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Bishops call for an economy that serves all

Thursday 7 September 2017

Andrew Hamilton, Eureka Street
In church documents scriptural stories are often used as decoration or to calm the horses when contentious issues arise.

The 2017-2018 Australian Catholic Social Justice Statement on the economy, Everyone's Business — Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy, opens with one of the most intriguing of Jesus' parables: the landowner who hired new workers at each hour of the day but paid them all one denarius no matter how long they had worked. And was unapologetic about it.

The usual conclusion drawn from this parable is that God does not act like a good businessman but as a benefactor. But the statement notes that the denarius was then the living wage, which all workers, full-time or part-time, should be paid. The landowner was doing what he should have done. The appeal to scripture here is a burr under the horse's saddle.

The general argument of the statement, which resonates with Australian sentiment today, is that Australia is a wealthy economy in which too many people are marginalised. A moral compass is needed so that the economy serves all Australians and not vice versa.
 Photo: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
The most vulnerable Australians include the lowest paid, often in part-time work, those living on income support, those at risk of homelessness, and Indigenous Australians. They are affected by the move to short term contracts and casual employment, by minimum wages insufficient to support a family, and by the refusal of many employers to contribute to superannuation or to pay due wages.

Because of high unemployment many people remain on social security for a long time. The benefits paid leave people beneath the poverty line and often have punitive and shaming conditions attached to them. Indigenous Australians are particularly disadvantaged by almost every criteria, face the abandonment of their communities and are subject routinely to fines and humiliation.

In addition, corporations take advantage of lax regulation to increase charges for necessary services, collude, avoid taxes and rip off clients. Such practices burden people with high costs and deprive governments of the revenue needed to support social institutions.
‘The common good requires that we build educational resources that animate people to contribute creatively, health resources designed to prevent illness and limit sustained dependence on the community, and social and penal structures that help people overcome alienation and connect them to society.’

In response to this litany of neglect and abuse the statement calls for a new view of the economy as the servant of people, and not vice versa. It echoes Pope Francis' trenchant criticism: 'Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.'

To ensure that the waiting time is shortened the statement calls for Australians to stop seeing people as tools of production to be used and discarded: to recognise that economic growth is not equivalent to sustainable growth; to ensure that the economy serves social equity; to make businesses responsible not only for profiting their shareholders but for serving the common good; and to include the marginal and vulnerable in making decisions that concern them.

The practical steps to be taken in enshrining this perspective on the economy include progressive tax reform to limit benefits received by the wealthy and to check avoidance; ensuring that banks and superannuation funds invest in productive activities that offer long term benefits; structuring social programs to help people find opportunities to contribute to society over their lifetime; building infrastructure for development through education and employment; and strengthening local communities to care for vulnerable people in society.

The topic of the statement is timely. It picks up public concern about gross inequality and about the indecency revealed almost daily by so many businesses. It rightly points to the need for a conversion that will enable us to see the defects of our present economic order and to make changes that will be beneficial. The examples of remedies proposed are mainly apt to purpose.

I would have liked to see in the statement more development of the appeal to the common good. One of the reasons why economic reform is so hard is that is seen commonly as a zero sum with winners and losers. It is regarded as inherently conflictual. So economic reform is seen either as the politics of envy or the rich copping their comeuppance.

The focus on the common good supposes that economic reform is cooperative, and must be designed to sustain both personal and communal economic growth. The common good requires that we build educational resources that animate people to contribute creatively, health resources designed to prevent illness and limit sustained dependence on the community, and social and penal structures that help people overcome alienation and connect them to society. Such public investment will save greater public costs for hospitals and prisons.

In a society where wealth is radically unequally distributed, the service of the common good will require measures of redistribution. But because the redistribution leads to a more sustainable and fair economy all will benefit from it. Perhaps the economically crazy landowner of the parable may have been on the right economic track after all.

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Read this article on Eureka Street. 
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