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Towards an economy that works for all

  • 18 October 2017


Twenty-five years ago, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published Common Wealth for the Common Good: A Statement on the Distribution of Wealth in Australia. Published in the early days of neoliberalism, that document was primarily focused on the distribution of wealth. Part of the critique of that document, as of much church teaching of the time, was that the church did not take seriously enough what was required for the creation of wealth, or what was to be done in the use of wealth once it was distributed.

A quarter of a century later, the Catholic bishops' 2017 Social Justice Statement Everyone's Business: Developing an inclusive and sustainable economy focuses not just on the distribution of wealth, but also on its creation and its use. Creation, distribution and use of wealth are assessed against the principles of Catholic social teaching. These principles have universal application even in a neoliberal environment that gives precedence to markets and competition as the preferred means of creating economic growth and utilising the fruits of that growth for individual wellbeing and the common good.

The Australian bishops agree with Pope Francis that the 'trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world' have not been proved. Every year since the publication of Common Wealth for the Common Good, the Australian economy has grown. Our GDP has more than doubled; so too have average wages. But our bishops are convinced that inequality has increased. Even 26 years of successive economic growth has been insufficient to assure the poorest Australians a dignified though frugal existence. For example, Australians reliant on Newstart or the Youth Allowance simply do not have enough to live on.

It's now five years since the Business Council of Australia told the Parliament: 'The rate of the Newstart Allowance for jobseekers no longer meets a reasonable community standard of adequacy and may now be so low as to represent a barrier to employment.' And still there has been no increase to Newstart, and a government looking for a narrative has decided to demonise the recipients. As the bishops point out in Everyone's Business, Newstart recipients are $110 per week below the poverty line, and youth allowance recipients are $159 below the poverty line.

In an age of 'budget repair', steady five-plus per cent unemployment, high underemployment, and sluggish or non-existent wage growth for most