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Friday, April 07, 2006

The Prophetic Voice of Vinnie's

While I listened to the ABC's Religion Report on Wednesday 5 April, I thought I could hear Helen Coonan in the background marking down the ABC's Budget. Stephen Crittenden interviewed John Falzon, Operations Manager for one of Australia's biggest charities, the St Vincent de Paul Society. Falzon's interview was a tour de force and is worth listening to. For those of you who can't listen to it, or would like a permanent record, here it is. Fasten seat belts. Hold on to your seats.

The St Vincent de Paul Society says the Federal Government’s new breaching regime for people on welfare is immoral. Under the scheme, people who are breached but deemed to be extremely vulnerable, will be referred to the churches and charitable organisations to receive one-off payments of up to $650 to manage their cases.
Dr John Falzon is the National Operations Manager for the St Vincent de Paul Society.
John Falzon: Under the new Welfare to Work legislation, two major groups of people are going to be brought within the scope of the breaching regime. That’s people in receipt of parenting payments, especially single parents, but not exclusively, and also people with disabilities who are able to work more than 15 hours a week. Now when these people are breached, there are going to be some cases judged by Centrelink as being extremely vulnerable, and they are going to be referred to agencies that have taken up a contract to case manage the extremely vulnerable, and those agencies are going to give assistance in packages of up to $650 of government funds to the people who’ve been breached.What’s Vinnie’s position on this? Well, No.1 we consider the entire breaching regime to be unconscionable and immoral. It takes away dignity, it doesn’t offer hope, it doesn’t act as a mechanism for really enabling people to move from welfare to work. It punishes people who are already vulnerable, it deprives people of their human rights, of their dignity, of bread on the table for children in many cases.
Stephen Crittenden: And you’re not having any part of it.
John Falzon: Exactly. We’ve always held that position and as far as this idea of institutionalising charity and making people feel an even greater sense of humiliation in that even though the government is acknowledging that they’re going to be in a dangerous situation and is funding this period of crisis, it’s going to do so via a charity, to make people feel that the charity is being institutionalised and they’re being forced to go to a charity.
Stephen Crittenden: Yes, I don’t really understand what’s in it for the government. They aren’t really getting people off welfare, and even though the churches are looking after them, the government’s still going to be paying.
John Falzon: Yes, it’s more symbolic I think in this case. That’s what we really find unconscionable, that this is a return to some very old models of charity as being a means of really making people feel like they are to blame for their poverty. There’s a whole moral discourse involved here that we will have no part of. You know the wonderful educational theorist, Paulo Freire, and we really take his lead in Vinnie's, when he spoke very beautifully about needing to engage in a prophetic denunciation of the bad news, in order to engage in a prophetic annunciation of the good news. We denounce the breaching regime as bad news, there is no good news in any element of it. We do announce the good news that there is an alternative vision for Australia, and that’s one of our major concerns with this Welfare to Work legislation which some of our members refer to as Welfare to Work to Welfare - because in fact we don’t believe it’s going to have those sorts of positive outcomes that everyone would hope for. We believe that it lacks vision. Not only does it lack fairness but even from an economic rationalist point of view, it lacks strategic vision, and as the Book of Proverbs says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. Well where is the vision in pushing people who are vulnerable into that low end of the labour market without any adequate opportunity for skilling, for education, at a time when most commentators will acknowledge we’re facing a skills crisis, at a time when Australia can in fact have a competitive edge, by investing in education skills and innovation.
Stephen Crittenden: Presumably some of these people are still going to be coming to you for help, whether the government’s reimbursing you or not?
John Falzon: That’s true, absolutely, and Vinnie’s will never cease giving assistance to people who have been breached, and they will continue to come to us. We won’t be accepting government money to do that, we won’t be entering into a contract, but what we’ve always maintained is yes we will give the charitable assistance, we will be there as a charity because we consist of so many wonderful people who are giving up their time to do that, and because they believe in a fair go.
Stephen Crittenden: Doesn’t that let the government off the hook?
John Falzon: Well there’s the second part of the equation. We’ll give the charity to people but what we have always maintained is charity is fine, but what these people deserve is justice, and we’ll keep clamouring for that justice.
