Sunday, February 21, 2010

Theology as justification for government inaction: Tony Abbott on homelessness as a lifestyle choice

(images from www.2steps2com, South Queensland Council for Homeless Persons)

Last week the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott displayed his poor understanding of homelessness and then appeared to use religious theology to justify government inaction on the housing crises in Australia.

Responding to a question as to whether his Government would support the target to reduce homelessness by 50% by 2020 (as his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull did), the Opposition Leader said "no" and then went on to claim that homelessness was a lifestyle 'choice" for many people. The Opposition Leader cited the scriptures to justify his position, quoting Jesus to the effect that governments should always be careful about promising things because of "the poor that you have with you always".

Stephen Nash who is the CEO of a Melbourne homeless support agency has written a sharp rebuttal of Tony Abbott's comments. Nash argues that in 20 years working with people in housing crises he has never met a person who "choose" to be homeless. Nash argues that Abbott's comments gloss over the real problem:
"The real story hiding beneath the 'choice' furphy is that our society is failing to provide the housing and support people need to escape from homelessness... At the core of this problem is the lack of affordable housing"
In the online Catholic publication Eureka St Andrew Hamilton's concern is theological. He argues that Tony Abbott's theological argument is flawed and he has misinterpreted and taken out of context the words purported to be used by Jesus. Hamilton argues that they are not a Christian justification for government inaction.

John Falzon from St Vincent De Paul is damming. He finds the Opposition Leader's comments deeply offensive in that they blame people for being left out or pushed out. Falzon writes:
" Choices are constrained by those who have been systematically locked out of the nation's prosperity... But of course such a world view lets governments off the hook. It denies the reality of the social"
Falzon situates Tony Abbott's comments in a policy prescription he describes as the "The New Paternalism", an approach to social policy making that assumes people are largely to blame for their own marginalization. Falzon sumarises the assumptions underlying this approach as follows:
".. that people who are marginalised are naturally without power; that power rests with those who deserve it, that those with power can, at best, use their power to bring about a change in the behaviour of those without power; and that the problems experienced by people who are marginalised are their own problems, but bleed into the 'mainstream' through increased costs, increased crime, loss of productivity, market constraints and disorder"
Falzon argues that these ideas are both unproven and pernicious, and lead to people being pathologised or criminalised. His view is that:
"Nothing good can come out of these approaches. They are cursed by their lack of compassion and also by their denial of justice".

Friday, February 12, 2010

Civil society protesting the Winter Olympics

(image courtesy of the Vancouver Olympic Resistance Network)

As the Australian media ramps up coverage and commercial hype about the Winter Olympics, another story goes untold here in Australia. In Vancouver there is growing heat on the streets as more residents and civil society groups express anger at the negative impact of the Winter Olympics on their City.

In a recent piece my favourite sports journalist Dave Zirin cites surveys that suggest up 70% of Vancouver residents feel that too much is being spent on the Olympics and 30 % believe that the impact will be largely negative. Civil society concerns are many, namely:
  1. The massive and growing cost of the Olympics is adding billions of dollars of future debt to the public purse. This debt grows daily due to the rising cost of the massive security presence and emerging problems, such as the need to helicopter snow to the venues.
  2. The commercialization and corporate control of the Olympics is so pervasive and is largely driven by the desire to increase corporate profits.
  3. Public spending is being redirected to the Olympics away from social programs and poverty reduction programs.
  4. Billions is being spent on security, resulting in the "overt militarization of Vancouver" including visible troops in the street, huge increase in police, helicopters and jet flights over the City. private security firms operating everywhere and enclosure of large parts of public lands and public space.
  5. The negative environmental impact of the Games including mountain blasting, clear cutting, road construction, expanded infrastructure for for mining and logging interests.
  6. The crackdown on dissent and protest and erosion of civil liberties which has seen independent journalists detained and deported and attempts to suppress anti-Olympics protest.
  7. The exploitation of the native title rights of Indigenous Canadian people.
  8. Damage to communities resulting from rise in real estate prices, unaffordable housing, movement of homeless and poor people off the streets, profiling and lock downs of certain groups and communities.
The Vancouver Olympic Resistance Network which was was formed to highlight the real costs of the Games lays out its concerns here. The concerns of First Nations people can be read here.

To coincide with the opening ceremony and start of the Games a People's Summit and public protests are planned in Vancouver this weekend.