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The problem with prosperous Australia


'Anti Poverty Week' by Chris Johnston'And, in the dawn, armed with an ardent patience, we shall enter magnificent cities.' (Arthur Rimbaud)

There's something disquieting about quietness imposed from above in the heart of a democracy. Something eerie.

The voices of the people who continue to be oppressed and abandoned are, in many ways, effectively silenced. Often they are like the gentle breeze or the still small voice that represented the presence of God in the story of Elijah. But in nearly all cases these voices, these stories of dispossession and quiet dignity, are neither heard nor heeded.

Recently, I visited Palm Island with other members of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. Palm, everyone reminds me, was established as the ideal place to exile those who were outspoken in the face of the coloniser. An unruly mob, one informant told me, the descendants of political prisoners.

Unruly is an interesting word, especially in light of the new paternalism, or 'close supervision of the poor', as its chief proponent Larry Mead defined it. When Palm was allowed local self-government it was gutted of its economic activity, as is so often the case when the coloniser walks away from its former possession.

I was lucky on Palm. Apart from the powerful and hope-filled story-telling I listened to from the some of the council leaders, I was also able to privately talk with the softly spoken Lex Wotton.

Lex has been instructed not to speak in public as a parole condition following his conviction for inciting a riot in the wake of the well-known death in custody on Palm Island. Eyewitnesses actually attest to Lex's attempts to restrain the angry crowd. Lex, however, continues to be tagged as a troublemaker. As Martin Luther King, another troublemaker, said: a riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.

The unheard are everywhere: the people who have been placed under the yoke of compulsory income management simply because they receive a social security payment (and the Government has the audacity to call this non-discriminatory!), asylum seekers demonised as 'illegal', people with a disability characterised as being too comfortable on a pension, the First Peoples of Australia living with the historical poison of stolen generations, stolen wages, stolen land and the attempted crushing of the spirit.

The stories of the unheard are a call not to paternalism from above but to empowerment from below. They bear witness to a hope for redistribution rather than a desire for retribution. As Paulo Freire wrote: 'The oppressor cannot find in their power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only the power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.'

At a recent gathering of the St Vincent de Paul Society in India, Bishop Agnelo Gracias of Mumbai echoed Freire's insights, explaining that those who have a vested, unchristian interest in defending a cruel and unjust status quo truly fear the conscientisation of the poor. They fear the poor will cease to accept their poverty as a matter of fate, and begin to critically analyse the structural causes of their marginalisation.

Frederic Ozanam, the young activist-academic who founded the St Vincent de Paul Society, warned against employing charity as a substitute for addressing the causes of poverty and inequality. He wrote: 'Charity may heal the wounds but it does not stop the blows.' This reflects a profound solidarity with the unheard.

This is how I would define the kind of theology of liberation that is urgently needed at the dawn of the 21st century; not only a theology but also a sociology of liberation; a precise vision that allows the human community, like Elijah, to know the presence of God in the whispers from the edges of society. We already know the guts of the message: another kind of world is possible.

As a woman from El Salvador told me at the International General Assembly of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Salamanca: 'We begin with what is on the ground and not with what we think is in the sky.' And as a woman from Sri Lanka put it: 'We do not want charity; we want to make our own liberation.'

Professor Ian Webster, a highly regarded physician who has had a long and generous relationship with the Society, put it well at one of our recent Congresses in Australia: 'Poverty ... is an oppression from which we should aim to liberate our people.'

This is a revolutionary message but one that we have for too long shied away from. Revolution literally means turning everything upside down. This is precisely what Christ's Beatitudes challenge us to do. The Beatitudes are a call to love; not a sentimental or patronising love, but a hard and disturbing love:

Blessed are you who are poor. Woe to you who are rich.
Blessed are you who are hungry. Woe to you who are full.
Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you.
Woe to you when all speak well of you.

This is a hard teaching. Over the centuries since these words were uttered, we've done triple somersaults to avoid their startling, revolutionary challenge. The poor, hungry, excluded; these are people whose choices have been taken away by unjust structures and oppression. There is only one way forward, and that is for those who do have choices to take their side; to listen and learn from the poor.

The key to improving the lives of the unheard lies both in making the tools of education available to them, as is their fundamental right, and in simply listening to them. It is not enough, according to the logic of the Beatitudes, for the powerful to try to impose solutions.

