Pope Francis' field hospital

Much is being made of theinterview with Pope Francis that was released early Friday morning. In particular the section where he compares the Church to a field hospital after battle and the first question is 'How are we treating the people of God?' The Pope's main point is that rules don't become a consideration until the wounded are healed.

In a similar vein, Vinnies CEO John Falzon said on Friday: 'There is no place in Australia for the kind of policy approach that equates to condemning people for not being able to walk up stairs while refusing to build a ramp.'

Discussing the Federal Government's Work for the Dole Scheme, he said the Government will do nothing to increase employment participation 'if it chooses to demonise people'.

Pope Francis says: 'We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.'

Falzon also insists that people must be accompanied and empowered where they are, and not have to wait until they fulfil various qualification criteria. 'People who are unemployed should never be forced to live in poverty. This is why Newstart still needs to be urgently increased by $50 a week.'

The odds are always against anybody who lives in poverty, especially in isolation. When those who are desperate feel they are being punished — or continuing to be punished if they have left prison — they simply become more desperate and follow a perilous course. They sit on the margins of society, often demonised for the addictions they inevitably fall prey to. 

To use Francis' term, if they are accompanied, rather than punished, they are more likely to rise out of poverty.

A particularly powerful media presentation of accompaniment was Steve Cannane's hour-long ABC radio interview with Sister Anne Jordan last Monday. She is coordinator of Cana Communities, a Sydney-based organisation dealing with people who have become homeless through mental illness and addiction, or are unable to make a start after leaving prison.

She says an 'arms length' approach to former prisoners does not help them to re-establish a life, and inevitably leads them to reoffend. '[Society] gives them $200 and say go get a job and a house. How can you do that? You can't even get a place to live in Sydney for that ... We need the community attitude to be one of welcome.'

That may be difficult if their behaviour is antisocial, according to our way of thinking. Jordan even tells of people she has welcomed setting fire to the shelter she has given them, and that this has not stopped her from welcoming them again after time away.

Francis' message is that people on the margins tend not to follow the rules, but that is a long-term goal that is secondary to the accompaniment we offer them as the first and most urgent priority.

Further reading: 2013 Social Justice Statement 'Lazarus at our Gate'

Julie Bishop's opportunity to press PNG on death penalty

Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill has declared his resolve to see the death penalty handed to the murderers of two porters killed during last Tuesday's attack on a group of Australian and New Zealand trekkers. 

'These are appalling crimes, and they attract the death penalty under laws passed by the parliament since the last election,' he said. 'At a time when we are seeking to increase tourism these crimes are an obvious setback — but we must not let them deter tourists visiting PNG, and our own people helping visitors in their travels.'

In May, PNG passed legislation to promote its use of the death penalty, following a number of high-profile and violent crimes such as rape, robbery and sorcery-related murder. Capital punishment had never been outlawed but there have been no executions since 1954, when PNG was administered by Australia.

Soon after the legislation went through parliament, then Australian foreign minister Bob Carr voiced our opposition to capital punishment during a visit to Port Moresby: 'I said to foreign minister Pato, Australia is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances and we never cease to make that clear.'

In the wake of O'Neill's vow to make the attackers face the death penalty for their crimes against the trekking party that included Australian nationals, Australia's incoming foreign minister Julie Bishop needs to remind PNG that Australia remains opposed to the death penalty, and that PNG will curry no favour with Australia by executing criminals who harmed Australians. The involvement of the Australians as victims gives us the opportunity to make a representation without necessarily interfering in the sovereign affairs of another nation.

O'Neill is behaving brazenly when he makes it clear that, in seeking the death penalty, he is more driven by a desire to protect the country's tourism industry than seeing justice administered for its own sake. In a statement that eerily echoes the current state sponsored blood bath in Syria, PNG's Catholic bishops criticised the capital punishment legislation 'that draws Papua New Guinea closer to the point of legally killing its own citizens'.

In a statement released in May and signed by Archbishop Douglas Young of Mt Hagen, they were particularly worried that the enacting of the capital punishment legislation looked like a covert exercise of executive authority that lacked accountability:

It seems that the legislation was passed 'on the voices' thereby making it difficult for many voters to know the actual stand of their own members. The Attorney General noted that there had been widespread debate in the public forum but he did not indicate who had won the debate. Only the decision of the government.

The passing of legislation in such a dubious manner, and now the idea that humans can be executed in an effort to demonstrate to foreigners that PNG is a safe tourist destination, is a sign that PNG's law and order problem can be traced not just to an unruly criminal element, but to the country's rulers themselves. 

