OPINION: Room to improve on social justice scale
REACHING OUT: Australia focuses more on economy than social development, a position that needs to change.
IN 1994, I participated in an international conference of NGOs involved in social justice as a lead-up to a world summit on social development attended by government leaders.
It was one of the few occasions when social justice advocates and government leaders appeared to agree that to achieve peace, cohesion and security within and between nations, we needed to address poverty, unemployment and integration of cultures.
The world summit reviewed its progress to achieving these goals in 2005 and the World Day of Social Justice was created in 2007.
Today, February 20, is that day.
In most countries, including Australia, economic development is always the priority. But on reflection, many would agree economic development, social development and environmental protection are interdependent and that the voices promoting economic development need to be balanced by the voices calling for social justice.
We promote social justice when we promote the rights of indigenous people and asylum seekers. We address social justice when we remove the barriers caused by gender, race, disability, ethnicity, religion, age or culture. These groups struggle with poverty, unemployment and marginalisation.
So what is our social justice score card in 2014 in these three areas?
Compared with many countries, our safety net to assist people with low incomes is quite good.
However, Samaritans continues to help 1000 individuals and families every month with emergency relief. Many have gone without food, or visits to the doctor already. Of particular concern is the low fortnightly payment of the Newstart Allowance, and the lack of affordable housing.
There’s a need for an additional 225,000 homes across Australia. Our politicians recognise the problem but have no plan to address it.
We must find a way to direct investment into low-cost housing. In NSW, we face a total restructure of support services for homeless people in 2014, but the jury is out as to whether this will lead to reduced numbers of homeless people.
Unemployment levels, low in recent years, have started to creep up. Many will lose their jobs as a result of the impending closure of Australian car making. Newcastle experienced something similar when the steelworks closed in the 1990s. And while Prime Minister Tony Abbott pointed to Newcastle as a region that made a successful transition, Samaritans witnessed much despair during the time.
We hosted support groups for older men who had lost their manufacturing roles.
What a waste of human potential as they disappeared into early retirement; some coped, others did not.
Many people are underemployed. Our region is vulnerable because of the high numbers with no post-school qualifications.
We need to be very careful about young people leaving education but unable to find work.
I like the European job guarantee where anyone under 25 leaving education is assured of a job, an apprenticeship or a traineeship after four months of unemployment.
For a nation comprising a small number of indigenous people and the rest migrants or descendants of migrants, social cohesion is quite good.
There is still a way to go on the journey to reconciliation, as has been demonstrated in this year’s report to the federal government on closing the gap. Issues such as the high rate of youth unemployment coupled with high rates of youth incarceration demand attention.
This year will be significant as we begin to discuss the proposed wording for changes to the constitution so that indigenous people are formally recognised.
Our attitudes and responses to asylum seekers are appalling; surprising in a country where almost everyone’s family has been in the same boat at some time.
So, our overall scorecard is not great. Some developed countries do better, but others are worse.
Our biggest challenge is apathy. Today is a reminder that the best countries in which to live seek to balance economic and social development.
Cec Shevels is the chief executive of the Samaritans Foundation.