When we address the shortcomings in our social justice settings, we can easily become focused on the ‘half empty’ part of the glass and miss the moments when something hopeful may be emerging. Some recent releases gave me pause to consider whether there is just a glimmer of hope emerging, on some fronts at least.
In a political climate marked by rancorous disagreement among the major parties over budgetary matters, it was pleasing to see the two parties recently combine to pass the omnibus budget savings bill. While the $6 billion saving over four years falls well short of the budget adjustment commentators argue is required, the compromise gives hope that the parties in this parliament will act in a collaborative manner, and also that the measures eventually adopted have increased focus on genuine reform which does not unreasonably impact already vulnerable people.
The fact that almost one in seven Australians, including more than 600,000 children, live beneath the poverty line is a scandal for a country as well-off as Australia. Budget measures need to be crafted to address the structural causes of poverty, not to penalise those who find themselves disadvantaged.
Yet, as John Falzon from the St Vincent de Paul Society noted, more than half the savings came from social security payments, particularly from family benefits. Falzon was relieved that people on Newstart ($38 a day) and pensions did not lose their carbon tax compensation, and that cuts to dental services had been removed. But he said the changes needed to go further in addressing excessively generous superannuation concessions and loopholes favouring high-income groups.
Refugee issues, again
On a hopeful note, the Prime Minister at the United Nations in New York announced that Australia will permanently maintain an annual humanitarian intake of 18,750, an increase of 5,000 on the 2015‑16 numbers, but still less than the 20,000 target under Labor. We could, of course, do much more than this. Already, around 190,000 migrants settle in Australia annually, the greatest proportion of them being economic or family migrants.
The President of the Refugee Council of Australia and Director of the Edmund Rice Centre, Phil Glendenning, welcomed the increased intake, but added that the government’s commitment to increase funding for international refugee programs by $130 million is insignificant, given the increased numbers of refugees. Compare that amount to the $9.6 billion Australia has spent on offshore detention since 2013.
The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers established in 2012 by the Gillard Government recommended an increase in humanitarian intake over five years to an annual level of 27,000. Sustaining Australia’s commitment to the resettlement of refugees at this level is laudable, but surely of equal priority is the need to end cruel and unjust treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.
Alas, Prime Minister Turnbull failed recently at the United Nations to take to heart the criticisms that body has voiced regarding the treatment of those in detention.
Social Justice Statement on Aging
On a positive note, the Australian Catholic Bishops, in their just released 2016 Social Justice Statement, call for a national strategy for positive aging. Already officially identified as ‘senior’ myself, I have a clear window into aging with a mother now approaching her 102nd birthday. She and others in her aged-care facility are well cared-for by family members and staff.
But, as the Bishops’ statement reflects, there are many older Australians who are unable to find work, and who are lonely, disadvantaged, and, sadly, even abused. Indeed, not a few fall among the one in seven below the poverty line already referred to.
The aging of the population brings with it key social justice challenges with policy implications in such diverse fields as taxation, pensions and superannuation, spending on health and aged-care services, workplace arrangements, and so on. What fine things it would say about our society if we could say of all our aging citizens that they are well cared-for by the policies of our Government, and cherished by the culture and society of Australia.
We can hope for an improved Australia. But hope is not sufficient; also necessary, if we are to see these little glimmers develop into something better than this, will be having a voice and making sure it is heard!
John Falzon responded to the government’s new welfare policy on ABC Radio National on Wednesday 21 September.