Religion Report Interview 23 August 2006
John Falzon: Christian charity organisations and the Federal Government's new case management scheme The announcement by Catholic social services and Anglicare that they were pulling out of the Federal Government's new case management program for breached welfare recipients, is a setback for the Howard government. Almost all the Christian charities have either refused to join up or pulled out after only a few weeks, including the Uniting Church, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Mission Australia.
Stephen Crittenden: The announcement by Catholic social services and Anglicare that they were pulling out of the Federal Government's new case management program for breached welfare recipients, is a setback for the Howard government. Almost all the Christian charities have either refused to join up or pulled out after only a few weeks, including the Uniting Church, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Mission Australia. The Salvation Army is still making up its mind where it stands. And since this program first went to air this morning Hillsong has brought out a statement saying it also has reservations about the scheme and will closely monitor and assess its involvement in the days ahead. But it was John Falzon from the St Vincent de Paul Society who started the ball rolling on this program six months ago, when he declared that Vinnies would have no part in what he described as an immoral regime. Since that interview, John Falzon has become the Chief Executive Officer for the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, and with Social Services Minister, Joe Hockey, accusing the churches of turning their backs on the poor, we thought we'd invite him back. John, welcome to the program; is this a victory for the churches? Does the government have to go back to the drawing board because their program is unworkable without the church charities? Or what? John Falzon: I'd conceptualised the question differently Stephen. I would say that we're all missing the point if we see this simply in terms of a battle between the churches and the government. What's at stake here is the daily struggle of those who are already pushed to the margins; as far as we at Vinnie's are concerned it is they who are suffering and are going to suffer even more keenly, the effects of the punitive welfare laws that have come into play, especially when you see them combined with the Work Choices legislation where people are going to be pushed onto even more meagre Centrelink payments. They are really systematically being herded into an ever-cheaper pool of labour that is going to benefit some sections of society enormously. Added to that, you're going to see the increased use of the breaching mechanism which is a blunt tool, in terms of actually delivering any positive policy outcomes, but it's a very sharp weapon in terms of cutting into the hearts of families, who are already hurting incredibly. So in answer to your question is it a victory for the churches? No, I don't conceptualise this as a victory for anyone.
Stephen Crittenden: Well let me put the question a different way. Given that organisations like Vinnies have refused to sign on, other church agencies have pulled out; has that just annoyed the government? Will it change anything? John Falzon: It shines a light onto the bigger problem of what is structurally, systematically being done to further marginalise those who are at the margins of Australian society. In that sense, this debate is a very useful one, because certainly our experience at Vinnie's is that people are being made to think, and to think very critically and analytically about what is happening due to this government's harsh legislation. As far as the changes that our refusal to participate will make to the overall legislation, no, the legislation is going ahead whether the charities participate in this aspect or not. I think it certainly has caused some disappointment on the government's side. I suppose there certainly seems to have been the expectation that we would fall into line. The fact that we've spoken up quite clearly saying that this breaching regime is immoral and we will have no part in this breaching regime, to us this has been very important in galvanising our own ability to prophetically analyse from the perspective of those who are at the bottom. Stephen Crittenden: Well you just used the word 'galvanise', and you talked about being prophetic; a lot of people have put to me that your interview on this program last April actually started the ball rolling on this issue. I'm told that a lot of the churches and church agencies were galvanised by your clarity, and even a bit embarrassed. Just remind the listener of the basic point of principle that you were making. You were saying that if Vinnies accepted the government's funding to help the people the government breached, that Vinnies would be accepting the breaching regime, and that the breaching regime was immoral. Why is it immoral? John Falzon: Frederic Ozanam the founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society, put this so beautifully. Even though we're talking about a quote that comes from more than a century ago, it's so fitting to the current events. He said, 'Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is justice's role however, to prevent the attack.' Now as far as we're concerned, in 2006 in Australia it is the role of the St Vincent de Paul Society to do everything we can to prevent the attack, not to go into partnership with the attacker. We will continue to pour oil on the wounds of the traveller, we will always be there to provide charitable assistance to