Resistance and Hope
Progress 2015 Keynote, Melbourne, 7 May 2015
Dr John Falzon
We are reflecting on inequality and injustice on land that always was,
and always will be,
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.
Last year’s federal Budget was an absolute masterpiece of inequality.
Here we are, a week out from a new Budget
and we are still reeling from its viciousness toward ordinary people.
But let me add that the federal government is still reeling
from the backlash from ordinary people.
There were measures in that Budget
that ripped the guts out of what remains of a fair and egalitarian Australia.
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 help young people into jobs
by making them live on fresh air and sunshine for 6 months of every year.
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.
There’s nothing human about humiliating people
because they are forced to survive on the fringes of the labour market.
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;
a society 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.
The government has walked away from its responsibility to its people.
It has shied away from the challenge to build a broader and more sustainable revenue base so that no one misses out on the essentials of life
such as a place to live, a place to work and a place to learn.
This is not a matter of charity towards the disadvantaged.
It is an issue of class.
Warren Buffett was quite correct when he said:
There’s class warfare alright, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war,
and we’re winning.
We are not in the throes of a fiscal crisis
but if we embark on the road of austerity
we will be staring down the barrel of a social crisis.
We will be staring down the barrel of a social crisis
because of the small minority hell-bent on humiliating ordinary people.
They speak empty words about the ladder of opportunity
but then they kick the ladder away.
A rising tide does not lift all boats.
Some people don’t even have a boat.
They’re drowning at sea.
It is life that has taught us
That an injury to one
Is an injury to all
In the face of these injuries
Our secret weapon
Our best weapon
Our only weapon
Is our solidarity
We are injured
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 treated to 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 common good is dismembered
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 long, fruitless wait of the excluded for some of the wealth to trickle down
is one of the most audacious con jobs in modern history.
We all know that our economic system is built
not on the objective of the wealth trickling down
but on the certainty that wealth bubbles up.
In the meantime the excluded are being told to be patient;
that their time too will come,
once we get the budget back into surplus,
once we’ve paid the debt
and stopped the boats and cut the taxes;
that they only need to wait a little longer.
But when you’ve got a rich country like ours supposedly unable to afford
to ensure that the more than 100,000 people experiencing homelessness
or the more than 200,000 people on the waiting list for social housing
have a place to call home,
it is not a misfortune or a mistake.
It is the sound of the excluded still waiting
When you’ve got nearly 800,000 people unemployed
and a million underemployed, on top of those who are set to lose their jobs
due to company closures,
the mutilation of the public service
and government cuts to social spending,
and when you have a single Newstart payment that sits at only 40% of the minimum wage,
it is also the sound of the excluded still waiting.
When you’ve got David Gonski,
not generally seen as representing the vanguard of the working class,
working alongside his fellow review panellists
to recommend a package of education funding reforms
to address the outrageous inequality that besmirches education funding in Australia,
and then the government does a triple back-flip
and declares it is not committed to seeing this redistribution of resources through,
you loudly hear the sound of the excluded still waiting.
The Prime Minister is fond of claiming
that he is simply fighting the scourge of intergenerational theft,
which is code for protecting the perks of the wealthy
by cutting social expenditure rather than engaging in genuine tax reform.
We should fight, not the spectre, but the real threat of intergenerational theft.
It is intergenerational theft
If we pretend that climate change is not real
And that the devastation of the environment does not matter
Even as far back as the 1st century of the Common Era,
Marcus Aurelius commented that:
What is no good for the hive is no good for the bee.
The intergenerational theft that the government should be worrying about
is the theft of opportunities for the next generation.
Disability advocates have long made the excellent point
that the construction of disability
largely depends on how we structure our society and our economy.
If someone cannot walk up the steps
we can decide as a society that it’s tough luck or even that they should be blamed.
On the other hand we can just use our common sense and build a ramp.
The same goes for other experiences of exclusion.
Unemployment is painted as a moral failure.
The causes, however, are primarily structural rather than personal.
We need to be honest about the fact that we refuse to build the ramps.
We need to acknowledge that actually we do the opposite.
We build bloody great walls.
And then we condemn the people we’ve built the walls around
for lacking the aspiration to scale them.
For many of us,
our day-to-day work is focussed on helping people over the walls.
This is good.
But our historic task is to tear the walls down.
Tackling inequality means investing
in high quality social and economic infrastructure
for the benefit of all.
