You don't have to be a communist to stand up for the poor


Graffiti fist on a grungy brick wallHelder Camara, the Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, famously said: 'When I give bread to the poor I am called a saint, but when I ask why they have no bread I am called a communist.'

The St Vincent de Paul Society has no ideological axe to grind but we have been in the habit, since 1833, of asking why a significant number of people, even in prosperous countries, don't get to enjoy the necessities of life. Our founder, Frederic Ozanam, a French university student, wrote: 'Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack.'

This is why we refuse to accept the dystopian vision of an Australia in which people experiencing poverty are made to shoulder the burden of expenditure cuts while the people who have the least need for assistance enjoy overly generous tax concessions. From time to time someone comes out of the woodwork and accuses us of being communists but that's the least of our worries.

What does worry us right now is the perpetuation of the myth that people living in poverty are to blame for their own situation. This position is ideological and it flies in the face of everything we see.

We see people desperate to make ends meet, people who are locked out of both the labour market and the housing market, often without even a place they can call home. We see a housing market that is notoriously bad at providing affordable housing for low income families and individuals.

Our members recently met a mum with three boys under the age of ten, who had to sleep on the floor in the lounge area because the bedroom regularly flooded. There was no written lease agreement and no hot water for six months. It's easy to sit back and blame the mother for moving her children into a hovel, but there's the rub. When income is severely constrained and choices are non-existent, it's often a matter of accepting grossly inappropriate and insecure housing or sleeping in a car.

Instead of gleefully bagging the National Rental Affordability Scheme let's do something to ensure that people don't have to chose between a hovel and a Holden as the place they call home.

By all means, let's improve the NRAS where improvements are to be made, but if we are serious about ensuring that housing is enjoyed as a human right by all, and not a matter of luck for some, then we actually need to invest more in the NRAS and in other means of increasing the supply of social and affordable housing.

We also need to increase Rent Assistance, indexing it to changes in the average private rental costs, which, over the last five years, have seen increases 12.3 per cent higher than the CPI. And we need to look seriously at the current structure of negative gearing so that rather than increasing speculative investment we actually increase the supply of affordable housing.

The Government's silence on the future of homelessness funding is a disturbing sign. This Government has the opportunity to demonstrate a strong commitment to halving homelessness by 2020. This means consolidating and improving on gains rather than creating uncertainty even over the funding status quo. It is homelessness itself that we must cut, not the spending on homelessness. Everyone has the right to a place to call home. The housing market fails to deliver on this basic human right. Governments must therefore do what markets cannot.


John Falzon headshotDr John Falzon is Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council and is author of The language of the unheard.

Graffiti fist image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: John Falzon, Helder Camara, Communism, NRAS



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Existing comments

We could begin by doing away with negative gearing and the loss of revenue that involves and directing the savings into rent assistance and/or the provision of relevant alternative accommodation. But don't hold your breath while this bunch of Tory ideologues remain in power.
Ginger Meggs | 26 March 2014

The title doesn't go far enough: not only do you not have to be a communist, but you can't be a communist, to help the poor. The communist and socialist experiments in the 20th century reduced millions to grinding poverty, even as the poor in market economies enjoyed advances in standards of living unprecedented in human history. Even ideologically rusted on regimes like Red China have quietly conceded the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange (socialism) is a colossal and disastrous flop. Market economics will solve the housing problem for the poor in Australia too, if it is allowed to work. 1. Abolish stamp duties. 2. Free up millions of acres of land on our urban boundaries for residential housing. 3. Scrap all the "green" regulations dreamed up by inner city lefties in their terrace houses which drive prices way out of reach of the poor. 4. Scrap all the other regulations which have nothing to do with basic safety - eg & esp those preventing dual or more occupancy, etc 5. Allow aborigines in communal lands to own their own plot and house (I've even got a name for this idea: "Native Title"!). Market reform such as deregulation, land releases and allowing flexible modular housing beyond what current regulations allow will mean that, instead of houses becoming more expensive year on year, they will, like computers and other relatively unregulated products, become cheaper. Without allowing the market to add to supply, increased rental assistance only puts upward pressure on existing stock, creating a vicious circle.
HH | 26 March 2014

Spot on! The power that accompanies wealth can breed fear and silence in the voices of the powerless.
Narelle Mullins | 27 March 2014

John, you've fought this battle, eloquently and forcefully, for years. Thank you. Keep up the good fight. Unfortunately prejudice and comfortable ignorance are pandered to by the shock jocks and much of our TV and press. How to reach the people who are made to feel comfortably superior in their ignorance and intolerance is the job waiting for a genius. I squirmed yesterday, aboard a bus in Canberra, while Ray Hadley carried on about asylum seekers, but it could have been about any number of social issues requiring informed analysis. You remain a voice of hope.
Joe Castley | 27 March 2014

I feel frustrated and powerless to alleviate the suffering caused by homelessness. What can I/ we do????
David | 27 March 2014

Maybe "we need to look seriously at the current structure of negative gearing", It is probably a scam. But what it does NOT do is reduce the supply of rental accommodation. By definition negatively geared properties need to be let for less than they cost to own and maintain. That means that they are available for occupation by someone other than the owner.
OldG | 27 March 2014

Well said John Falzon. It is time the government gave certainty to the homeless by confirming funding for NPAH and NRAS. All people have a right to be treated with respect
Sue Lines | 27 March 2014

I agree with you completely, but I fear that the current government has no interest in behaving compassionately or assisting the poor.
Andrea Sherko | 27 March 2014

