This article first appeared in The Guardian Australia website at www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/23/under-the-guiding-stars-of-struggle-and-hope-we-can-have-a-truly-inclusive-ideas-boom.
By Dr John Falzon
Forcing young unemployed people to live on fresh air and sunshine for one month a year won’t fix the budget and it won’t create a single job. Yes, it’s been Myefo time, and contrary to the mantra of those who desperately want to protect the tax concessional privileges and loopholes enjoyed by some multinational corporations and high wealth individuals, we do have a revenue problem and it will not be fixed by taking a stick to the backs of those who already bear the brunt of inequality.
If this is meant to be the pleasing sound of ideas booming, the prelude to the innovation revolution, let the government be warned that it’s a deeply disappointing and offensive start, the rehashing of an old rejected budget measure – rightly rejected because it was vicious and cruel.
Audre Lorde, the great Caribbean-American poet, said:
"Revolution is not a onetime event. It is the becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make genuine change."
The Prime Minister has urged us to embrace change and get ready for the ideas boom. So how can we best create the space for innovation instead of stifling it? We squandered the mining boom in tax cuts, especially for those who had no real need of them. How can we ensure that we do not squander the wealth of opportunities offered by an ideas boom?
As Christmas draws near, thousands of St Vincent de Paul Society members across Australia are delivering hampers to families who have been forced to live in a permanent state of recession. Every day we are privileged to meet people who are deeply loving, courageous against the odds, determined and often ingenious in working out how to make ends meet in their daily battle to survive below the poverty line.
When, for example, you are forced to live on $37 a day, the single Newstart Allowance, you are being expected to do the impossible. In the fictions and fantasies of the dominant discourse, the people who have been locked out of the nation’s prosperity are, at best, to be pitied and at worst, to be blamed for their own poverty. In neither case are they remotely considered to be central to the ideas boom.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the spirit of goodwill, here are a few innovative ideas for both the government and opposition to consider should we, as a nation, decide that unlike booms gone by we should make this one truly inclusive and connected to a reduction in the inequality which, as that left-wing think tank the OECD points out, is a poor foundation for a strong economy.
If we want to create a space in which agility, dynamism and innovation flourish, we will make sure that people have a place to live, a place to learn and a place to work.
Here’s one idea: a jobs plan instead of a good old-fashioned putting-the-boot-into-the-unemployed plan, or a sneaky cutting-penalty-rates-and-minimum-wage plan. A jobs plan would begin with the structural drivers of unemployment and underemployment instead of pretending that the problem lies with the behaviour of the individual, especially in areas with a depressed labour market.
Another idea, if we want to actually harness our intellectual potential as a society, would be to stop blaming young people for their own exclusion. We could start by indexing Newstart to wages and giving it an immediate increase to ensure that people locked out of jobs aren’t forced to live in poverty.
Along with this we should be embracing the highly innovative approach known as justice reinvestment which focuses on education and participation instead of happily settling for incarceration as a solution to inequality. This would help reduce the shameful levels of incarceration of Indigenous Australians. Being locked up follows hot on the heels of being locked out. As philosopher Angela Davis points out: “Prisons don’t disappear problems. Prisons disappear human beings.”
While we’re on the subject of incarceration at Christmas, let’s please innovate a bipartisan end to the cruel abuse and incarceration of people in offshore limbos because they committed the unlisted crime of hope, a hope so brave and so tenuous that it borders on despair.
And while we are also on the subject of education, instead of further excluding the already excluded from pre-school, reneging on Gonski, undermining TAFE and trying to deregulate university fees, if we’re really honestly serious about fostering innovation and creating an ideas boom, let’s make education and training free.
Sound fanciful? Countries as diverse as Cuba and Germany have achieved versions of this so what’s stopping us except the lack of political will and the lies peddled by those who wish to put profits before education? As long as we entrench educational inequality, the ideas boom will be the preserve of an elite rather than the inclusive and diverse phenomenon it should become.
Finally, let’s frame the ideas boom as a way of investing in long-term public good rather than short-term private gain. Australia is no stranger to innovation and social change. In fact we’ve been world leaders in areas such as universal health care, social security and TAFE.
But one thing has been the consistent hallmark of our greatest innovations in the sphere of progressive social change: it has come from the people under the guiding stars of struggle and hope.