Why Everyone’s Business: Developing an inclusive & sustainable economy matters.
As Australia entered the 20th Century, it was a dynamic country, very wealthy by world standards, and socially progressive. Constructive policies, such as a minimum wage and the eight-hour working day, were put in place, and an egalitarian spirit formed part of how Australians saw themselves. Of course, things weren’t perfect, but there was a sense of all being in it together.
Fast forward to today, and, while Australia remains on a per capita basis among the wealthiest countries in the world, things have changed, arguably for the worse. Real wages are stagnating, wealth inequality is increasing, and Australians are apprehensive about the future. Employment is increasingly insecure for workers, household debt levels are high, and for many the great Australian dream of home ownership is rapidly receding from possibility.
The causes of this demise are myriad, but one factor underpins the situation. The egalitarian spirit of early Australia was not accidental, but sprang from the desire of the people, and was embedded into the economic, political, and social structures of the day. But now in the 21st Century, we have abandoned this egalitarian dream and replaced it with the myth that the market can deliver prosperity for all. We have embraced an economic rationalism that is ill-serving our community.
Need for a new approach
The Social Justice Statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops for 2017-18 is titled Everyone’s Business: Developing an inclusive & sustainable economy. It is a very timely statement, adding an influential voice to many others calling for the return to increased inclusiveness in Australia whereby markets work for the benefit of everyone. The Bishops call for a new approach. If the approach is new, the call is not. Successive Popes since Leo XIII, in his 1891 landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, have called for an economic system to benefit everyone, not just wealthy elites.
In his monthly prayer intention for October 2017, Pope Francis prays:
We should always remember the dignity and rights of those who work, condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and help ensure authentic progress by people and society. Let us pray that all workers may receive respect and protection of their rights, and that the unemployed may receive the opportunity to contribute to the common good.
His prayer is a universal one, but seems most apposite for Australia here and now. In the spirit of this prayer, the Australian Bishops have identified some key criteria for challenging our economic system to be more inclusive.
- People and nature are not mere tools of production
- Economic growth alone cannot ensure inclusive and sustainable development
- Social equity must be built into the heart of the economy
- Businesses must benefit all society, not just shareholders
- The excluded and vulnerable need to be included in decision making
While the reference to nature is a recent one, reflecting our increased awareness of the need for sustainable production practices, these points can be applied retrospectively to the attitudes and aspirations strong in the Australian spirit in the first half of the last century.
Examples of a social democracy approach are the introduction of the ‘living wage’ concept, the eight-hour day and forty-hour week, the extension of pensions to support widows and then the unemployed, along with the development of progressive tax structures. The economic rationalism of the last 40-plus years has eroded these ideals and created a highly individualised economy favouring those with resources and influence.
Neoliberalism promotes deep inequality
This statement should come as no surprise to us. Referring to the neoliberal economic philosophy in 1992, the Bishops wrote:
Taken to extremes, this ideology promotes individualism, the survival-of-the-fittest philosophy, and the greed-is-good mentality.
Sadly, the Bishops have been demonstrated as prescient. There are nearly three million Australians, including 730,000 children, living in poverty. This is the reality in a country which has the second highest net worth per person in the world! Included in these numbers are those in low-paid and insecure employment, those on niggardly support payments, an increasing number who are homeless, and many of our indigenous people.
This represents a failure of policy and a failure of our body politic. But it represents something lost that we must seek to regain. We have become selfish, seeking individual prosperity, without attending adequately to the good of all who live here.
We need to challenge ourselves and our leaders and thinkers with reference to the criteria set out in the Bishops’ statement. We need again to find that egalitarian sensibility which inspired Australia of 100 years ago. We have changed, so we must change again and restore Australia to being a place of a ‘fair go’.