The moral point of difference between Labor and the Coalition

There was cause for celebration on Saturday night for both the Coalition and Labor. The Coalition was able to claim a decisive victory in the Federal Election, and Labor defied expectations and remains viable. But not so for vulnerable people overseas who will lose their Australian foreign aid lifeline so that the Coalition can fund its election promises.

Last Thursday, then opposition leader Tony Abbott announced the Coalition's proposal to cut $4.5 billion from Australia’s foreign aid program over the next four years. The proposed deep cuts to foreign aid will be used to pay for improvements to the nation’s infrastructure. 

In other words, people will die so that we can have better roads. This is consistent with the tough asylum seeker policies of both the Coalition and Labor which lead to people drowning at sea so that we may have more secure borders. It is even more scandalous if we consider that, for some time, funds have been diverted from the foreign aid budget to help cover the cost of running detention centres and prosecuting other aspects of government policy on asylum seekers. This has diminished the dignity of people, not helped to promote it, which is a major goal of foreign aid.

Caritas acting CEO Helen Forde suggested in a statement on Sunday morning that the amount of $4.5 billion in foreign aid could save up to 450,000 lives.

'As a nation we are more than capable of continuing our commitment to the world’s poor and we call on Tony Abbott as the next Prime Minister to reverse the proposal to cut $4.5 billion over the next four years. We are saddened by the increasing habit of our political leaders in diverting and proposing cuts to our foreign aid budget to pay for their domestic policy costs such as processing asylum seekers and building better infrastructure like roads.'

The $4.5 billion cut in foreign aid comes after both the Coalition and Labor backed away from a promise made during the last election campaign that by 2015, 50 cents in every $100 of GNI (Gross National Income) would be spent on foreign aid.

Duncan MacLaren is a former Caritas international secretary general who now teaches international development studies at the Australian Catholic University. He pointed out in an article for Eureka Streetthat well targeted foreign aid can represent very good value for money 'if owned by the people it was meant for, if there are adequate training components, if it doesn't encourage dependency, if it is channelled through local community-based organisations and if, in a world where violence simmers under the surface of many societies, it fosters peace'.

But increasingly it has been tied to purchasing Australia's goods and services, which is actually trade rather than development aid.

We can only hope that, if not reversed, the $4.5 cut over the next four years will represent a point of difference between the major political parties that has been lacking in asylum seeker policy. Labor might tap the Australian people's openness to facing moral challenges that were part of Rudd's successful pitch in the 2007 election campaign.

Parent education is better than child protection

As Child Protection Week begins, there are calls for the removal of NSW Family and Community Services minister Pru Goward for misleading parliament on her department’s chronic incapacity to protect children who are at risk of abuse. 

Awareness of the pressing need to protect children is at an all time high, partly due to the torrent of revelations of church sexual abuse and the setting up of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We know that neglect and abuse within families is also rampant, and arguably much more difficult to act upon. The recent harrowing account of a day in the life of a DoCS caseworker  published in the Fairfax papers suggests the problem is out of control.

But maximising child protection measures is only one step towards providing for young people’s emotional and physical well being. In itself, child protection is like giving vulnerable young people a security guard. They’re less likely to be abused, but they’re also unlikely to be empowered to grow as self-reliant human beings. For that, we need to honour them with constant respect and, most importantly, teach people how to do this when they become parents.

Respect is something parents do when they pay attention to their children in a loving rather than controlling manner. They enter into their child’s world and listen to their perspective as seriously as they do that of their adult friends. If something has to be dismissed as improbable, it’s the idea and not the child that must be cast aside. Affirmation is often a particular challenge for parents who were themselves brought up in an abusive home environment where the rule of the stick prevailed.

In schools, it achieves little to control bullying by putting a protective wall around children who are vulnerable. Instead modern personal development programs are teaching them how to offer and command respect, from both adults and their contemporaries. This includes lessons about power and control, how to identify when power is being misused, and what they can do about it. For those who are not themselves involved in the bullying, there is the distinction between the passive bystander and the active bystander.

Child protection commands attention from governments that personal development education programs could never hope to achieve. That is understandable, given that there are 60,000 children in the community whose lives are so dangerous at home that they need monitoring by child protection services. But a boost to education programs that teach people how to put the well being of children – and that of their struggling parents – at the centre of public policy will surely take the pressure off governments to provide child protection services.