The churches have a surfeit of underused accommodation suitable for the homeless. For example a few Jesuits occupy a mansion in Canberra's diplomatic area which would be more than suitable for Canberra's homeless.
LL | 27 March 2014

True, Mr Falzon! One does not have to be a communist to stand up for the poor. However, there are elements of communism which have crept into the social justice debate which often excludes those responsible citizens who have happened to work hard, donate to charity and be independent of monies used by government to sustain the disadvantaged - all of these attributes exclude them as recipients of "social justice". This attitude is betrayed by many of the commentators on this article. The conservatives, particularly the Catholic prime minister and the well- off are seen as the baddies. The social justice agenda of liberation theology in the South Americas with its militant Jesuits and Mary Knoll priests and nuns was certainly not in the spirit of the Vatican II call to social justice and a "preferential option for the poor" (a preference outside God the Creator's perspective of the equality of all human life). One recalls the machine gun toting Jesuit Cardinale brothers' invasion of Pope John Paul's open air Mass in Nicaragua with a mob of their Christian militia and replacing the crucifix above the altar with the Hammer and Sickle. It seems reasonably certain that was Communism at work in the name of "social justice". About time to abandon the Marxist childishness of class hatred, wealth (except for one's self, of course) and conservative politicsand embrace social justice for all of God's people. Time to grow up.
john frawley | 27 March 2014

Ginger Id like to counter the argument re Negative Gearing. There are many of us mums & dads landlords who provide accommodation with a conscience at greatly reduced rates who would not be able to do so without the "claimabilty" aspect of negative gearing. I charge a single mum with 4 kids a weekly rent that is $90.00 a week less than the market rate. All above board with direct payment & full reporting to the ATO. Whilst Im not negatively geared if the provision to claim expences and associated property costs and the interest I pay on the mortgage was removed I would have to sell the property. I could afford to keep it. So I thing that a review is probably in order but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.
Patrick Social Justice | 28 March 2014 don't have to be a communist to feed the poor; there would be many Argentinian clergy and religious during military rule who would attest to that....those who survived that is, supported by the church who was financially endowed to the dictatorship of the day.
Lynne Newington | 28 March 2014

Dr Falzon is as eloquent as ever, but to quote our greatest living defender of the faith Cardinal George Pell, the seductive ideology of the left is as always “so much sweet poison. “Falzon echoes the words of the guilt ridden Queen Gertrude "The lady doth protest too much, methinks", in his denial of his communism. Six years of labour mismanagement cannot be remedied overnight. A weak nation cannot provide for its poor, a poor person has never given a man a job. It is only after strengthening business and industry can we hope to provide for the poor. Nice warm cuddly values are all very well but they don’t put food on the table nor will they get anyone into heaven. Strong government provides security and strong law in the church provides certainty. That is what is required. I know my view will be unpopular in this journal and my post will most likely go unpublished but I will say it anyway. It is only through the efforts of great Australians like Tony Abbott and Cardinal Pell who are willing to defend our great institutions that we have not been overrun by the evil chaotic forces of social destruction which Falzon seeks to hide behind.
Lawrie Beriya | 28 March 2014

I would like to be able to discount the views of Mr Beriya as extreme and not worthy of response. Unfortunately the previous correspondent reflects many widely held views which have begun to enter popular discourse. Actually when you break it down his argument consists of a list of clichés regularly trumpeted on talkback radio by people skilled in rote memorization but not quite as adept at original thinking. Since 1994 the minimum wage has fallen from 60% of average full-time wages to 43%. During this time we have seen the full-time employment participation rate fall dramatically as our work force has become progressively casualized, a la the United States. At the same time housing costs have risen disproportionately. We must have some redress. It is important not to forget young people in all of this. On census night 2011, of the 105,237 people listed as homeless, 42% were young people who as a consequence are at dramatically elevated risk of physical and sexual abuse, educational failure and physical and mental ill-health. The notion that it is more important to create a secure comfortable edifice for the rich in the hope that some of the gold will trickle down at the expense of fair wages and justice for the less fortunate is comical and the argument that the poor are to blame for their suffering is a cowardly one. The obligation to care for and protect our children is fundamental to our humanity. The free market philosophy of the Abbott government is a path to barbarism. Thanks John for another great article.
Mark Meehan | 29 March 2014

It's a convenient myth of the left that free marketeers blame poverty and unemployment on the poor and unemployed. Alas, the leftist finger-pointers never manage to produce the incriminating quotations. In fact, I'll wager there's not a single proposition in the works of Rothbard, Mises, Hayek, or the other leading free market economists, blaming poverty on the poor; they certainly offer many arguments refuting the notion. Ditto for unemployment: the Committee awarding Hayek the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974 cited his profound and original research on the relation between monetary policy and business cycles, a major cause of waves of mass unemployment in modern economic systems. But hey, let's not spoil a good story, and perish the thought leftists sully their minds actually reading that stuff, let alone trying to understand it.
HH | 01 April 2014

To Patrick Social Justice, sorry for the delayed response - I've been away for a while. What you are doing is commendable in my view, and I don't object to legitimate operating expenses being claimed to offset tax liabilities, as you are doing. But most negatively-greared properties charge market rents and what I find unacceptable (and counter-productive) is the ability of the owners of those properties to claim tax relief for the losses made on their debt-financed investment properties where there was never any intention to make a profit, only to make a capital gain at the expense of other taxpayers.
Ginger Meggs | 02 April 2014


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