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,
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,
or the threat of homelessness,
unemployment or underemployment,
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
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
Of the nation
So we can stay competitive
So we can allow the wealthy to generate wealth
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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
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,
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
well-known for begetting disempowerment
which is just disempowerment turned outwards
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.