  

Nailed it again John, and I agree with Ray. Am I the only one who thinks we now have three layers of tax? Federal and state, then the privatized services like road tolls for which we pay instead of those services coming out of the paid tax, and now the voluntary bail out by generous hearted Australians rallying more spontaneously and generously to the victims of bushfires and floods. 'Ensuring Integrity' what a joke.

Michael D. Breen | 04 March 2020  

Thank you John for continuing the work you did as CEO of V de P all those years -including opposing the shameful Northern Territory Intervention which one would like to say 'unbelievably' continues in its 12th year. And for opposing the other ways of despising and controlling the poor, many of which you name in this important article. 'Downward envy' is now too nice a phrase to describe government, some media and businesses antagonism and determination to scapegoat all the many classes you have effectively named. And the resentment for 'our ' taxes being spent on the other citizens can often seem a paradox with the many rich companies and some individuals who apparently pay no tax while the poor cannot escape the GST - in surely a greater proportion of their meagre income. Are not the Business Council of Australia and the Minerals Council of Australia types of unions? I recently heard that one union was fined over $400,000 for late entry of some paperwork. The plus $400 fines currently meted out in SA for a trivial driving offence, and the escalating ramifications for non payment result in being another way of ensuring the poor are excluded from society.

Michele Madigan | 04 March 2020  

Thank you John for another very insightful and honest appraisal of our current federal government and its obvious disdain, even hatred, of workers in Australia. You have listed the evidence well. The only thing I would like to add is the question; if this is correct why are they allowed to get away with this? The answer to this question might be given if you John were to ask any of the major media outlets, and especially the Murdoch media, to publish feature this article prominently in their papers. I suspect the answer would be no. Jobs, growth and prison is all they will print.

Tom Kingston | 04 March 2020  

Well said John. My late father was in St V de P for 60 years and also started 10 YCW Co Op shops in Melbourne. The super fund he established was cleaned out by an unscrupulous accountant in Sydney. This government thrives on class division and as you say, seeks to belittle the poor and disadvantaged. 'low wage growth, irrational handouts to corporations, the prioritisation of profits over people, failure to invest in social and economic infrastructure (including research and innovation), obscene increases in CEO remuneration, a flattening of the tax system, and unrestrained inequality. " Add to your list selling off our means of production, our ports, our water, our mines, our factories, our freehold land to the Chinese who turn up with printed worthless money, and provide 40% of the ice into this country, to denude our workers of a future. Add to that granting tenders for the Subs to the French and the next 8 frigates to Italy and not giving a damn about our manufacturing industry and jobs within Australia. Great image of Christian Porter who majors in abuse with Scomo gloating in the background. What this parliament needs is a Guy Fawkes real gunpowder plot.

francis Armstrong | 04 March 2020  

Nice one, John. I am preparing to apply once more for the DSP and I'm terrified. The first time I applied was the year before the "lifters and leaners" budget. My partner was earning $200 over the threshold at that point in time, so I didn't get it. Since then, they've made it much, much harder to get approved. I've been living dependent on my partner and mother. I have MECFS and am mostly housebound. The last few years I was often suicidal and have been struggling to wrap enough dignity around myself to go through the process of applying again. Until you're in this situation you really can't know how isolating it is to live in the 14th richest country and feel the wafting psychological warfare being enacted against the most struggling people for ideology. This government has done its best to isolate people on social security and to turn other people against them. They're the true ones worthy of being despised. Imagine being so captivated by your capitalist ideology that you will willingly stick your fashy boot into the faces of your own species. Love the work the Australian Unemployed Workers Union are doing to support and speak out for unemployed people. Order of Australia Medals for them someday in the future when (if) we've thrown this greedy monster machine off our backs.

Sue Stevenson | 04 March 2020  

A personal anecdote. The federal government attempts to help the elderly and infirm poor by subsidising domestic assistance to needy households. In one case I know intimately, this assistance is provided by a small not-for-profit which has newly entered this arena, apparently (it’s a guess) to subsidise its original mission to provide low cost transport to the elderly. (It worked on volunteers, so had trouble covering the admin costs, including necessary salaries). Seeking government assistance, they found that there was funding available for domestic services, so expanded to provide such services over a much wider area. So far, everyone has good intentions. But to provide the service, the agency contracted out the service to a small for-profit cleaning firm. They in their turn recruited the cheapest and most vulnerable people they can find - often with very poor English and no knowledge of their rights. They are desperate for work. They are employed casually, and receive no training. They are often terrible cleaners, from lack of experience and lack of training or supervision. Their main goal isn’t to please the client. It’s to please their direct employer, on whom they are completely dependent. Guess what. The client gets a really shoddy service. The government funding goes largely to the for-profit agency. The NFP still struggles. The actual workers are the worst-off. Poor governance, poor management, yes. But a profit is made, and it is made overwhelmingly by the profit-making group. Who benefits most? Certainly not the poor (clients or cleaners). Why?

Joan Seymour | 04 March 2020  

It is true that elements of the Coalition are anti-union. When the Heydon Royal Commission report exposed corruption and collusion between big business and big unions, the Turnbull government’s only response was to focus on the unions and to condemn their “lawlessness” and the “corrupt conduct by union officials.” But Heydon found that as well as union corruption, some of Australia’s biggest businesses and their executives had also acted corruptly. However it’s not just the Coalition that has a blind spot. In 2017, ACTU secretary Sally McManus told a Senate inquiry that she knew nothing about Bob Hawke deregistering the BLF—a forerunner of the CFMEU. The BLF’s boss Norm Gallagher had been jailed for corrupt dealings with building companies. And it seems that old habits die hard. A court has labelled the CFMEU “the most recidivist corporate offender in Australian history” and cited approximately 120 previous occasions where the courts had sanctioned the union for breaches of industrial law over the past ten years. It seems that the Ensuring Integrity bill is aimed at unions such as the CFMEU whose forerunner cause Bob Hawke such angst back in the 1980s. .