A Martin Luther King dream for Australia

This week we celebrate one of the greatest milestones in the advancement of civil rights in the USA, Martin Luther King’s August 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech. It is remembered for its arresting rhetoric, and also its vision for a future in which his children would ‘not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’.

The context was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at a time when opportunity was routinely denied to African Americans. The dream was that the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ guaranteed to all Americans in the country’s founding documents might indeed apply to all Americans regardless of skin colour. In a hopeful sign that dreams are rooted in reality, African Africans were progressively given opportunity and America now has its first black president.

King’s words have implications for the human rights of people all over the world, in particular those who are guaranteed rights by a particular convention or declaration but denied them by the political masters of the day. In Australia in 2013, it is relevant to the rights guaranteed to asylum seekers by the 1951 Refugee Convention but denied by political leaders of the two major parties.

If King arrived by boat seeking asylum in Australia today, his vision might be for a future in which his children would not be judged by how they got here but by the content of their character. He would be faced with the denial of opportunity to work and live freely by the harsh rules that apply to asylum seekers, especially with the likely revival of temporary protection visas.

In America 50 years ago, many whites associated African Americans with crime and delinquency, and consequently the content of the character was assumed to be poor. In cases where the character of African Americans was poor, it was invariably a result of their having been denied opportunity. Without jobs and freedom, human beings tend to drift towards lives that are held back by petty crime and drug addiction.

It is no different with asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Some political leaders persist in using the erroneous term ‘illegal’ arrivals, and this encourages Australians who don’t know any better to regard them as criminals who should not be given an opportunity to settle here. Without the opportunity to work or live freely, they suffer psychologically and they are indeed more likely to commit crime or suffer from drug addiction. 

Asylum seekers dream of life in another country in which they can enjoy the rights that belong to them as human beings. Such dreams are in fact rooted in reality, as we know from the practice of previous decades when asylum seekers arriving by boat from Indo China were judged not by how they got here but by the content of their character. Several decades on, the good character of the arrivals has produced better opportunity for all Australians, with a stronger economy and population diversity.

Labor's performance enhancing drug

We can go on acting as if the moral rectitude of our public institutions is intact when they have outrageously let us down. This week sport was once again in the spotlight, with esteemed Australian cyclist Stuart O'Grady admitting he was a former drug cheat.

O'Grady told the Adelaide Advertiser that he took a performance enhancing drug during the two weeks before the 1998 Tour de France. Within hours of his confession, the Australian Olympic Committee instructed him to resign from its Athletes' Commission. It said O'Grady would no longer be remembered as a 'fantastic competitor' but as an 'athlete who succumbed to the temptation of drugs in sport just to get an edge on some of his fellow riders'.

We routinely excuse young people who make poor choices for what appear good reasons. O'Grady said in theAdvertiser interview that as a 24-year-old in 1998, he felt he had to use the drugs to be competitive in the Tour de France during what he described as the sport's 'dirtiest era'.

Arguably this is consistent with the 'winning at all costs' personal ethic that he articulates in the biodata section of his Twitter feed: 'I do everything 100 per cent, otherwise it's not worth doing'. According to his thinking at the time, everything counted as preparation, and saying no to performance enhancing drugs would have put him below the 100 per cent standard he'd set himself. 

This 'whatever it takes' approach to the ethics of sport eschews the traditional personal integrity argument that it's taking part that counts, not winning. It calls to mind the legendary 'whatever it takes' approach to politics of former Labor numbers man turned commentator Graham Richardson. This still guides Richardson's thinking, and indeed it led him to heartily endorse Labor's PNG boat arrival solution in The Australian on Friday, when he described it as 'cruel, heartless, risky and politically brilliant'. 

Like O'Grady's drugs in 1998, the PNG solution has made Labor fiercely competitive. If it gets them across the line, in years to come the party elders will perhaps look back and admit they had sacrificed what reallycounts for short-term political gain. They will ponder the principles that led many of them into politics, perhaps in terms not too dissimilar to Stuart O'Grady in his confession interview:

I spent my whole childhood dreaming of racing for Australia and every moral gene in my body was anti-doping and anti-cheating ... Then all of a sudden I was on my own in Europe getting my arse kicked and knowing it was around you (which) opened the option for bad judgement.

A legal tax rort is still a rort

The decision to tighten fringe benefits tax (FBT) rules is causing grief for the Government, with struggling car manufacturers and more than 320,000 affected voters crying foul. To fund the bringing forward of the switch to an emissions trading scheme, those with salary packaged motor vehicles will need to log and declare the proportion of their driving that is for business. 