Stephen Crittenden: The Salvation Army says it will probably take up this proposal. The St Vincent de Paul Society says the breaching regime is immoral and you won’t have any part of it. Shouldn’t the churches be at one on this issue?
John Falzon: Well our position as far as – I’m not commenting on churches, but I will comment on agencies – we have taken the position quite rightly in my opinion, that we in no way wish to give any direction or call to other agencies as to how to conduct themselves. They must follow their own charters, their own rules, their own rationales for how to engage in this quite vexed social policy area.
Stephen Crittenden: But if you’re calling the government immoral, surely the implication is another church welfare agency who takes part in this immoral regime is participating in immorality if you like.
John Falzon: Well, as I said, we’re not commenting on the decisions of other agencies as to how they engage in this entire process, but for Vinnie’s our message is clear: in our rule as a matter of fact, it says where injustice, inequality, poverty, or exclusion are due to unjust economic, political or social structures, or to inadequate or unjust legislation, the society should speak out clearly against the situation, always with charity with the aim of contributing to and demanding improvements. For those people who might think that’s quite strongly worded, it’s not nearly as strongly worded as those words from the Prophet Isaiah, ‘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.’ That’s where we take our lead from, Stephen, we’re placed in a position by our members because of what they see every day in giving assistance to the people who come to us.
Stephen Crittenden: Let’s turn to a couple of other related welfare issues. Vinnie’s is also particularly concerned about what you’re describing as the nexus between the government’s Welfare to Work legislation and the new IR legislation.
John Falzon: Yes. Look, what we see is that the people who are going to be pushed by the Welfare to Work legislation into that low end of the labour market, are also the people conceivably, who will be subjected to compliance with Australian workplace agreements that potentially will not be family friendly, that will be deleterious to family life. We’ve actually received some legal advice to suggest that there may be a case whereby the provisions in the Welfare to Work legislation can contribute to coercion of sole parents to breach their duty of care to their children which is potentially a criminal offence.
Stephen Crittenden: But you’re also suggesting that the Welfare to Work legislation won’t just have the effect of pushing single mothers say back into the lower end of the workforce, it will also have the effect of pushing them on to individual contracts, which may be deleterious to them.
John Falzon: Conceivably, yes. We’re not in any way saying that that is necessarily going to be the case, but it is certainly on the cards as far as we can see, that that’s precisely where Australian Workplace agreements will be put in place, and who knows what kind of conditions will be removed from those working arrangements, particularly where children are involved.
Stephen Crittenden: OK, just finally, Dick Warburton and Peter Hendy, two Australian businessmen, have this week presented the Federal government with their review of Australia’s tax rates. And the Prime Minister has said that his first priority in this year’s budget is support for lower middle-income families. What is St Vincent de Paul Society saying about tax reform?
John Falzon: What we’re saying No.l is that the Treasurer is quite correct in citing the OECD figures that we’ve got the eighth lowest tax to GDP ratio, and that we’re the second-lowest spending amongst the OECD countries. We have always considered two major points as far as the debate on tax reform. 1. is that the effective marginal tax rates that affect precisely the people moving from Welfare to Work are incredibly high, up to the 70% mark and this acts as a major disincentive for people moving from Welfare to Work.
Stephen Crittenden: Labor’s Wayne Swan is saying this, too, this week.
John Falzon: Yes, quite right. Secondly though, we have always maintained that the far greater deficit in Australian society is not so much in terms of the need for tax cuts, it’s in terms of our under-investment particularly in social infrastructure, particularly in the costs that hit low income households, and middle income households in areas of education, health, transport, housing, child care, these are the sorts of costs that impact heavily because it’s a matter of shifting from the public purse to the private pocket. We would dearly love to see an intelligent and strategic investment in these areas of Australian society rather than putting a few dollars into people’s pockets, because this would have not only a great effect on those individual households, but as a whole, collectively as a nation, it would enable us to go forward and would stand in opposition to the narrow-minded punitive welfare reforms and IR reforms that we’ve seen.
Stephen Crittenden: John, thanks very much for being on the program.
John Falzon: Pleasure, Stephen.
Stephen Crittenden: You don’t often hear a Catholic who can quote the Bible. Dr John Falzon, the National Operations Manager for the St Vincent de Paul Society.