Ross Howard | 04 March 2020  

good on you john falzon, you certainly know how to tell the truth it is still a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting bloody poorer

maryellen flynn | 05 March 2020  

I applaud you. You have completely summed up the current and past actions of an elitist government who use those answering to them with utter contempt!

Dee | 05 March 2020  

Bravo, ES, for publishing this brave man! As politically-charged articles and their concomitant responses have tailed off in recent weeks, I had wondered about changes in editorial policy, especially in regard to those participants here who stray too close to the contentious flames of Synodality in order to air their views about the extent to which the Church is also drawn in to compromising with the neo-liberal project. As far back as the mid-1980s anyone with an ounce of economic policy - and especially ethical - literacy, could see major agencies of the Catholic Church drawn into the maelstrom of collaborative support for changes in government policy, as much in school-funding, which is my field, as elsewhere. At that stage I sounded several alarms about not just the folly of Catholics, with our sublime legacy of Social Teaching (which is precisely the same base that informs John Falzon's work) toeing the government's post-statist, post-welfare economic agenda by shirking its social responsibilities on behalf of the poor and driving privatisation agenda. I did this by critiquing such affects on Catholic schools, not just in terms of their clientele, but also their fee-structure. All to no avail! Will ES tackle this issue?

Michael Furtado | 05 March 2020  

In support of Michael Furtado's post my take on this is that religious orders supposedly in support of the Gospel became engulfed in a Stockholm Syndrome situation with the parents and old boys. These schools had a good name for maintaining discipline and upholding class in society; and you got a good network for life. So the parent body became more wealthy and had more to offer the school. "A new boat-shed, Father?" "A new gymnasium?" So support the conservatives one of which you now are and they will pay to keep the system going. Two diocesan priests were looking around the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. Says one, "If this is their poverty I'd like to see their chastity".

Michael D. Breen | 05 March 2020  

Michael Schell, the first piece of remedial action for the Catholic Church is to begin winning back the misplaced trust that has long gone because of our disgraceful behavior. Hopefully, the Council will produce a Church whose repentance will remodel the institution so that the disgraced Bishops'leadership model will go. From that base and only that, the secular world might start to take us seriously again. Then good people such as yourself, along with their Christian values, may flourish. If the Council continues, inspired by the excesses of clericalism, to use the same outmoded, leadership model, expecting a different out come from the same despised source, then we are in trouble. Grebo

Grebo | 05 March 2020  

A powerful and insightful article. Thank you.

Juliet | 06 March 2020  

Peter Downie I thought I was a small c capitalist and that the Chinese were marxist, or communist. However its increasingly hard to imagine they aspire to those marxist ideals as they boast 476 billionaires in mainland China and they wilfully outstrip USA in their ability to print money. The difference between the USA and China is of course the former arent out here scouring the country for profitable mining, farming and manufacturing enterprises to buy, thereby dispossessing our workers of jobs.

francis Armstrong | 06 March 2020  

Phillip Rowan casts a long, repetitive and invariably mistargeted bow! Radicalism in early post-White Settlement Australia, especially on the Gold Fields, was American, Irish and European in its inception. In large parts of Latinesque Europe 'Labour' is spelt 'Labor', as it always has been in the US and would have been in C17th and C18th England, after which Francophile affectations and linguistic standardising fancies entered the language to corrupt it. I see no doctrinaire Marxist in Jon Falzon. His public witness for over 12 years at Vinnies is light years removed from the crass determinism that hallmarks Marxist thought and action, especially in regard to John's economic policy radicalism which cost him party selection at the last general election. How indeed does Phillip Rowan know how John Falzon voted in person on abortion at any ALP gathering? Where is the evidence for Mr Rowan to present on an issue in which conscience has always been the arbiter of a voting decision? Attacking someone who critiques the disgraceful policy platform and behaviour of this government for his presumed association with the ALP and one Trade Union is akin to damning the work of the Red Cross for employing the colour red!

Dr Michael FURTADO | 07 March 2020  

Alas, the compromises to which Michael Breen alludes are familiar to me. There exists in the city in which I live a convent school, hallowed for its ability to turn out girls of character and integrity but in which the nuns lost control a long time ago of the ability to put the brakes on the capacity of some of its more prominent alumni to set the hidden curriculum of the school. At one stage when my former spouse was Head of Mission at the school it became her necessary duty to write to a benefactor, a plastic surgeon, who was also a parent, and who had donated a large amount of Botox to the school. The HoM explained in her letter that the school would have to turn down the offer because at any one time about a fifth of the pupils had body/appearance/size issues relating to Bulimia or Anorexia Nervosa. At a subsequent Senior Management meeting, the Principal explained that auctioning the 'gift' would realise a considerable amount of money for the boatshed. The HoM was overruled on the matter and the gift accepted. The HoM resigned.

Michael Furtado | 13 March 2020  

Hi John, I am reading this weeks after you wrote it, so far am I with my emails! What a powerful statement you made Bravo! Now (mid April) look at Morrison's attempt to prevent financial melt down thanks to the Corona Virus! They could not be more "socialist" if they tried. Of course the downside is the recipients will have to pay it all back! People and businesses will be in debt for decades.What a sick joke!

Gavin O'Brien | 16 April 2020  

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