Major Jenny Begent.
On 29 November, Victorians will decide who will govern the State for the next four years. Each leader – Dennis Napthine and Daniel Andrews – has been expressing his vision for this State and asking its citizens to celebrate and invest in it. And when they say invest; they are talking about your heart, your mind, and your share in the billions of dollars being spent to bring such vision to fruition.
We have heard a lot about planning, transport and infrastructure, the environment, public health and safety, as both parties attempt to claim to be the best, the most equitable for all Victorians. Does the church have anything to say in this arena? Is our faith public. Is it political? Are there certain issues for which the church has a mandate to speak?
The answer, in my mind, has to be ‘yes’. The church has a set of moral norms and illustrations in scripture, and history of how these norms have been used. While we acknowledge that we don’t always meet these standards ourselves, we can’t allow our own failure in these areas to stop us from speaking out on the issues that are important to us.
The church has long been a provider of support to the poor and disadvantaged in our communities. Collectively, we have been able to increase the social capital of many individuals. We have done this in partnership with government, often holding our tongues in order to be able to provide those services. In recent years, the growing gap has widened between the wealthy and what we now term the ‘working poor’, and we are now facing significant deficits in a number of areas. Some examples of these areas, drawn from The Salvation Army’s recent Election Platform are:
Housing and Homelessness
The apparent intractability of complex social problems like homelessness requires long-term vision and commitment by government and the community. Homelessness can’t just be seen as something that happens to individuals while structural issues continue to push too many Victorians into housing stress and ultimately homelessness.
In addition, even once they have found a place to live, many people struggle with issues that affect their ability to maintain a tenancy. Many of these people have been homeless for years, some having long histories of sleeping rough on the streets. They need long-term sustained support to deal with these issues in order to stabilise their lives and remain housed.
Recently, Victorian justice policies have been driven by an unapologetic ‘tough on crime’ agenda, this has resulted in unprecedented growth in the prison system and justice budgets. However, international evidence and our own firsthand experience point to the fact that ‘tough on crime’ policies (particularly locking up in prison increasing numbers of people for increasing lengths of time) don’t work, and actually make crime worse. This is because locking people up in prison does not address the reason people commit crime in the first place.
Prison populations are skyrocketing since the introduction of ‘tough on crime’ laws. The annual prison budget in Victoria is approximately $940 million a year. The cost of running and maintaining these prisons is stripping money out of other infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and public transport. And, despite the huge investment in the justice system, our communities are not much safer.
Family violence has been shown to be connected to deep-rooted societal and cultural attitudes and beliefs about men and women, their roles in society, how men should treat women, and men’s sense of entitlement. To deal with family violence, cultural attitudes need to change about men’s treatment of women. Cultural change of this magnitude is difficult. However, it must start with breaking down myths about family violence -such as that it is women’s fault – bringing the prevalence of family violence to light, and encouraging men collectively to take responsibility for violence.
Reporting rates have increased by over 20 per cent in the last year alone, and funding has not kept pace. There is a shortage of crisis and refuge accommodation for women and children trying to escape family violence, and high costs of housing make it difficult for women and children to leave violent relationships and find affordable places to live.
Victoria faces a range of health and social challenges, including population growth, an aging population, and increasing rates of chronic disease. By 2021, the state’s population is projected to increase by 19 per cent to 6.6 million people. On average, people aged over 75 years use five times as many health services as people aged under 75. The combination of population growth, aging, and increasing rates of chronic disease will place growing pressure on an already stretched health system.
Health services have experienced significant reform in recent years, with the implementation of the National Health Reform Agreement, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and major changes to community services supporting those with mental health issues or abusing alcohol and other drugs.
While many of these changes have had a positive impact, they have done little to reduce the service duplication which already existed, in some cases exacerbating it. They have also failed to ensure service gaps are filled, and that services are delivered in a truly integrated way. In some areas, there is now less integration than ever, due to an increasingly siloed approach to program development and funding.
William Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army, expressed the role of the church in politics this way:
In answer to your inquiry, I consider that the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without hell.
History has shown many instances of ‘politics without God’. The church has a major role to play in providing a prophetic voice for the future, and speaking into a policy context that benefits the whole of society, especially those excluded from the benefits of mainstream community life.
The church needs to say ‘yes’ as well as ‘no’ to government promises and policies. By ‘no’, I mean clearly opposing wrongdoing, corruption, or that which does not benefit the whole of society. ’Yes’ supports commitment to fulfilling promises to make real efforts to curb crime, to make health care accessible and substantial, and to ensure noone is excluded from the basic right to food and shelter. At present in human history, the voice of the church is required to be loud and bold on behalf of those who have no voice.
Major Jenny Begent is Divisional Social Program Secretary of the Salvation Army, Melbourne, and a Board member of Social Policy Connections.