Some critics will brand the Senate Report into Financial Hardship and Poverty as another politically motivated, “bleeding hearts” exercise. Other cynics might quote one of history’s most renowned friends of the poor, Jesus Christ, who reportedly asserted that the poor will always be with us, though, as a more contemporary wise person added, “what it means to be poor depends on the kind of us they are with”.
The key question posed by the majority opinion in the Report is whether Australians still aspire to living in a fair society, one that seriously applies the Golden Rule in social policy. Or are we content to be an increasingly polarized, “hourglass society”, as Rupert Murdoch warned us a few years ago?
Of course it shouldn’t require lofty ethical sentiments to challenge us. An argument of self interest is sufficient. After all, a society which has growing levels of social disadvantage wastes a valuable human resource and risks social order because injustice ultimately threatens the security of all.
The strength of the Senators’ views is that they developed from an Inquiry process, which went behind the statistics and the debate about poverty lines to examine real stories from the “other” Australians who are hidden in ghettoes of disadvantage, a reality most of us prefer to think is exceptional but which is actual experience for up to 3 million of our fellow citizens including 700,000 children.
Introducing the Report the Committee Chair, Senator Steve Hutchins, delivers an alarming message: “Poverty in our community is increasing and becoming increasingly entrenched.” He refers to stories “from pensioners who go to bed early because they cannot afford heating to students slipping into prostitution to support their studies.”
The Report also begins a serious analysis of financial disadvantage and its consequences in contemporary Australia by identifying “the increasing prevalence of social risk” as in family dysfunction, the declining stocks of affordable housing and the increasing casualisation of the workforce.
In fact the escalating phenomenon called “the working poor” is one of the most alarming indicators that the social fabric of Australia is changing irrevocably. The weakening of labour regulation is the main reason having a job is no longer a guarantee of economic security. The “working poor” and their dependants number in excess of one million, a statistic that rings true when it is considered that 90 per cent of the net new jobs created during the 1990s paid less than $26,000 p.a., and 48 per cent less than $15,600.
Sensibly, the Senate Report responds to unanimous insistence from the community sector that a national strategy is needed to tackle these multifaceted social issues. Programs like Ireland’s National Anti-Poverty Strategy are cited to indicate how dedicated approaches are achieving success elsewhere.
The laudable centerpiece of the Senate Report’s recommendations should be acceptable to all sides of politics – a national summit after the next Federal election to develop a comprehensive strategy to be implemented under a newly created Authority responsible directly to the Prime Minister.
There are interesting implications in this idea for a state government like Queensland’s. The Beattie government puts its social justice eggs largely in the basket of education and training, with very patchy catch-up strategies being employed in health, housing and family services. A national strategic approach would both highlight the deficiencies in the Queensland approach and provide a forum for addressing them.
But a national strategy will be costly, though any credible commentator on the matter knows that throwing money at these intractable problems is not enough, for increased public funding must be augmented by community partnerships as exemplified in the Brisbane Housing Company (pdf, 146Kb). In its submission to the Inquiry, the St Vincent De Paul Society estimated the national funding required to be about two per cent of GDP or $12 billion annually. They argue this is attainable over time if the wealthiest 20 per cent of Australians (the main beneficiaries of recent policy and who control 60 per cent of wealth) surrender 2-3 per cent of that wealth to the common good.
The lesson for economic management in the Report is clear: in the past decade or so we have placed too much trust in the free market to distribute social goods. For too many Australians the result is hardship and disadvantage.
The questions are becoming clearer: Are we satisfied with a society that is making it financially harder for more and more Australians to get quality health care, housing and education? Has a preoccupation with the fight against terror diverted us from the fight to preserve a fair go? Do we want an Australia where the next generation is even more vulnerable to poverty?
In an election year these are surely matters worthy of extensive public discussion.