Why the excluded are still waiting


Locked gateIt's always the big lie that must be tackled first. Otherwise the other lies look like the truth.

Terra Nullius is the big lie, for example, that allows all the other lies that justify the invasion and colonisation of Australia.

Similarly, I recently read an apologist for the continued oppression of Palestinians reciting the big lie that 'there's never been a Palestine'.

The big lie that the Government's review of welfare in the Mclure interim report is predicated on is that 'welfare' (read 'government' or 'social spending') is the problem and the market is the solution.

It reminds me of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek's observation that 'Society itself is responsible for the calamity against which it then offers itself as a remedy.'

Pope Francis also has something to say about this:

Some people continue to defend 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. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

When you've got a rich country like ours 'unable' to afford to ensure that the more than 100,000 people experiencing homelessness or the more than 200,000 people on the waiting list for social housing have a place to call home, it is not a misfortune or a mistake. It is the sound of the excluded still waiting.

When you've got more than 700,000 people unemployed and around 900,000 underemployed, on top of those who are set to lose their jobs due to company closures, the dismembering of the public service and government cuts to social spending — that is also the sound of the excluded still waiting.

Let us not forget the woeful inadequacy of the Newstart payment, at only 40 per cent of the minimum wage. Neither let us forget the single mums who were forced onto the Newstart payment at the beginning of last year, nor the working poor, for there are some who would like to squeeze them even more by reducing the minimum wage and taking away what little rights they have.

When the Government does a triple backflip and declares it is not committed to the redistribution of resources recommended by the Gonski review as a way to address the outrageous inequality that besmirches education funding in Australia — once again, you loudly hear the sound of the excluded still waiting.

The long, fruitless wait of the excluded for some of the wealth, some of the resources, some of the hope to trickle down, is one of the most audacious and sadly successful con jobs in modern history. It is not misfortune. It is not a mistake. It is certainly not, as perversely asserted by those who put the boot in, the fault of the excluded themselves. Rather, it is an attack, sometimes by omission as well as by commission, against ordinary people who are made to bear the burden of inequality.

As Francis points out:

As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

That is why there is absolutely nothing unusual about understanding this as an issue of class. And why Warren Buffett was quite correct when he said: 'There's class warfare alright, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning.'

If the Budget and subsequent Government comments are anything to go by the Government not only refuses to reduce inequality, it actually wants to take from the poor to give to the rich.

We will not help young people into jobs by making them live on fresh air and sunshine for six months of the year. We will not help them into jobs by making them go to charities. We will not help people living with a disability into jobs by reducing their income. We have moved to a position where we condemn someone for not being able to get up the stairs.

If we really want to increase employment participation, whether for young people, older unemployed people, people with a disability, single mums or any other group that is locked out of the labour market, then we will start looking honestly at problems in the labour market and set about addressing its incapacities rather than pretending that the incapacity, or unwillingness, lies with the individual.

We will build ramps rather than condemning people for not being able to get up the stairs. And we won't sanctimoniously go on about the ladder of opportunity while kicking the ladder away.

The simple truth is that behavioural approaches will not solve structural problems.

We do not have a 'welfare spending crisis'. We spend the second lowest amount amongst the industrialised nations. We are not in the throes of a fiscal crisis, but if we venture down the path of US-style austerity we will be staring down the barrel of a social crisis.

As the 1975 Henderson Report on Poverty found: 'If poverty is seen as a result of structural inequality within society, any serious attempt to eliminate poverty must seek to change those conditions which produce it.'

And as the groundbreaking 1996 Australian Catholic Bishops' Social Justice Statement argued: 'In the main, people are poor not because they are lazy or lacking in ability or because they are unlucky. They are poor because of the way society, including its economic system, is organised.'

If we, as a society, really want to address the causes of poverty and inequality, instead of, for example, extending Compulsory Income Management, which is inherently disempowering and humiliating, we would be guaranteeing income adequacy, housing security, education, health and, now here's an idea ... jobs!

