Sick with Worry - Dr John Falzon

Anti-Poverty Week Oration,

ACT Legislative Assembly, Canberra

14 October 2015
 

We are reflecting on inequality and injustice on land that always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

 

I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land and I pay tribute to their spirit of collective dreaming,

collective resistance and collective hope.

 

Our history is laden with the long and violent act of dispossession,

of forcefully taking members of the First Peoples away from their homes.

 

Sacred places were trampled upon,

lives destroyed,

cultures crushed,

families scattered.

 

As the poet Maya Angelou tells us, however, the ache for home lives in all of us.

And even though homes can be taken away and people can be taken away,

this ache for home,

this hunger for justice,

can never be taken away.

 

May we listen to the voices of the Old People

and dream of a different kind of society,

one that goes beyond that which is built on colonisation and inequality.

 

One in which people are not blamed

because economic structures lock them out

or, in some cases, lock them up;

 

one in which people are not told that they would not be poor

if only they chose to be a little more productive.

 

Today we launch a new report on stories

from the front-line of inequality in prosperous Australia

 

stories of people who told us that poverty

or the threat of poverty,

homelessness

or the threat of homelessness,

unemployment or underemployment,

housing unaffordability,

utter uncertainty about the future,

that all of these things,

any one of these things,

any combination of these things,

made them feel sick with worry.

 

There’s nothing human about humiliating people

Because they are forced to survive on the fringes of the labour market.

 

And there’s nothing smart about ramping up inequality

And then blaming the people who are forced to bear its burden

Supposedly so that the economy can grow

So that the economy can be flexible

Agile

Attuned to the changes in the global marketplace.

 

It’s funny how we are told that business needs certainty

But that people who are struggling should get used to everlasting uncertainty

That this is the price of progress

That they should embrace the excitement of change

Rather than fearing it

 

That they should be unafraid of losing their hard-fought for gains

Such as equitable access to fair wages and conditions in the work place

To social security

To universal healthcare

To public education

To tertiary education

 

Even as we witness them being whittled away

For the sake

Supposedly

Of the nation

So we can stay competitive

So we can allow the wealthy to generate wealth

Which will

According to the neoliberal fairy tale

Always trickle down

 

They tell us to wait patiently and we will hear the sound of wealth trickling down.

But all we hear is the sound of the excluded still waiting.

But now is not the time to watch and weep.

Now is the time to stand and fight,

For, as the Feminist movement teaches us,

the personal is political.

 

And so our task is to transform our personal stories of injustice

into a powerful, collective struggle for a new society

 

As the poet Audre Lorde reminds us:

 

Revolution is not a one-time event

It is the becoming always vigilant

For the smallest opportunity

To make genuine change.                 

 

It is true

We should not be afraid in a time of change

 

Especially if we

The many

Are making it

 

Those who say that we need to change though

Are those who despite their rhetoric of progress

Want the change to take us backwards

To the bad old days

When to work

Was to be poor

When to have a job

Meant being paid at the pleasure of the employer

Rather than according to any measure of fairness

And to have no work

Meant having to rely on charity

 

We not only want change

We want to make change

Progressive

Change that creates common good

And common wealth

And common purpose

Instead of sacrificing all of the above on the altar of profit and private gain.

 

All of the great progressive social reforms in Australia

Have been won by the people

Under the guiding stars of struggle and hope.

 

 

Social and economic policy settings will always fail

To address the structural causes of inequality and poverty

As long as they are developed and implemented from above

Rather than being the fruit

of listening to, and learning from,

the people on the ground. 

 

Without the organised analysis and agitation of the people

we would never have seen gains in the fields of industrial rights,

women’s rights, Aboriginal rights, tenants’ rights, public health, education, environmental justice and so the list goes on as do the struggles.

 

In the years of the Great Depression

when the families of the unemployed were being thrown out of their homes

a movement of resistance sprang up against these evictions.

 

People gathered around the home of the soon-to-be evicted family

and fought back.