It is to the Federal Government's credit that its Social Inclusion agenda g ives people experiencing exclusion a voice to influence decisions that affect them. How sad then that this principle is disregarded, as paternalistic policies such as compulsory income management are imposed while the obvious need for income adequacy remains unheard.

How, for example, is a young person experiencing homelessness meant to survive on a $377 fortnightly youth allowance? And are we not failing our people when, according to a COAG Reform Council report, 43.5 per cent of working age adults have literacy skills below the minimum level required for work, and 15 per cent (2.7million people) are estimated to be surviving with the lowest level of literacy skills?

Prosperous Australia has a problem. Anti-Poverty Week is a good time to reflect on how, as a nation, we allow the voices of the unheard to remain unheard.

Yet it is precisely in this contradiction that hope lies, joined inexorably with the hopes of the oppressed across the globe. Nothing less than this all-embracing vision would be worthy of the kind of hope against all hope that Paul of Tarsus wrote of. And it is embedded in the smallest and humblest of daily struggles of the crushed in our midst; joined at the hip with the struggle for a different kind of world. 

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, Anti Poverty Week



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Thank you, John Falzon. And indeed, the most vulnerable, the most neglected, the quietest because silenced, are a majority of our indigenous people, perhaps 75,000, and all of our most severely mentally ill, some 550,000 (according to global rates and Australia's population). The Mental Health Council of Australia, wrote, 2009, that about 50,000 of these are homeless and destitute.

In Victoria we have had our wettest and coldest winter for a decade. Only God knows how many of our state's 14,000 mentally ill homeless have managed to survive; certainly no government entity is interested enough to collate such figures.

When I asked, in a comment to Eureka some months ago, whether churches and church halls could be opened to shelter such very ill and destitute people there was heard nothing but "a quietness imposed from above... Something eerie...the voices of the unheard remaining unheard".

Caroline Storm | 18 October 2010  

Thank you John. We Religious of the past rejoice that there are such spiritual people like you to take our place.

Ray O'Donoghue | 18 October 2010  

The early part of this article brought a lump to my throat. But I am amazed by the rush to uphold the same old system as the way forward, in spite of the unsustainable social justice and environmental mayhem it continues to cause.

In a competitive global economy we can't expect 'education' to do much more than shift unemployment to the poor elsewhere.

Open up cooperative opportunities by changing the Centrelink Activity Test, and base these opportunities on community development and the restoration of the birthright of land access (see www.ntw.110mb.com). Surely the poor have pleaded eloquently and often enough about land & community.

The "social inclusion" agenda is not at all about that, but about the integration of people into the market economy as the saviour.

In the call for "more", there is no recognition of the environmental impacts or the resource limits that in a market economy create scarcity. In the market economy, "more" always means more exploitation.

We could all do with far less, if only our stolen birthrights were restored. Until then, the land is chained to the market place and none of us are free to live as we should.

Chris Baulman | 18 October 2010  

Too true. I once read a paraphrase of the Beatitudes which read "Blessed are the ......., for they can see which way the society really works" and "Blessed are the ........., for they know which way the cookie really crumbles".

Frank Bremner | 18 October 2010  

I hate to sound a little monotone, but let's remind ourselves firstly that poverty and homelessness in Australia - bad as they are - are trivial problems when we consider the most "unjust structures" in our society today: the abortion mills that murder at least 80,000 innocent vulnerable Australians each year.

That aside, let's also reflect that from behind a Rawlsian veil, most people in history, considering average/median standards of living, would willingly elect to be a poor person in Australia in the early 21st century AD. With two caveats: not being unborn, and, perhaps, not being a member of a remote community indigenous community.

Were we to be determined about protecting the life of the unborn, and also to abolish the tragic subsidisation of remote communities, which encourages aborigines to pursue meaningless, thoroughly untraditional modes of existence, I'm confident most humans in history would plump for Australia today.

Rightly so. Dr Falzon's selective Biblicism (Our Lord also said "Woe to you who laugh" - does that mean mirth and joy are sinful?)and convenient generalizations don't equip us to determine concrete models to alleviate poverty. Eg: an Austrian School economist will willingly enumerate oppressive state-created structures which prevent poor Australians from lifting themselves out of poverty - minimum wages, bureaucratic red tape, grinding taxes and so on. Is Dr Falzon happy to have his generalizations interpreted in this way? I strongly suspect not. Very telling.

HH | 19 October 2010  

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