John FalzonDr John Falzon is Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council and is author of The Language of the Unheard.

Locked gate image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: John Falzon, Budget 2014, McClure Report, disability support pension



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Existing comments

Interesting that a report, prepared by an ex-Franciscan priest, former social worker, former CEO of Mission Australia (the last a large benefactor of the Job Network scheme i.e. a for profit government contractor) and commissioned under a professedly Catholic PM with a large proportion of very public Catholics in the Cabinet - including Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Social Services, who is wont to pontificate on a number of family and social issues - takes this line. To me it rivals the hypocrisy of Victorian England with a supposedly highly Christian society, as evidenced by numerous Evangelical preachers; the public schools and Dr Arnold; the idealisation of marriage and family pitted against the dire reality of urban squalor and poverty; appalling working conditions and London full of child prostitutes. I am reminded of those lines from King Lear: "Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination." This is infamous! I cannot believe we, in this great and wonderful nation, in our elected representatives, could contemplate this social atrocity which will degrade so many and destroy so much of what so many dedicated individuals strove to achieve. I sincerely hope the Senate rejects these proposed changes.
Edward Fido | 30 June 2014

Another magnificently evidence-free contribution from Dr Falzon citing a typically obscurantist statement from the incoherent Marxist (but I repeat myself) Zizek. The poor who are the concern of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia, under Dr Falzon, are in great peril of becoming pawns.
HH | 30 June 2014

Where is your name HH? You've taken the easy way out - not to put your name when you are critical of the truth. Phil van Brunschot
Phil van Brunschot | 01 July 2014

"but I repeat myself". HH, you never said a truer word. But how about giving us some of the "evidence" you so revere, instead of smearing a well-informed and thoughtful article with the tired "marxist" label?
OldG | 01 July 2014

John Falzon has written a much-needed article, and has set up the relevant principles on which this debate should take place. And it is a debate that needs more space, so perhaps if HH would specify the grounds on which related empirical claims can be established or not, in other words what would satisfy him/her that evidence is being used, the debate will be highly productive.
Tim Battin | 01 July 2014

John Falzon's argument for social/economic change to reduce disadvantage in Australian society emphasises the current, and currently developing, economic structures as the main cause of social disadvantage. This reminds me of Demming, the father of structured quality assurance in modern industry and commerce. Shortly after World War II, poor quality materials, poor work skills, and negative attitudes among workers were blamed by industry leaders as the cause of poor quality of products and service. But Demming identified the systems of management and control in industry as the main cause. From his pioneering work in developing well-designed, inclusive structures for process management in industry and commerce, industrial and economic efficiency flourished in what are now the OECD nations. The poor industrial and commercial management in the late 1940s is now reflected in the poor national management of Australia and the United States, by the level of social disadvantage despite the strong economic condition of both nations.
Ian Fraser | 01 July 2014

Phil van Brunschot, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I don't think there is any place on this or any other site for unsigned and anonymous comments, and I suggest that this be addressed at editorial level. Peter Downie, 2 Abercrombie Circuit, Banks, ACT 2906.
Peter Downie | 01 July 2014

You seem very fond of quoting Pope Francis in your unrelenting quest to establish a "preferential option for the poor", Dr Falzon. The real question, however, is whether these quotes are simple dressing or colourful bunting designed to give an impression of carefully referenced scholarship. The first quote says nothing more than that there is no hard evidence that the trickle down effect necessarily benefits the 'excluded'. It makes no comment as to whether or not some of the 'excluded' have benefitted while others have not or whether or not the general elevation of societal wealth has contributed to a better welfare system for those who miss out. You have failed to address whether any responsibility applies to the 'excluded' in improving their own or position or whether those responsible for the stewardship of those human beings who are excluded have failed in their responsibilities e.g., selfish, uncaring , irresponsible parents. What is the relevance of this quote you have chosen? You seem to me to have completely failed to read and understand your second quote from Pope Francis which essentially says that the problems of the poor are not being resolved by rejecting (as you do) "the autonomy of markets and financial speculation" nor by attacking the perceived "structural causes" (conservative political structures in the social justice enclave in this country). "Inequality is the cause of social ills", the Pope says. You make no attempt to explore this inequality and ignore the possibility that inequality may not all be government or system driven but may well have a major driver in the form of individual personal or parental (parenting) irresponsibility. The quotes in support of your position as expressed in this article are completely irrelevant.
john frawley | 01 July 2014