Contrary to the spirit of the tax system, many FBT claimants use their cars for mainly private purposes. The existing formula-based calculation gives them a significant financial advantage that amounts to a legal tax rort. They will lose under the new rules. On the other hand, those who use their cars almost exclusively for business will come out ahead. That is how it should be.

Currently Australians on high and middle incomes benefit from the fortuitous nature of the existing rules. Some relatively lower paid workers rely on the loophole to balance their family budgets. Smaller businesses could suffer under the change, with the logging requirement likely to prove a costly burden. But essentially the existing system is stacked against those who are struggling. The poor are subsidising an unintended tax concession for the better off, as they do with debatable but intended tax concessions such as superannuation incentives and the negative gearing of investment losses.

Much media attention has been given to the plight of workers in the salary packaging and car manufacturing industries, some of whom are already losing their jobs as the sectors are reported to be hit hard by the announcement of the new rules. It seems churlish to think of the prosperity these industries have enjoyed due the FBT legal loophole as 'ill gotten'. But there is an argument for that if we consider the spirit rather than the letter of the tax law. Perhaps it would be fairer to put it that they have operated under a business model that is based on profiting from a loophole that they should have anticipated might one day be closed, and that day has come.

The industries resented not being consulted about the change. But as treasurer Chris Bowen said very succinctly when he shrugged off the criticism: 'This is a matter of the integrity of the tax system.' A tax system that makes compromises with sectional interests is by definition corrupt and turning its back on the common good that it has been set up to serve.

Facts alone won't save Australia's fatuous political agenda

In the midst of widespread disillusionment with Australian politics, there is suddenly hope for improvement. Contest is a vital ingredient of democracy, and the ALP's recent change of leadership has suddenly made the party competitive during this year's federal election campaign. 

In a further surprise, the contest is likely to be enriched by a standard of truthfulness that we have not seen in many years. This is the promise of new fact-checking websites, including The Conversation's Election Fact-Check, former Fairfax editor Peter Fray's PolitiFact, The Australia Institute's Facts Fight Back, and the fact checking reports to be presented by journalist John Barron on ABC news and current affairs programs. 

But while the fact checkers will promote a new element of rigour in the campaign, the quality of debate will remain compromised by a lack of scrutiny on what determines the political agenda, which is the necessarily limited range of topics that are debated. It is one thing to be able to trust facts that we are presented with, but another to know that they are relevant to our wellbeing as a nation. 

It is pleasing that PolitiFact is able to demonstrate that foreign minister Bob Carr's claim that boat people 'are not people fleeing persecution ... they are coming here as economic migrants' is 'mostly false'. But even if Carr's claim was mostly true, how does discussion of the comparatively small number of economic migrants justify its place on the agenda, compared with issues such as the mental health of Australia's youth? 

Which of these two issues has more bearing on our future wellbeing? While mental health has largely fallen off the agenda, others — such as inheritance taxes — are kept off the agenda. It has to be asked whether this is by design, and whose design it is.

The formation of the political agenda should be the result of a rational and orderly process that is transparent and based on good argument and solid evidence. But more often it's either ad hoc, or determined by popular media and various lobbies and sectional interests. We could use a 'PolitiAgenda' website, which would undoubtedly demonstrate the fatuous nature of what makes up much of the national agenda. 

We would set ourselves up for a better future if we allowed academic researchers to become more influential, as they are able to challenge old assumptions and set out blueprints for new possibilities. Popular media, on the other hand, too often hold us back.

We only need to compare the list of articles in The Conversation — set up to communicate university research findings — with the rundown of Ray Hadley's morning show on radio 2GB. Hadley's agenda is no doubt informed by the 'common touch', which in itself is a positive. But it is not equipped to map the nation's future in the way the academic research is.

Inconvenient advice for a business-friendly prime minister

One of Kevin Rudd's key points of difference with Julia Gillard lies in his determination to project a business-friendly image for himself and the ALP, which may have something to do with his decision to dump former parliamentary secretary Andrew Leigh from the front bench. Although Leigh was a Gillard backer, he is a former ANU economist who is regarded as Australia's leading inequality expert and unsympathetic to the demands of big business on government.

