Welfare reform or punishing the poor?

Frederic Ozanam, the founder of Vinnies,
John Falzon

I wish to begin by paying respect to the traditional custodians and elders of this land on which we meet to share our stories, the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. I pay respect to their spirit of survival and resistance in the face of structural oppression and dispossession, to their spirit of sharing, to their spirit of hope.

It is with this note of hope that we must contextualize any analysis of the welfare reforms that Australia is now experiencing. As Pablo Casals, the great Catalan cellist, noted on the occasion of his 80th birthday: 'The situation is hopeless. Let us take the next step.'

For the people who have been subjected to these welfare reforms, especially when considered in conjunction with WorkChoices, the situation does indeed seem hopeless, for these pieces of legislation are bound to wreak havoc on the lives of those who are subjected to them. Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, they do not offer real opportunities for participation. Rather, they serve up lashings of punishment and humiliation. They do not offer dignity. They take away hope.

From where do these cruel, destructive welfare reforms come? From an economic framework whose logic is governed by profit and whose heart is overflowing with a sickly moral discourse.

Kathy Edin, a sociologist from the United States, described something to an Australian Conference audience that still shocks me when I think about it. She described the US welfare reform programme, targeting single mothers. Picture this:

A large billboard poster depicts a black single mother on her way to work. Her young daughter, who is being dropped off somewhere, looks up at her and says: 'At least now I can be proud of you.'

And this from the country where the last minimum wage adjustment was in 1997!

"We have chosen as a nation to go down the road of punishing and then criminalising the marginalised."

There is nothing intrinsic to the history of charitable organisations (faith-based or otherwise) to suggest that they are always on the side of advocating for social justice. Charities have played an important role in supporting the status quo, assuaging the consciences of those who are responsible for perpetuating structures which cause or exacerbate poverty and inequality. Charities have also been on the front line of the struggle for social justice, challenging the structural causes of poverty and inequality.

When we speak up against a social injustice the voices are many that come to condemn us.

This simply provides us with the opportunity to quote the beautiful words of Dom Helder Camara, the Brazilian Archbishop, who observed: 'When I give bread to the poor, I am called a saint. But when I ask why they have no bread I am called a communist.'

The current welfare reforms in Australia not only do not offer bread. SPRC has estimated that the maximum allowance for a single parent and two children met only 76 per cent of a minimum low-cost household budget. These reforms move sole parents and people with a disability onto an even lower allowance. They also fail to address the structural causes of exclusion. They actually further degrade people. As J K Galbraith put it so accurately: 'They are degraded, for in the literal sense they live outside the grades or categories which the community regards as acceptable.'

We urge governments and the community to embrace a politics of hope instead of the current politics of cruelty.

Earlier this year, in April, the St Vincent de Paul Society made a decision to not take on the government's Financial Case Management Scheme. We made this decision because our members instinctively knew how unjust the system of breaching, or payment suspension, is. Rather than removing this punitive system, which does absolutely nothing to enable or empower people, the government has chosen to extend its reach to include sole parents and people with disabilities.

We made the decision that we could not be party to a scheme which accepted the logic or rightness of breaching. Rather than breaching a family and then sending them to a charity to get their bills paid, we maintain that they should not be breached in the first place, and that they certainly should not have their faces rubbed in the dirt by being forced to seek assistance from a charity.

For this, we, and the other NGOs who made a similar decision, were accused by Minister Hockey of turning our backs on the poor.

We're not turning our backs on the poor. We're turning our backs on this punitive legislation.

In response to our concerns that people are being pushed into a low end of the labour market that has been further de-regulated, we are told that the labour market must be flexible. The market must be flexible but the system of social control is inflexible!

It is inflexible because it is driven by the agenda of creating an ever larger pool of ever cheaper labour.

People are forced underground because they will not beg from the charities. They resurface in our prisons or on our streets. They're forced to hock their furnishings, their personal possession. They seek consolation in the arms of loan sharks and payday lenders.

When you put together the welfare reforms and the Industrial Relations reforms, what you get is a noxious distillation of policies that will drive many of our community's most vulnerable members out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Australia at the dawn of the twenty-first century appears to be embarking on a road that will take it swiftly back into the nineteenth century.

It was in the nineteenth century, of course, that Frederic Ozanam, the founder of Vinnies, called for many of the social policies that are now beginning to be undermined in Australia. He was unremitting in his efforts to:

  • Provide education opportunities for unskilled workers.
  • Fight for the right of workers to organise themselves into unions and, if necessary, to strike against injustice.
  • Establish a strong, independent, compulsory arbitration and conciliation commission.
  • Secure minimum wages for the low-paid.
  • Build a social security system for the sick, the injured the aged and the unemployed.
  • Reduce working hours so as to improve the quality of life for workers and their families.
  • Ensure that the taxation system was strongly graduated so that those on lower wages would be paying a much lower proportion of their incomes than the rich.
  • Secure legislation that would protect children form exploitation.

During the turmoil of France in the 1870s the St Vincent de Paul Society was actually banned for a time because it was regarded by some sections of society as being a radical organisation that clearly sided with poor workers and their families.

The recent attacks on Vinnies in Australia are testimony to the same discomfort we cause when, faithful to Ozanam's vision, we speak up for those who are silenced.

We are bound to speak up on this issue today because we have every reason to expect that the combined effect of the Welfare and Industrial Relations Reforms will be a lowering of wages and a loss of conditions such as penalty rates and reasonable job security. This will result in an increase in the number of working poor Australians.

The scriptures are unequivocal in condemning these manifestations of structural injustice:

Woe betide those who enact unjust laws and draft oppressive legislation, depriving the poor of justice, robbing the weakest of my people of their rights, plundering the widow and despoiling the fatherless. (Is 10:1-3)

Similarly, as Pope John Paul II put it: 'The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich, the rights of workers over the maximisation of profits.'

We in Australia have the wherewithal to systematically address the structural causes of exclusion. We can afford to provide affordable housing, education and training, childcare, healthcare, transport and social services. As SPRC research has shown, it would take around 2-3 per cent of our GDP to lift everyone out of poverty. The fact that we do not is a matter of choice, not affordability.

We have chosen as a nation to go down the road of punishing and then criminalising the marginalised. We have seen a 25 per cent increase in people in custody over last decade.

Ozanam once wrote that: 'Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is justice's role to prevent the attack."

We at Vinnies will always be here to provide charitable assistance to those who have been pushed to the margins of society. What these people need, more than charity, however, is justice and it is justice that we will not cease to clamour for.


Dr John Falzon is the Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia. This is the text of his address to the Evatt Foundation Sunset Seminar, "Welfare-to-Work(Choices)", convened at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts on 26 September 2006.