Some thing positive Greater workforce participation is good for our economy, good for our local communities, and good for individuals,.
programmes to help job seekers move from welfare to work sooner.
The Job Commitment Bonus will provide a cash incentive of up to $6500 for young long-term unemployed job seekers who get and keep a job for at least two years.
The Restart Wage Subsidy will provide up to $10,000 to employers to help more than 30,000 mature-age workers get back into the workforce each year.
Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job will help long-term unemployed job seekers with the costs of moving to start a new job. Job seekers with a family who relocate to take up a job in regional Australia may be eligible for up to $9000 to help with the costs of moving.
Young regional apprentices will be able to access up to $20,000 in Trade Support Loans to assist them with the costs of getting their qualifications.
And the revamped Work for the Dole programme will help job seekers demonstrate the skills and attitudes employers are looking for, while they give back to the community that supports them.
Stop Australians drift into welfare

Placid Pete | 01 July 2014

Thanks John for an extraordinaily insightful reflection. Havig watched Q&A from Geelong, my old home-town last night, i heard echoes of your piece in some of the thoughtful questions posed there. Now we need the people who can change things to attend to these questions and respond appropriately.
Kevin Bates | 01 July 2014

Talk is cheap, faith without works is dead. My reflection for this morning may light on the story of the Good Samaritan and I will buy a coffee for the homeless chap who is sleeping rough in Swanson street and the man disabled by poor vision who cries out at the traffic lights. I can't get a job . I have nothing now .there's no future for me .
john tells it like it is. There are people suffering . Until structural change is made there will be more depression ,more violence and more disharmony . Call me a bleeding heart or whatevever. But my heart is heavy for my impoverished fellow Australians ,asylum seekers who are so stressed that they take their lives ,the jobless and the homeless and above all at the hardness of heart and duplicity of our policy makers
Celia | 01 July 2014

Thank you for this excellent article. I presume McClure was asked to give his report because the Govt knew roughly what he would say. Whenever Pope Francis opens his mouth on social and political questions, I wonder whether any of the Catholics in power at present are listening to his wisdom - if so they conceal it well.
Rodney Wetherell | 01 July 2014

Here's a crazy idea. I have a friend whose been on a disability pension for nigh on 5 years now with his wife on a carers pension. He is doing everything he can to get back to work by studying for a new career. He's halfway there. But now, if the givernment interupts the process he will not be bable to afford to live AND study. He does some part time work when he can. Now, his biggest fear is losing his home and having to rent - why? Because that will cost him even more. So, and here's the crazy idea...by now the amount he and his wife have been paid in pensions would have paid ff the house and he would be free of that pressure, free to complete his studies and become a fully contributing citizen, free of the debilitating fear and depression which comes with trying to pay all the bills - the biggest by far the mortgage, and healthier and actually able to provide more input into the economy. Get the idea? Too bizarre? Too liberal? Too socialist? Thing is, it would work - in his case at least. Instead, the poor are forced into further poverty while paying rents to the rich. They break down and become an even bigger burden. Bring on Logan's Run, hey Tony.
Agnes Day | 01 July 2014

Dr Falzon forgot to mention it was Jenny Macklin as Minister in the ALP government who forced the single Mums on to Newstart last year. An inconvenient truth doctor?
Bill Barry | 01 July 2014