In 2004, Tom Calma, then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, explained the difference between formal and substantive equality:
[I]f there are two people stuck down two different wells,
one of them is 5m deep and the other is 10m deep,
throwing them both 5m of rope would only accord formal equality.
Clearly, formal equality does not achieve fairness.
The concept of substantive equality recognises
that each person requires a different amount of rope
to put them both on a level playing field.
Tackling inequality means giving everyone enough rope.
In other words:
From each according to their ability.
To each according to their needs.
As things stand we give extra rope to those who stand above the wells
while leaving those who are stuck down the wells with nothing
but the view from below and the dream of sunlight.
regardless of the screams of blue murder from those who have more than enough rope, helps build greater equality.
This isn’t just good for the people stuck down the wells.
It’s good for everyone
since the higher the level of inequality
the higher the rates of crime, mortality and physical and mental illness.
Inequality is literally bad for our health.
Or as the World Health Organisation explained
in their 2008 report on the social determinants of health,
social injustice is killing people on a grand scale.
But inequality is not just about a redistribution of wealth and resources.
It must also be about
a redistribution of hope,
a redistribution of power.
As Dr Djiniyini Gondarra put it so eloquently, in relation to the NT Intervention:
People are sick and tired of being controlled.
When people are sick and tired of control they just give up hope:
... people are dying, not just dying spiritually and emotionally but dying physically.
They cannot live for the day because their lives are controlled by somebody else.
You don’t build a community up by putting its people down.
You only achieve humiliation.
A good society,
as former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero, pointed out,
is one that does not humiliate its members.
Humiliation begets disempowerment
We can condemn and humiliate people for not being able to get up the steps
or we can build a ramp.
But, as the history of progressive social change teaches us,
humiliation can also turn into revolution
under the guiding stars of struggle and hope.
Because the truth spoken by the people pushed to the margins
will always in the end drown out the lies told about them.
New forces and new passions spring up in the bosom of society
but the old social organisation fetters them and keeps them down.
But first, polarisation becomes more pronounced.
If, as a society,
we are comfortable with detaining and brutalising children and their parents because, carrying with them nothing but a nugget of hope,
they take to the high seas in search of a safe haven,
how can we be surprised
that we are also apparently at peace
with the prospect of more stolen generations of Aboriginal people,
more paternalistic interventions in their lives,
more deaths in custody?
If we accept the lie that government should withdraw
from the arena in which inequality is being battled
how can we be surprised by the marketisation of essential services,
the not-for-profits unwittingly clearing the path
for the multinational companies to take over the space
and put profits before people?
Why would we be surprised if we end up building more private prisons
instead of more public schools?
As the great activist Angela Davis reminds us:
Prisons do not disappear problems. They disappear human beings.
We will for some time yet be forced to listen to the late Baroness Thatcher
being channeled down here in the colonies,
she who opined that:
It is our job to glory in inequality
and see that talents and abilities
are given vent and expression for the benefit of us all.
Those who argue that inequality is good for us
intentionally confuse inequality with diversity.
The talents and abilities that should indeed
be given free expression for the benefit of us all
are the manifestation of diversity,
not the product of inequality,
as perversely claimed in the Thatcherite thesis.
And it is an injustice to all of us
especially children and young people,
are denied the resources to be able to actually give free expression
to their abilities and talents.
But this is exactly the logic of the market,
the glorification of inequality,
in the bizarre notion that health or education are commodities for sale;
that your educational opportunities or your health should correlate with your class,
which is exactly what we know to be the all too sad reality
we are living in
and struggling to transform.
We have only one enemy
It is called inequality
We’re here because
We’re ready to take it on
And no matter how long it takes
We will win against this enemy
This is our beautiful struggle
and we are very many,
we who make up the massive movement for progressive social change,
A movement that finds its history in the coming together and rising up
Of the crushed and the cursed
The excluded and exploited
And finds its expression in our common belief
That those who refuse to take the side of the oppressed
Give their aid to the oppressor
We also hold, with Arundhati Roy, that:
There’s no such thing as the voiceless,
only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.
What we know is what we learn by listening to and learning
the language of the unheard
Instead of swallowing the lies of those who seek to justify
Harm to humanity and to the planet in which humanity finds its home
Humanity will win against humiliation
For our solidarity is stronger than our sadness
And even though our struggle is enormous
So too is our hope.
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.