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We need to rebuild our social foundations



Imagine a house where most of the foundations are falling apart. Imagine if the owner, instead of rebuilding and restoring the damaged foundations, decided to boost the one or two piers that were exceptionally robust while leaving the others to crumble.Main image credit: Bandaids over a crack in concrete (Getty Images)

That’s what our society is like right now.

The damage to the foundations is not accidental. Neither is it a matter of wear and tear. Wages haven’t collapsed by themselves. Wage suppression has been a deliberate strategy. As has the suppression of working-age benefits such as JobSeeker. But while these pillars of wages and benefits collapse, the pillars of profits have been strengthened.

Our economy is 1.1 per cent larger than a year ago. Yet, as the situation in Victoria reminded us, none of us are safe unless all of us are safe. And we cannot be safe while work remains increasingly insecure, while social security payments are inadequate and while our public infrastructure is found wanting.

Wages will continue to be driven down while draconian restrictions are placed on workers' rights to organise, advocate, collective bargain, and withdraw their labour. Wages will continue to be driven down when the minimum wage is minimised, when public sector wages are frozen, when employers are given the green light to casualise positions that should be permanent, bypassing both penalty rates and leave entitlements.

But it gets worse. The earth beneath the pillars has been shifted. The very nature and definition of work has changed so much, with the growth of sham contracting, gig work, zero hours contracts and other forms of structured precarity, that insecure work has become the new normal.

Those who want to see the incomes of workers decline in real terms also want to see corporate taxes (for those that pay them!) cut and social infrastructure either dismantled or expropriated and re-purposed as a means of profit while masquerading as a means of support. The commercially operated cashless welfare card is an example of this, at an administrative cost of $10,000 per person per year, and serving the purpose not of supporting people but of demeaning and disempowering them. The suppression of wages must be viewed in tandem with suppression of statutory incomes and with the punitive and paternalistic treatment of people who are not in paid work, including people engaged in the unpaid work of caring.


'We need to begin a new trajectory of sharing, rather than allowing the hoarding of, economic power.'


The pandemic brought home the importance of essential workers. It also brought home the fact that insecure work was a danger not only to the workers themselves but to society as whole. This remains the case. The ABC’s recent Australia Talks Survey found that 88 per cent of those surveyed thought job insecurity was a problem for Australia.

But rather than taking this lesson to heart, the federal government shifted back into full-throttle neoliberal mode as soon as it felt it could get away with it, without having addressed this fundamental flaw in our social and economic foundations. In fact, in the IR Omnibus bill, it actually sought to further entrench worker insecurity. As for Budget 2021, with its dazzling display of ticking boxes, tokenism and trickle-down economics, it is like a lick of paint on the walls while the foundations continue to crumble. Uncharacteristically, debt and deficit were presented as tools that were both necessary and useful, if used deftly. But we continue to be told that we can’t afford to protect unemployed workers from poverty. And that we supposedly need to cut back on our use of the NDIS, since it is purportedly 'unsustainable', which is why the government is intent on introducing independent assessments as a means of cutting an estimated $700 million.  

The whole question of affordability really masks the deeper question as to what we see as being essential to a good society. Neoliberal governments will always frame working-age social security payments and services as something akin to an unhealthy addiction. According to the neoliberal credo, if you’re on them for “too long”, there’s really something wrong with you. Hence, for example, the neoliberal allergy to substantive investment in public housing.

If we want to get our house in order we need to build pathways to greater economic democracy. We need to begin a new trajectory of sharing, rather than allowing the hoarding of, economic power. We need government to stop being an obstacle to the welfare of workers, including those who are seen as surplus to the needs of capital. We need to reclaim the role of the public sphere, not as a reservoir of goods and services that are ripe for commodification, not as a cheap means of propping up big business, not as a way of pandering to the demands of the wealthy few, but as a means of achieving the collective dreams of the many.



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: Bandaids over a crack in concrete (Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Falzon, Scott Morrison, capitalism, neoliberalism, auspol



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Existing comments

This is revolutionary! Not what John is recommending, but the conditions he describes. This way lies social atomisation and massive dissent from our so-called "social order". Fertile ground for the likes of QAnon. We could have our own Capitol insurrection before too long.

Pat Mahony | 15 June 2021  

Pat's comments are so true. Do the members of our present government know no world history at all?

Sheelah Egan | 16 June 2021  

The rude fact is that what John proposes is all - every single bit of it! - part of Catholic Social Teaching. It has yet to be seen just how many Catholics know this and are prepared to support him!

Michael Furtado | 16 June 2021  

"We continue to be told that we can’t afford to protect unemployed workers from poverty". This is a Furphy to protect the privileged. Government surplus is our deficit. Money is blood. Unless the government funds the poor, by ensuring adequately paid jobs exist and raising the unemployment rate to a living wage so that employers have something to limit their greed, we will continue our downward spiral to hell. Australian Governments do not invest in Australia.

Peter Horan | 27 June 2021  

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