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St Vincent de Paul head calls for greater emphasis on social justice

Michael Persusco

Australia needs to do more to help people experiencing disadvantage and to promote social justice, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society in NSW, Mr Michael Perusco, told Warrane residents recently.

Speaking at the College on Wednesday 30 April 2014, Mr Perusco he started by talking about his views on social justice.

He explained that there are people in our community that are not afforded the same opportunities, skills, freedoms, earning potential, family experience for many different reasons.  One of the aspects of a capitalist system, the system that we have chosen as the best one in which to organize ourselves, is that in its purist for it does not tend take account of an individuals’ weaknesses and tends to leave people to fend for themselves.

“As a society we can either acknowledge this and decide that that is the way things should be or we could say that in certain circumstances we should as a community need to step in to address issues impacting individuals or groups in the interests of justice and fairness.”

He outlined many examples where Australians had chosen as a community to step in because the alternative was unacceptable. These included establishing Aged and disability pensions and unemployment benefits — things that were not common in some parts of the world.

“We are a very wealthy nation and we have the luxury of making choices about these issues and tend to have a constant debate about whether the level of assistance is adequate.”

Recent topics of debate included Australia’s level of foreign aid and the level of the Newstart Allowance — currently at $35 a day.

“This Coalition Government and the previous Labor government have said they couldn’t afford to increase it and said it was going to be a disincentive to people looking for work.

“But organisations like ours, and interestingly many businesses and business leaders, are now recognising that that payment is too low and I think that is a pretty reasonable position when you consider that only one percent of private rental properties in Sydney  are affordable to people who are on Newstart and there is a waiting list of 50,000 people for public housing.

Mr Perusco said one of the issues underlying the debate was the view that if you make Newstart allowance too high it is going to be a “disincentive for people to look for work”. He argued this view was “very misleading”.

“It is extremely tough to live on the Newstart Allowance. There is no way that anyone aspires to live on the Newstart Allowance. There are a very small number of people who receive Newstart who shouldn’t and the Federal government spends tens of millions of dollars to identify fraud.

Pointing out that the increase that has been called for is $50 a week, he said this amount certainly would not stop anyone from looking for work. “We need to realise s that there is a lot of value placed on having a job in our society and it’s not just the fact that you get paid on a weekly or fortnightly, it is about playing an active role in our community.

“Not being a part of that can eat away at the way someone feels about themselves and when you feel bad about yourself it makes it even harder to get a job. And it is not surprising that you turn to things that on the surface make you feel better about yourself but over the long term are obviously not good for you.”

Mr Perusco said there were particular problems with inter-generational unemployment. There were now unemployed people who had unemployed parents and the risk of them having kids who were also going to have kids who would be unemployed was “ very high”.

“The way to address this issue is not to set Newstart at a very low level,” he said. “The way to address this issue is to address the challenges that people are facing and invest in them in a way where they are going to get jobs and they are going to participate fully in the community.

“I think it is also the case that when you are growing up in a family where no-one is working that limits your view of the world. It limits your views of what opportunities are available to you. And we have to recognise that and address it.’

Mr Perusco pointed out that Australia is a very prosperous nation and the envy of most other countries, with high employment levels, high school completion rates, and high life expectancy.

“While things are good for most of us,  there are also a number of challenges. We know that there are gaps when it comes to indigenous Australians, particularly, when it comes to health, mortality rates, life expectancy, literacy, numeracy.

“Our housing market is out of control. It is creating huge gains for a small percentage of people, and at the same time it is forcing other people into poverty and homelessness.One in seven children are growing up in homes where no-one is working. There are one hundred thousand people who are homeless each night.”

Speaking of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Mr Perusco said its founder, Frederic Ozanam was very interested in the structural drivers of poverty. He also raised issues like reasonable wage levels and reasonable hours for workers to be with their families — ideas that were extremely radical for the day.

“(Frederic Ozanam) said we have to understand the underlying realities that drive people into poverty and we have to challenge those unjust structures as well as provide immediate assistance,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Mr Perusco was asked if the Australian Government had done enough to tackle long-term unemployment.

He said this was one thing that had been neglected for far too long due to the good economic times and generally low unemployment that Australia had been experiencing. He pointed out that despite the general prosperity some regions were experiencing 30 percent youth unemployment. Due to past neglect, he predicted that when the Government did get around to trying to do something about long-term unemployment the task would be very difficult.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]