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".

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