Coincidentally he has just published a book targeting income inequality, Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in AustraliaIn media interviews during the week, he pointed out that since the 1970s, 'we've seen the top 1 per cent double, we've seen about $400 billion shifted from the bottom 99 per cent to the top 1 per cent. CEO salaries have gone from an average of $1 million to $3 million in the top hundred firms, and we've seen stratospheric increase in consumption in the things the super-rich enjoy, like waterfront homes, Porches, Maseratis, even cocaine.'

When John Howard introduced WorkChoices in 2005, he argued that a prosperous business sector would produce more jobs and benefits for ordinary Australians. Leigh says that while inequality does boost economic growth and the nation's GDP, the increased wealth does not trickle down to those at the bottom to any significant extent. His view is that inequality is socially divisive and demands serious policy attention. 

Increasingly it is recognised as a public health issue, and that it demands a political response. Epidemiologist Robert Douglas ponders the political implications of our comparatively high levels of mental disorder, suicide, lack of trust, mortality, communal violence and teenage pregnancy. 'Could the preoccupation of the Coalition with deregulation of labour markets and market solutions make matters worse? And could the Australian Labor Party, with its traditional concern for equity and redistribution, make things better?'

Other epidemiologists have contributed to the debate, most notably Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their controversial 2009 popular academic work The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, which was based on a study of the top and bottom 20 per cent of income earners in 21 rich developed market economies. They found that 'bigger income differences lead to bigger social distances up and down the status hierarchy, increasing feelings of superiority and inferiority and adding to status competition and insecurity. Some of the causal links are known: the effects of chronic stress on the immune and cardiovascular system.'

While Leigh has some doubts about such arguments, he is certain 'we need a government that has means-tested social security, that invests disproportionately in improving the education of the most disadvantaged, and which rigorously tests social programs ... using randomised trials, rather than just say-so and ideology'.

Possibly inconvenient advice for a business-friendly prime minister.

Rudd's shifting moral high ground

When he was first prime minister, Kevin Rudd lost the support of the people when he put off legislation for a carbon emissions trading scheme. He'd shirked what he had identified as the 'greatest moral challenge of our time'. Facing that challenge was part of the mandate given to him by electors, who had also embraced Rudd's wider moral project, which included the apology to the Stolen Generations, the wind back of inhumane asylum seeker policies and the repeal of WorkChoices.

As we know, he was spooked by the Coalition's sudden populist change in direction on climate change, and lost his nerve. But three years later, he's back. Moral purpose has once again become part of the agenda, at least in the sense that he said in his statement on Thursday that he is 'resuming' with 'humility and honour' the task given to him by the Australian people in 2007. 

Commentary in the past week from Rudd supporter Maxine McKew suggests as much. She argues that, with regard to charting the course for the nation's future prosperity, Australians could well be ready for Rudd's 'moral dimension', and the burden-sharing and self-sacrifice that involves. 'The recent ready acceptance of a mandated levy to pay for the country's National Disability Insurance program suggests Australians are perfectly capable of signing on to sensible proposals that are seen to benefit the wider community.'

That is certainly consistent with the moral goodwill that was in evidence when the Australian people elected the Rudd Government in 2007. But it also belies the wisdom accepted by many political leaders that they must demonstrate a harsh attitude to asylum seekers or face an electoral rout in Western Sydney and elsewhere. 

This is reflected in an early clear signal of Rudd's new policy intentions. He told colleagues during the week that he would not 'lurch to the left' on asylum seekers. Subsequently, foreign minister Bob Carr was on message when he said on Lateline on Thursday that the situation has changed and most boat arrivals are now economic migrants rather than genuine asylum seekers. 

Policy advocate John Menadue immediately pointed tofigures contradicting Carr's proposition. But the Foreign Minister appears deaf to such voices and has quickly adjusted his own rhetoric to conform to the Rudd moral purpose narrative. He is boldly asserting that the Rudd Government's moral credentials are intact, by framing boat arrivals as a law and order matter and not a moral issue. 'I say to those Australians who believe this country ought to distinguish itself by its decency to refugees, the problem in front of us measurably has changed.'

No doubt that is just what the voters of Western Sydney need to hear before deciding to give their Labor local members another chance. 

Significantly the 'change' has occurred in the interregnum between the two Rudd prime ministerships. Therefore it is possible to morally justify Rudd's 'lurch to the right on asylum seekers' now in a way that such a shift could not be sanctioned when Rudd criticised Gillard's apparent resolve to move in that direction on the night he lost office to her in June 2010.

Rudd skeptics such as the ABC's Scott Stephens regard the Rudd moral purpose narrative as a furphy. Time will tell whether he is right and Maxine McKew is wrong.