those who've been wounded as it were, by oppressive legislation and by the economic forces that have pushed them to the margin. We'll provide the charity but it is justice more than anything else, that these people have a right to, and we will not cease to clamour for justice. Stephen Crittenden: Well given that you're saying that, talking like that, perhaps I should get you to respond to the comment over the weekend by the Minister, Joe Hockey, who said that in pulling out of these arrangements, the churches were turning their backs on the poor. John Falzon: Well this is an amazing claim that the Minister is making. All I can say is this: we could never turn our backs on the poor, but what we are doing and what seems to upset and afflict some people, is that we're turning our backs on the government's punitive welfare laws and we're doing it because of the duty we owe precisely to the people we are assisting. Stephen Crittenden: John, does it weaken the position of the Christian church agencies to some extent that some of the agencies, like the Salvation Army, are still apparently making
up their minds whether they're in or out, while others like Hillsong have signed on. In other words, does it weaken the position that the churches aren't standing as one? John Falzon: These decisions had to be arrived at independently, internally, according to the rationale and the ethos of a particular church or charitable agency. And so it does not concern me that another charity, or another church, is deciding to respond differently. As far as I'm concerned, the strength of our position is that we are being true to the people we're assisting, we're being true to the Gospel that has called us to assist these people, and we're being true to the traditions, the whole ethos of the St Vincent de Paul Society. Stephen Crittenden: OK, so outline for us the way in which you would expect the Federal government will try and deal with this setback now. Do they ring and ask all the church agencies to reconsider? Is the government likely to offer to compromise over some of the details that the churches are unhappy about? Do they threaten that other existing programs might be defunded? If the Salvation Army still hasn't made up its mind, would it be under intense pressure at the moment? John Falzon: I really can't speak for what the government is doing or will be doing. I can say that yes, there have been efforts to interest the charities in singing up to the financial case management program. We certainly were approached even following our public statements that we would not be participating. I do see something quite concerning vis-Ă vis the role of civil society in Australia when non-government organisations are somehow being blamed or being lectured that they should have participated when they have made a decision according to their lights. But I guess we're hearing slightly contradictory messages there. Minister Hockey certainly seems to have taken that line that he's extremely disappointed with various NGOs for not participating, or for pulling out after having participated briefly. The Treasurer, on the other hand, was quoted on the weekend saying that participation in the scheme was completely a matter and a decision for the churches and agencies to make for themselves. So there are two different messages there. Of course I'm far more comfortable in terms of a healthy civil society with the latter opinion. Stephen Crittenden: John, last week on The Religion Report we looked at the dominant role that the Christian charities play in delivering social services in Australia compared with the UK or the US. Yesterday in Canberra there was a very interesting conference looking at the collapse of voluntarism and predicting a bleak landscape within a generation or so, particularly looking at the churches relying on shrinking and ageing congregations to provide the kinds of services that are provided by the members of Vinnies, and I know you always come back when you speak to your membership. What's your view about that landscape in future, and how the churches deal with this problem? John Falzon: Yes, now this is an area where the challenge is absolutely tangible, whereby we must seek to deeply and creatively engage with all levels of society to make sure that our membership base is growing, is varied and healthy, and able to do the work that is demanded of us. Stephen Crittenden: And how much of your membership base would be made up of retirees, people in their 70s? John Falzon: Yes, indeed. The situation, it's part of a bigger picture Stephen, too, that people who are in full-time paid work, people who are parents, often both parents are working, the time to participate in voluntary organisations is diminishing. Greater demands are being placed on those who have work to work even longer hours. So that's one bigger
social problem that goes beyond the volunteer organisations. Secondly, this question is being posed at a time when greater expectations are being placed on volunteer labour to do many of the things that in the past were actually being done by governments as part of their sense of responsibility to those who are disadvantaged. So that's a double whammy. The demands are increasing where the capacity to meet those demands is sometimes being stretched, where you've got the same group of people putting in extra hours. The number of people who are coming to us for assistance is not decreasing, and I'm sure I could say a similar thing for many of the other charities that are involved in the same sort of ministry in Australia today.
Guests John Falzon Chief Executive Officer for the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council ABC 2006