FRANK BRENNAN. Developing an inclusive and sustainable economy (Speech launching the 2017 Social Justice Statement, 7 September 2017)Sep 13, 2017
We’re here to launch Everyone’s Business: Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy. 25 years ago, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published Common Wealth for the Common Good: A Statement on the Distribution of Wealth in Australia. Michael Costigan and Sandie Cornish who are with us this morning laboured long and hard over four years to produce that document 25 years ago.
It’s fair to say that early in the time of neo-liberalism that document was primarily focused on the distribution of wealth. Part the critique of that document, as of much church teaching of the time, was that we did not take seriously enough what was required for the creation of wealth, or what was to be done in the use of wealth once it was distributed. We can commend the authors of this year’s document for having focused not just on the distribution of wealth, but also on its creation and its use. All three are assessed against the principles of Catholic social teaching. These principles have universal application even in a neo-liberal environment which gives precedence to markets and competition as the preferred means of creating economic growth and utilising the fruits of that growth for individual well being and the common good.
It’s very heartening that the group of consulted authors including Bruce Duncan, John Ferguson, David Freeman, Gerard Moore and Paul Smyth. Given the overwhelming representation of women in the audience here this morning, I can only presume that next year’s authorship group will include a good representation of women.
How heartening to see that one of the eminence of Fr Bruce Duncan has been involved in the drafting of the document. The two-page chapter on the ‘Church and Community: The Call for an all-inclusive economy’ are as neat and balanced a summary of papal teaching on social questions since Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century that you could hope to find early in the twenty first century. This is a great resource for secondary school students wanting an entrée to Catholic social teaching.
How good to see our own Australian bishops putting front and centre the statement by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (#54):
… some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
This is as succinct and eloquent statement as we could hope to find when wanting to know what is necessary to build an inclusive and sustainable economy.
Let’s look back 25 years to the launch of Common Wealth for the Common Good. Those who are students probably need to be reminded that 1992 was the year when the High Court delivered the judgment in the Mabo case, ruling that Elsie Heiss and her mob and others like them continued to hold rights to their traditional lands despite Australia having been subjected to control by the British. This was a major development in our history as a nation. Those of you who are students have never known Australia to be any different. But prior to 1992, there was no recognition of Aboriginal rights to land other than those rights specifically granted by the crown after colonisation. In 1992, Paul Keating was the prime minister preparing to fight the election of his life.
When Common Wealth for the Common Good was launched, there was a superb debate in the Australian Parliament. John Langmore, an Anglican ALP member of the House of Representatives moved that the House endorse the statement claiming that it ‘may well be the most important economic and policy statement ever published by the Catholic Church in Australia and perhaps by any Australian Church’. He told the Parliament that it ‘fulfils the mission of the church to have a prophetic role in society'(15 October 1992, p. 2198). On the previous Sunday, John Langmore and Dr Harry Edwards from the Coalition were able to conduct a very civil debate about the document on John Cleary’s Sunday night religion program on the ABC. They were able to conduct a conversation on the national airwaves coming from different religious traditions, and coming from different political traditions, considering what was necessary for a more just and equal society, seeking the balance between equity and efficiency in the economy.
John Cleary’s program no longer exists. The prospect of such an informed conversation underpinned by Christian faith being conducted on the ABC has evaporated completely. And there is no chance of our parliament spending time in debate on such a statement, given the parlous nature of our political leadership and the disruptive nature of our politics. So, our bishops have stepped into far more turbulent waters in publishing 25 years later what is a bold blueprint for an inclusive and sustainable economy.
25 years ago, when Common Wealth for the Common Good was published, the Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission followed up with a document on Taxation and Food. This was a much more pointed and poignant document addressing a contemporary political and economic controversy of the moment. The church leaders adopting the principles of Common Wealth for the Common Good were so bold as to buy into the contemporary debate about a proposed GST saying that if such a regressive tax impacting disproportionately on the poor were introduced it should not include a tax on fresh food. Members of the Coalition went ballistic. One of the newest members of parliament was Kevin Andrews, a strong Catholic. He told the House of Representatives (15 October 1992, p. 2210):
Not only has the Commission demeaned the church with this document, it has placed in jeopardy the credibility of everything else the church may wish to say about matters of public importance. Indeed, the church runs the risk of becoming irrelevant ‘in public debate while it publishes such obviously second rate and biased material.
I revisit this quote from history to make this point. In the succeeding 25 years, the Coalition has been in government for many years. John Howard who favoured a GST on food was prime minister for many of those years. For a time, he even controlled the Senate as well as the House of Representatives. There was never any attempt to impose a GST on food once the initial deal was cut. Everyone had an understanding about the public sentiment as to what was fair and reasonable. The 25-year consensus has been that it would be unfair and downright wrong to impose a GST on fresh food. Back then Coalition members like Senator Richard Alston were writing to church leaders like Monsignor David Cappo alleging (quoted 8 October 1992, p. 1759):
To put forward a few broad moral principles about which there is no community disagreement and then claim the high moral ground on the basis of an utterly superficial attack on the GST is not even good advocacy. … Christians who propose schemes for poverty relief have a commensurate duty to know the laws of economics and do their homework. Sensible poverty policies take account of economic laws rather than childishly dismissing them as unfair.
For 25 years, the matter has been settled. We all know what is fair and decent. Back then, it was a contested issue. It required church leadership to come forward and say, ‘This would be wrong.’ The politicians retorted, ‘You don’t know your economics. You don’t know what you are talking about. Stick to your last. Make general moral statements. But don’t try and apply them to the real world of real economic and political questions.’ We must apply them, and that’s the challenge of this new statement. An inclusive and sustainable economy is everyone’s business.
The bookends of the statement are the scriptural parable from Matthew 20.
