By Dr John Falzon
You learn a lot when you listen to people’s stories. Like the man who explained to me last Saturday night that he was OK even though he was sleeping in doorways in Canberra’s CBD, and even though he’d recently had his sleeping bag nicked. He is one of the reasons I cringe when I hear Joe Hockey repeating that we must all shoulder some of the pain of his government’s mooted austerity measures.
As if this man, and the more than 100,000 like him who are experiencing homelessness, is not already shouldering enough pain. It is more than reasonable to shut off the holes where significant revenue is forgone due to overly generous tax breaks such as the superannuation tax concessions that favour the already-rich. But the austerity that is being flagged by the Treasurer is clearly designed to hurt the poor more than the rich. As University of Adelaide’s Dexter Whitfield points out: “The socialisation of losses and privatisation of profits is the prime political and economic objective of austerity.”
The budget deficit should never be reduced by increasing the public goods deficit. Austerity measures might maintain the comforts of the already comfortable, but they will plunge the marginalised into deeper pain. The people who depend most on public goods such as social services, social housing, free healthcare and public education are the people who cannot afford the market-based user-pay alternatives. By undermining the quantity and quality of these public goods, we stigmatise and punish people who already experience the unbearable burden of entrenched inequality.
John Berger once noted the capitalist ethic preached that “poverty is a state from which an individual or society is delivered by enterprise”. The concomitant message is clear: if you are poor it is because you are either not smart enough (and so we should pity you) or because you are not ambitious enough (and so we should punish you). This logic infers that you really can have or be anything you like if only you want it badly enough. Therefore, social expenditure (the kind that would ensure that the man I spoke to on Saturday night would have housing, for a start) is either just a waste of money or even dangerous because it discourages “enterprise”. The truth is very different As Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang reminds us: “People are poor despite the welfare state not because of it.”
The truth spoken by the people pushed to the margins drowns out the lies told about them. As poet Audre Lorde reminds us: “Eventually, if we speak the truth to each other, it will become unavoidable to ourselves.”
We can condemn and humiliate people for not being able to get up the steps or we can build a ramp. Former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero eloquently explained that “a good society is one that does not humiliate its members”. Humiliation begets disempowerment … or rage. Humiliation can also, however, be transformed into social change under the guiding stars of struggle and hope. Good policy always comes from below, even when it is formulated and legislated from above.
As we look down the barrel of a worsening public goods deficit, a theft of the commons, we would do well to remember the anonymous 17h-century English folk poem:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from under the goose.
Government must do what markets cannot, especially when it comes to the fundamentals of life such as a place to live, a place to learn, a place to work. A government humiliates people when it proclaims that it must cut red tape and get out the way, which is often code for getting out of the way of those people who wish to make profits with no concern for Australia’s growing inequality. This results in building massive walls around people, then condemning people for lacking the aspiration to scale these walls.
We must, as a society, urgently protect people from being cast off and cast out; devalued as human beings, called illegal, made illegal; for being locked up follows hot on the heels of being locked out.
And, please, think again if you accept that the solution lies with charity. As the founder of Vinnies, Frederic Ozanam, a 19th-century French activist-academic, pointed out: “Charity may heal the wounds but, it does not stop the blows.”
Dr John Falzon is the chief executive of Vinnies. This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.