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,

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.


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


And that

In the face of these injuries

Our secret weapon

Our best weapon

Our only weapon

Is our solidarity


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 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.


Social spending,

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

or rage.


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

when people,

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,

exemplified monumentally

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.