Jesus said to his disciples:
‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them into his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, ‘You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.’ So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ ‘Because no one has hired us’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You go into my vineyard too.’
We all know the rest of the story. The landowner decided to pay everyone a denarius no matter how much or how little they had worked. And most troubling of all, he decided to make trouble and to be disruptive, deciding to pay the most recent arrivals first. If only he had paid the full day labourers first. They would not have known about the gratuitous generosity of the landowner. They would have gone away satisfied that they had received a just wage, and they would have been none the wiser about the generosity of the landowner to those workers who came for only an hour or two. But he decided to pay first those who had come last, those who had worked least.
When I was a university student, I had a part time job at Queensland Newspapers placing the advertising inserts in the afternoon edition of the Daily Telegraph. The old codgers who worked all day would be paid first. They would receive three times the payment of us young uni students who worked only a couple of hours on youth wages. We all thought that was fair.
We are told that the denarius was the minimum wage needed for a dignified but frugal existence. Jesus wants to cause disruption sufficient to have us all understand that all our fellow citizens are entitled to the minimum payment needed for a frugal dignified existence no matter how much or how little we are able to work. That’s how we build an inclusive and sustainable economy.
The hard work of the document is found in the five fundamental criticisms of the current economic system, the five key principles or criteria of Catholic social teaching that are central to the development of an inclusive and sustainable economy (at pp. 12-13).
People and nature are not mere tools of production
Don’t we desperately need something like a clean energy target which can bring certainty to the market, setting rules for engagement for those competing in the market, so that we can work together for a cleaner world, a less polluted planet?
Economic growth alone cannot ensure inclusive and sustainable development
We need to be considering issues balancing the common good and individual rights. There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the basics card which has been trialled in Ceduna and the Kimberley and which is now to be expanded to Kalgoorlie. I recall Patrick Dodson prior to his entry to Senate reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the royal commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. When asked by The West Australian about the cashless welfare card about to be trialled in the East Kimberley, he told the Press Club in April 2016:
It’s an attempt to deal with the set of circumstances at a regional level that people believe that’s going to deal with some of the social impacts that are occurring that they find difficult, troubling, concerning. It’s been devised by people in that part of the world, under the leadership of people from that part of the Kimberley.
I think the Labor Party would be open to matters where regional solutions are being worked through, where people’s rights aren’t necessarily being violated, but where there is a remedy brought about that will enable an improvement to the social circumstances. Sometimes you need some kind of a circuit breaker.
Social equity must be built into the heart of the economy
In an age of budget repair, steady five-plus per cent unemployment, high underemployment, and sluggish or non-existent wage growth for most workers, it is difficult to make a mark. No matter how job ready you make the unemployed, their prospects of finding work are not going to be greatly enhanced in this environment.
We need to increase the Newstart and Youth Allowance so that it might provide a real start for assisting people to survive with dignity while preparing for and getting back into work. It’s now five years since the Business Council of Australia told the Parliament: ‘The rate of the Newstart Allowance for jobseekers no longer meets a reasonable community standard of adequacy and may now be so low as to represent a barrier to employment.’ And still there has been no increase to Newstart, and a government looking for a narrative has decided to demonise the recipients. Newstart recipients are $110 pw below the poverty line, and youth allowance recipients are $159 below the poverty line.
Business must benefit all society, not just shareholders
I commend those of you working so tirelessly in church networks to end supply chains dependent on modern slavery. We need to do more to comply with international standards.
The excluded and vulnerable must be included in decision making
Many of us in church agencies have come out strongly in recent weeks opposing compulsory drug testing of welfare recipients in three locations chosen without any consultation with the local communities, and with no consultation with health professionals expert in dealing with substance abuse. The government could not produce one health professional in support of the trial. A string of experts came forward saying that compulsory drug testing would not work. As I told the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 last week: ‘To have a trial where you do not seek the consent or guidance of the health professionals, nor of the local communities, it is no trial, it is simply a political showpiece.’
Compare this with the government’s announcement on extending the basics card. They say they do it in co-operation with the local community. They do it when the local community gets aboard committing to the delivery of the wrap around services needed if you are to achieve the desired results.
Let’s always ensure that this principle is honoured when dealing with indigenous Australians.
I commend the authors for urging us to think beyond our own borders, and beyond the present. They have placed the contemporary challenge in the context of the UN’s sustainable development goals. Here we are after 26 years of continual economic growth being seen rightly as an international player failing to pull its weight — dragging the chain on climate change, cutting our foreign aid budget, being punitive and exclusive in our treatment of asylum seekers arriving on our shores, and being unable to demonstrate any clear narrowing of the gap of inequality.
As we try to live out the sustainable development goals, let’s recall that story of the ten-year-old little girl Elise Heiss with her Dad asking how it was that the whites lived in big houses while they lived on the fringes. He told his daughter: ‘There’s them, and there’s us. It’s about equality.’ The real call of Everyone’s Business is to move beyond them and us to admitting that there is only us. If we are truly to build an inclusive and sustainable economy, it can’t be just those in full time paid employment who are part of that economy. We take seriously the principles of neo-liberalism, letting the market decide. But we set limits on the market for the common good. We call out our political leaders when they say in relation to the NDIS that we will wait for the market to set the price because it’s necessary and desirable during this time of transition that some of the providers fail. We challenge the government’s assertion that there are too many providers, while at the same time government expects that the workforce for those assisting people with disabilities will double. Where’s the neo-liberal sense in that? And what about those providers who have developed the long term relationships with people suffering a disability?
Let’s move beyond the thinking of them and us, to being only us. Let’s reject an economy of exclusion and inequality. I commend those who have put before us such a compelling mission for developing an inclusive and sustainable economy. This is truly everyone’s business. Thank you.
Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.
This article first appeared in Eureka Street on 11 September 2017