John Falzon, you are in good company in stressing the importance Catholic Social Teaching puts on care for the economically disadvantaged and on the criticism of Capital which exploits and dehumanises the powerless. Even in the sometimes conflicted Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII, the Pope taught that indeed the Church, following God, has a special care for the poor - a preference even. Leo indicated that the credibility of the Church itself stood or fell on that teaching. Subsequent Popes have continued, in a spirit of continuity, to affirm, even strengthen the Social Gospel. It should be noted that recently Card Mueller placed Liberation Theology in the same category of importance as the teaching of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. The vilifiers of Gustavo Gutierrez, the martyr Romero and others are beside themselves, as they would.
David Timbs | 01 July 2014

Thank you John Falzon for a strong and authentic analysis. I have seen at first hand the devastating experiences of several people with severe and chronic genetic mental illnesses who have gone through "welfare to work" programs. They were promised so much, demeaned so often, promised so much and let down so often that I could only judge the process as cruel. It aggravated their condition. They have been conned into thinking that they have an obligation to work and they persist in their efforts to do so.Over the years, they have tried, but their symptoms have always meant that their attempts were short lived. High-functioning people with lesser mental illnesses have the ear of the government, and, as a result, very sick people find themselves berated and neglected. I am devastated by the myths perpetuated in yet another McClure report. Fifteen years ago, I responded strongly with letters to politicians etc. Now I just weep.
Sheelah Egan | 01 July 2014

I'm surprised the ES moderator allowed Phil van Brunschot's comment to be published. I dared to directly address and challenge HH following comments in a previous article and was accused of "verballing" her/him and none of my subsequent comments have been posted - some admittedly for being provocative, but most not.
AURELIUS | 01 July 2014

Thanks, Tim. Dr Falzon is anti-free market, pro big government and pro big welfare to help the poor. But these policies hurt the poor. I’ve frequently countered the beliefs of Dr Falzon and like-minded contributors on this blog with historical evidence. Beyond mere assertion, Dr Falzon himself has supplied no evidence that the market economy causes or maintains grinding poverty or that massive wealth redistribution will create a lasting solution to poverty. A rather surprising omission, and yet one accompanied by other puzzles. Dr Falzon says he wants to build ramps to the labour market. Yet at the same time he supports a minimum wage, which works by kicking away the lowest rung of the employment ladder for people with low productivity. He wants cheaper housing. But he never mentions the pile of anti-market government red and green tape, zoning laws, refusals to release land, stamp duty, building permits, etc which add tens of thousands of dollars to the price of a single house. His heart goes out to single mums, but he is silent on all the laws the state has introduced over the years which contribute to marriage break up and the rise of single motherhood, such as no-fault divorce. If you read Dr Falzon alone you’d have no idea that it’s in the market economies he is forever condemning that people most rapidly move out of poverty. You might also think that the most welfare-dependent communities in Australia – the aboriginal remote settlements – are doing fine, when in actual fact, as many attest, welfare is killing them. Dr Falzon wants to “address the causes of poverty and inequality”. How? By shaking down wealth creators and handing out the spoils as much bigger dollops of free stuff – housing, education, health etc. Far from addressing the causes of poverty, that paternalistic gambit will make matters worse, inflicting the tragedies of the remote aboriginal communities upon the hapless poor Australia-wide. (It also drives wealth creators offshore or into non wealth-creating activities. Great.) To truly address the causes of poverty you just need to get government of people’s backs. As we are seeing the world over, take away the taxes, the whole panoply of crippling state regulations, crony capitalism, subsidies, and bureaucrats, and poor people – who are as smart and resourceful as the rest of us – will see to their own prosperity, thank you very much.
HH | 01 July 2014

In my experience critics of the work done by Vinnes usually say: They are propping up, for the most part, wastrels and bludgers. Their 'clients' are being nurtured to become dependent. Let them have to fend for themselves and real hunger will drive them to work. The beauty of these rejoinders is that no experiments or surveys have been carried out to see if these assertions are true. On the other hand if one examines the economic growth of China and its burgeoning middle class one might say - there's trickle-down economics at work. But economics doesn't work in a vacuum. What is to be made of the growing underclass in China? The suppression of basic human rights? The wages and conditions of the laboring class? The returns for their labor by the farming/peasant class? There are real life examples of the down-side of trickle-down economics because we don't want to look at them because we might actually have to ask ourselves what sort of country are we selling our commodities to. Powerful countries practising trickle-down economics can nurture whole countries into becoming just as dependent as any social welfare recipient in Australia.
Uncle Pat | 01 July 2014