 

From home after home the families were evicted by the law

and the women and men and the children and their goods

were forced to make the street their home

while their supporters had the intellectual honesty

to never stop being shocked by this brutality.

 

People were radicalised by reality,

by their concrete analysis of the concrete conditions.

 

Good policy was born from such struggles.

 

Good policy must be born from these struggles again.

 

There have been measures in recent federal Budgets

that rip the guts out of what remains of a fair and egalitarian Australia.

 

These measures will not help people into jobs

but they will force people into poverty.

 

You don’t help young people or older people or people with a disability or single mums

into jobs by making them poor.

 

You don’t build people up by putting them down.

 

You don’t help young people into jobs

by making them live on fresh air and sunshine for 6 months of every year,

or even for 1 month of every year

sending them to charities, making charity the default mode of delivering social security.

 

You don’t reduce youth unemployment by increasing youth incarceration.

 

And as even the OECD acknowledges,

you don’t build a strong economy by increasing the level of inequality.

You don’t create a strong country on the backs of the already poor.

 

We are not in the throes of a fiscal crisis

but if we embark on the path of austerity

we will be staring down the barrel of a social crisis.

 

It is the job of government

Not to abandon people

To the rampant inequality of the market

But to achieve collectively what markets cannot.

 

As the Chilean political theorist Marta Harnecker puts it

 

The art of politics

Is to create forces

To do in the future

What we cannot do today.     

 

The economy is not the same thing as the market.

Neither does it just mean business.

It includes both but should not be confused with either

 

Government is the means

By which we can achieve collectively for all

What we cannot achieve individually:

A place to live,

A place to work

A place to learn

A place to heal.

 

Good health

As you well know is not manufactured in hospitals.

 

Good health is an economic choice

A political choice

 

It comes about by means of ensuring that people

Have a place to call home

Not only a roof over their heads

But a place of safety

A place from which social connections are made

And love and friendship can be found

 

Good health comes about when people are able to enjoy income adequacy

And income security

Whether they are in paid work or not

 

It comes about when no one is denied the very highest standards and resources

For education from pre-school right through to TAFE and university

This is why the government’s repudiation of the Gonski reforms

Is actually a recipe for entrenching health inequality as well as education inequality

 

Good health comes when people are able to enjoy the experience of culture

And art and sport and recreation

All that makes us human

All that celebrates and respects the joy, the pain, the diversity of being human.

 

Good health comes from people being able to enjoy self-determination

Control over their lives

Dignity

Self-respect

Self-empowerment

Everything that is denied, for example, in disempowering policies

Such as compulsory income management. 

 

And most importantly

Good health comes about

When a society is actively struggling to achieve the defeat of inequality.

 

A strong and fair social security system will not address
the structural causes of unemployment

Any more than a strong and well-resourced public health system can address

All of the social determinants of health

 

But neither does income support cause poverty and unemployment

People are poor despite our social security system

Not because of it

 

Saying that if we didn’t have social security we wouldn’t have unemployment

Is like saying that we wouldn’t have sickness if we didn’t have healthcare.

 

Even though income support isn’t going to create jobs

Its removal isn’t going to create jobs either.

 

It is life that teaches us that

An injury to one is an injury to all

 

We are injured when government

On behalf of the rich, steals from the poor

 

For this is what it means to rip $1b out of social services

Whilst refusing to make the mega corporations and high wealth individuals

Pay their share

 

We are injured when unemployment and underemployment

Are blamed on the individual

Instead of fixed by the government

 

We are injured when instead of a Jobs Plan

We’re served up a putting-the-boot-into-the-unemployed-plan

And a ripping-up-the-minimum-wage-and-penalty-rates-plan

In other words a Family Pain Plan

 

We are injured when universal healthcare is hammered

When public education is attacked

When TAFE is undermined

When universities are deregulated

 

We are injured when the public sector is dismembered and the common good is wrecked

When people are forced into poverty

Compelled to rely on charity

When all they long for is justice

 

We are injured when the maximisation of profits

Takes priority over the rights of workers

Including the residualised and discarded

The shattered and the shunned.

