Autumn 2017

Addressing poverty and inequality in an age of budget repair

The first teaching document authored mainly by the Pope invites people to take on a new mindset that considers the needs of all. Meanwhile the federal government’s plan for budget repair pays little respect for the dignity of the poor, writes Frank Brennan.

Portrait photo.
Fr Frank Brennan

Pope Francis’ 2013 document, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), refers to a scene from the gospel involving the miracle of the loaves and fish, when thousands came to a lonely place in order to hear Jesus speak. Jesus took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. When it was getting late, his disciples urged Jesus to stop his teaching and to send the people away to the surrounding villages so they could buy their supper. But Jesus told his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37). What happened next involved five barley loaves and two small fish supplied by a boy being miraculously used by Jesus to feed five thousand.

Pointing to the scene to deliver a modern day message, Pope Francis says it is important to work towards eliminating the structural causes of poverty, ‘and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs [of those] we encounter’.

Pope Francis maintained: ‘The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset, which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all, over the appropriation of goods by a few.’

The world would de nitely be a harsher and less compassionate place if we were not to practise sporadic acts of generosity. There is no substitute
for giving the occasional helping hand to the neighbour or stranger in need. Vinnies members do this every day of the week.

But we all know that this is not enough, if we are to provide the opportunities for everyone to achieve their full human ourishing, or even just their full economic potential—which is the main concern of governments nowadays.

Speaking to the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) at their annual conference last November, Mr Christian Porter, the Minister for Social Services, reminded delegates that the government outlays more than $160 billion a year in welfare payments—a third of government expenditure. He said:

Any government must balance the imperatives to maintain our strong social safety net and continue to protect our most vulnerable people and also ensure there is sustainability to the system. So that increases in welfare expenditure today are not paid for with borrowings, coming at the expense of today’s young Australians’ ability to afford a similarly generous system in decades to come.

Though much of the talk nowadays is about structural reform and increased workforce participation, it is very easy for such talk to serve as a code for so-called ‘budget repair’.

But any repair measure needs to be equitable, sustainable, and respectful of the dignity of the poor. Everyone accepts that work can and should be ennobling for people, and everyone should be encouraged to contribute what they can to the common good.

Governments are entitled to design welfare programs which include ‘mutual obligation’ to seek employment and to hold a job for what Mr Porter describes as ‘even a modest number of working hours’.

But governments need to accept that there are some people who, through no fault of their own, are in no position to fulfil a mutual obligation for even minimal employment when that obligation takes no account of the individual’s circumstances, or the state of the labour market.

With the increasing loss of trust in major institutions—including churches and major political parties—it is becoming more dif cult to effect rationally, the compromises that are needed to deliver on policies which take sufficient account of the competing values at play in a pluralist society like Australia. We can see this playing out at the moment with an enlarged cross-bench in the Senate and the need for government to barter with those cross-benchers to get any measure approved.

Tax cuts for companies and the wealthy are said to be contributors to economic growth, with the promise of benefits to everyone including the poorest through the trickle-down effect. But it takes a long time for any trickle at all to reach the bottom. Meanwhile, there can be no justification for stripping the most vulnerable of what they need for survival and a dignified existence.

In February, the government was trying to get the Senate to adopt some of its proposed spending cuts. But at the same time, the government needed to concede that new measures such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme required increased funding of $3 billion, just so that those eligible with permanent and signi cant disability could receive the help and services they need to survive and live with dignity. Cross-benchers David Leyonhjelm and Cory Bernardi warned against directing savings into ‘another extravagant spending program’. Senator Leyonhjelm said: ‘The NDIS is policy based on compassion; it’s a blank cheque. I think they were counting on my support and indeed they would’ve got it had they not said, ‘We’re not going to put these savings into the bottom line’.

Adequate funding for the NDIS is about much more than compassion; it is about respecting the basic rights and entitlements of some of our most vulnerable citizens. And since when should compassion be a bar to good policy and responsible budget repair? It was Robert Menzies who once said, ‘We have nothing but the warmest human compassion … towards those compelled to live upon the bounty of the state’.

The gap between rich and poor, the haves and have nots, the home owners and those who will never afford a home, is widening in Australia. While committing to budget repair which will enhance inter-generational equity, we need to commit afresh to bridging this gap. If we don’t, we will surrender our claim to be the land of the fair go, and we will find governments committing more and more resources to protecting the private choices of the rich and to locking out the poor. As Pope Francis says, it’s time for ‘a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few’.

Increasing our individual sporadic acts of generosity while our parliament and government repair the budget bottom line without compassion, trying to increase the size of the pie, just won’t cut it. We need to share the pie as it presently is, equitably, sustainably, and with respect for the dignity of the poor.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

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