Here we go again! Today is John Falzon criticising Tony Abbott that the government refuse to reduce inequality and wants to take from the poor to give to the rich. Then he mention the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, John Falzon why don't you admit that Slavoj Zizek is a Marxist.Yesterday we had another St Vincent de Paul man Mike Bowden, not very kind to Tony Abbott, accusing him that the government is a heartless government. I read an article about the Vinnies, the heading was "Left turn for Vinnies Leaders?" and speaking to other people and reading John Falzon in various publications, I believe that good Catholics many of them members of charities such as Saint Vincent de Paul are led by the Left.
Ron Cini | 01 July 2014

Supporters of the “trickle down effect”, calling for evidence that it doesn’t work, should peruse Capital in the 21st Century” by Thomas Picketty. It clearly shows that capitalism inherently breeds economic inequality over time. Only vigorous state intervention, especially wealth taxes, can check this trend. Increased income inequality inevitably condemns most to lower incomes and the poor to poverty. However beyond state intervention other basic measures would also significantly combat this. (1) A much stronger (and corruption-free) union movement. Unions are the main bulwark to protect most workers against exploitation. The decline of unions in Australia and the West has contributed to increased income inequality since the 1980s. (2) A strong public education system that ensures equality of opportunity, especially for lower-class children. (3) Reducing the almost Stalinist-type control that shopping centre managements and property developers have on small business would indirectly help employees. The small business sector employs the bulk of the workforce yet is constantly squeezed by high rents and crushing tenancy conditions. Were these reduced small businesses could pay employees more – with union backing to ensure this. 4) The billions being saved from turning back asylum-seekers should be used to fund a national program for housing the homeless. It’s time to care for our own urban refugees!
Dennis | 02 July 2014

“It clearly shows that capitalism inherently breeds economic inequality over time. … Increased income inequality inevitably condemns … the poor to poverty.” Sorry Dennis, but if you (or Piketty) is saying here that capitalism condemns the poor to poverty, this is manifestly untrue, if poverty is measured absolutely, not relatively. Name one free market society (even moderately so) where, according to a absolute standard of living benchmark of poverty, there are a greater proportion of poor people than there were 50 or 100 or 200 years previously. That is not the case in the U.S., England, Australia, let alone more extremely capitalist regimes such as Hong Kong, Singapore, etc, etc. Not being a filthy capitalist, I haven’t accrued the exploitative profits yet to invest in Piketty’s book. But from all I’ve read both for and against, I doubt even he supports what you claim. More fool if he does. Yet, on the contrary, anti-capitalist societies such as Cuba and Venezuela have obviously condemned not only the poor, but even the rich, to poverty. As of last month, oil-rich socialist Venezuela began rationing drinking water! Did Piketty look at that side of the equation – the shameful record of “egalitarian”-driven regimes?
HH | 03 July 2014

How sad that Dr Falzon's cogent and worthwhile analysis is so bluntly conflated by these comments into "leftism" and anti-capitalism. What arrant nonsense aimed at cutting down the questioner of the prevailing dogma. There are many who will suffer from continued adherence to prescriptions based upon market ideology and neo-liberal propensity to commoditise human labour services and public goods. John Falzon's voice is a welcome and inspiring reminder that if we are to change the cynical drift in Australia toward a beggar thy neighbour lowest common denominator polity, we must speak out, be heard and challenge the big lies. Those who cheer on the blue tie brigade on are powerful and dominate public discussion. We need to address the revenue structure, the appalling disregard of humanity of refugees, indeed of youth bereft of work or support for months, and the bent to skew public institutions away from giving voice and influence to the plurality of interests that contend across modern society. Well done John Falzon and well done Eureka street
Paul Munro | 03 July 2014