 

Why should those who have little be asked to pay more?

 

Those who have much

should pay their share,

to support those who have little.

Not the other way around!

 

Cutting social expenditure

Is code for protecting

Those who will not pay their fair share

 

We might not be able to achieve equality of incomes

but we should strive to achieve equality of outcomes.

 

And we can only even begin to achieve this

If we start to build a society on the principle of

From each according to their ability

To each according to their needs.

 

This is why we have taxation

This is why we have social expenditure

This is why we have unemployment benefits

And a disability support pension

And a national disability insurance scheme

And Medicare

And public education

 

This is why we can actually arrest the growth in inequality

Rather than glorying in it

 

Because we are able to pool our resources

To ensure that no one misses out

On the essentials of life

 

But as inequality grows

There develops an expanded elite

Who argue

Or who have their political advocates argue

That they are tired of doing the lifting

So that the rest of us can do the leaning

That they can afford to pay for all they need

Be it housing or health or education or safety

So why should they have to pay for those who cannot

 

They begin by driving the wedge at the margins of society

The margins that they have in fact created

And they attack not only the livelihoods of people experiencing unemployment

But their virtue as well

Engulfing them with a moralising discourse on laziness and turpitude

that pathologises,

demonises

and even in some cases criminalises

 

As one of the courageous people who shared their story

And who speaks in the pages of our report

Points out

After being left with a severe disability following a car accident

The thing that hurt him the most

Was not losing his job and being unable to get another one

But the political abuse fired at people like him.

 

He who has in fact been volunteering in the community

ever since he was unable to find paid work

is deeply hurt when described in the political arena

as a dole bludger who is making no contribution to society

 

Economist Mark Thoma,

commenting on the US debates on the debt ceiling a couple of years ago,

wrote:

 

We have lost something important as a society as inequality has grown…

 

our sense that we are all in this together.

 

Social insurance is a way of sharing the risks

that our economic system imposes upon us.

 

But growing inequality has allowed one strata of society

to be largely free of these risks while the other is very much exposed to them.

 

The upper strata wonders,

“Why should we pay

when we get little or none of the benefits?”
 

Even worse, those at the top

begin imposing a virtue and vice story to justify their desire

to stop paying the taxes needed to support social insurance programs.

 

Those at the top did it all by themselves.

 

Those at the bottom, on the other hand,

are essentially burning down their own houses just to collect the fire insurance….

 

 

Our problem is not the idleness of the poor.

Our problem is inequality.

 

People are forced underground by inequality.
 

They resurface in our prisons or on our streets.

 

They’re forced to hock their furnishings, their personal possessions.

 

They seek consolation in the arms of loan sharks and payday lenders.


Charity may well tide them over until their next crisis.

 

It is justice, only justice, however, that will fulfil their long-term dreams.

 

We have only one enemy. It is called inequality.

 

It manifests itself through the terrible twins: surfeit and despair.

And it is dealt with by the double strategy of

a redistribution of wealth and a redistribution of hope.

 

We feel a great sadness

As we see people punished for the crime of poverty

And excluded in the interests of inequality

 

But our solidarity is stronger than our sadness                                             

 

For we know that

Humanity will win

against humiliation

 

Humiliation

well-known for begetting disempowerment

or rage

which is just disempowerment turned outwards

 

Humiliation

turns into revolution

under the guiding stars of struggle and hope

 

A revolution in the way we think about poverty

In the way we prioritise our needs as a nation

The way we organise our resources

And treat our people

From the Firsts peoples

To those who come across the seas in leaky boats

With nothing but a tiny nugget of hope in their pockets

 

On this note of the beautiful struggle for social change,

I will leave you with the words of the late Bobbi Sykes:

 

The revolution is alive

while it lives within us;

beating, making our hearts warm,

our minds strong,

for we know

that justice is inevitable – like birth.