God bless you John. If only our elected representatives spoke the truth so fearlessly in the way that you do.
L. Beriya | 04 July 2014

HH: Yes, absolute poverty (AB) has probably declined in such market-based countries as the UK between 1814 and 2014 though a revealing Four Corners program a year ago showed that Britain’s poorest often barely had enough money for food – and lack of food is THE most basic AB marker. The same would apply to those on the dole in Australia. Moreover, in Communist countries such as the Soviet Union AB declined significantly between 1921 (when the civil war ended) and 1941 till the German invasion. Then from 1945 to 1985 living standards again rose and AB fell. The average Russian lived much better in 1985 than 1945 - though by then central socialist planning had produced economic stagnation. But from 1991 Russia switched to a free-wheeling capitalist style economy and many Russians were plunged into AB for the next decade or two, with perhaps only some emerging from it now. Nonetheless, a market-based economy (which best harnesses entrepreneurial/innovative capacities) is probably the strongest insurance in the long run against AB but one in which regular state intervention is required to prevent the gross inequities of unregulated capitalism – which is one of Picketty’s points. Certainly capitalist US is not such a country where it’s Gini (economic equality index) is 45 (and 17% live in poverty – as defined by the half median income yardstick used to measure poverty in developed countries) while Sweden’s is 23 and 7% live in poverty. Singapore’s Gini is 47.3 and by using this yardstick my research has shown that about 25% live in poverty. .
Dennis | 04 July 2014

I first became aware of the arguments for the 'trickle down effect' 40 years ago. Could the proponents of these theories please tell us how many years it will take for them to prove their claims work for the disadvantaged. I doubt the poor can wait that long.
Carmel Bull | 04 July 2014

Yes. We could allow ourselves to become disabled if we didn't seriously get on with making a difference in our own lives: especially with regard to those with whom we seek friendship.
helen cantwell | 05 July 2014

Thanks Dennis for some data-based commentary, as opposed to the usual evidence-free invective I get served here. OK: We agree that poverty has “probably” declined in countries such as the UK over the past 2 centuries. But isn’t that rather understating the case? Re. the UK: if we take a widely accepted subsistent level poverty at about 50 percent in 1800 (there’s a good case to think it was a lot worse), it’s a lot less than 1 percent now on the same scale. 50 percent to less than 1 percent! “Probably” is surely not the mot juste. Plus, let’s bear in mind that the UK population was about 10 million in 1800 and now it’s 60 million. How would 60 million fare as they do today (on average) on the production capability of 1800? Or consider Hong Kong: without the free market, how would 6 million people flourish as they do (average income among the highest in the world) on an area that’s only some five or six times the area of the Melbourne CBD? Your figures on Russia are also iffy. For one thing, the USSR grudgingly conceded about 3% of land to be privately owned with the products going solely to the owners. Precise figures are debatable, but I’ve heard that more than 50% of agricultural produce occurred on these private plots. Plus: Russia post 1990 hasn’t exactly moved to the free market: it’s moved to a version of crony capitalism, with many of the old commies still in charge (eg Putin himself). Apart from that, unlike others here, I don’t have a hang-up with inequality as such. North Korea and Cuba have about the same Gini coefficient as Australia, for God’s sake !! Like most people in the world, especially boat people, I don’t elide “inequality” with “inequity”. Some of us are better at creating wealth than others, just as some are better at scoring runs in cricket, or discovering new planets, or painting masterpieces – to the benefit of us all. That’s the glory of humanity in its diversity. I don’t deplore it – I, a traditional Catholic, celebrate it!
HH | 05 July 2014

I'm sorry. Although this site produces many excellent articles and comments I am amazed at the politics is brought inot the discussion. Some trade in anti leftist remarks others decry anyone who doesnt vote LNP. Dare one say Bullshit. We are dealing in human lives and if some of you are such good Catholics that you cant be Christians then good luck to your.
john | 10 July 2014


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