Social justice statement from Bruce Duncan

Everyone’s Business: Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy.

Duncan.SJ Statement 2017-18.

SUMMARY  of: Everyone’s Business: Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy.

Bruce Duncan, Zoom session Catholic Earthcare, Tuesday 15 September 2020.

Three years ago the Australian bishops issued a Social Justice Statement which is extremely relevant to the economic crises we are facing today. It was entitled Everyone’s Business: Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy.

The title said it all: we needed a new commitment to refashion our economy so that everyone has fair and reasonable life prospects, and that we also face the enormous challenge of climate change and iving sustainably on our troubled planet.

Rereading the document now, I am struck by how prescient it was. We did not know then of course that the tiny coronavirus would bring the whole world economy to its knees. Alas Covid-19 is still ravaging people in every corner of the world, and we can only hope that vaccines will soon be found to stop it in its tracks.

But the world was already is serious trouble before Covid-19, as Pope Francis pointed out in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ and elsewhere, and is about to reiterate next month with a new encyclical on these very matters.

Why should the Church be speaking on such economic matters, one might ask? Because the Scriptures and Gospels demand that we act justly, that people be paid just wages, and especially that we come to the aid of the poor, hungry and distressed. In God’s eyes, everyone is precious, and God expects us to treat others accordingly. In the parable of the Last Judgment, Jesus says that he identifies personally with all who are hungry, naked or in jail. ‘That was me you saw’.

The bishops’ Statement insists that the Church is not intruding on the disciplines of economics or other social sciences, but is speaking to the moral issues in seeking universal human wellbeing and protecting the environment  threatened by global warming and climate change.

Bishop Vincent Long, Chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops Social Justice Council said, ‘The Statement is inspired by the teachings of Jesus and by the unswerving vision of Pope Francis: that the most vulnerable and excluded…  need to take first place in our hearts and in our actions as individuals and as a society’. He noted that ‘hundreds of thousands of people find themselves in poverty even though they have a job.’  (p.2).

Our Indigenous people suffer added disadvantage and are vastly overrepresented in youth detention and imprisonment. Indigenous people are 13 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous peoples, and their life expectancy is about ten years shorter than other Australians.

The housing crisis had largely priced younger generations out of home ownership, many experience rental stress, some 200,000 were on waiting lists for social housing, with more than 100,000 people being technically homeless. The document noted that the real cost of housing had increased by 250 per cent since the mid-1990s. Prices were forced up by inadequate housing supply, lack of social housing, overly generous negative gearing, capital gains tax concessions and investor demand. (p.7)

The Statement noted the increasingly precarious nature of poorly paid and part-time jobs, and with Pope Francis blamed ‘extreme versions of free-market economics’ for growing inequality, despite Australians in 2016 having ‘the world’s second-highest average net wealth per person’. However the wealth of the top 20% increased by 28% from 2004 to 2012, while those in the bottom 20% increased by just 3%. According to the Australian Council of Social Services, three million Australians, including 730,000 children, were living in poverty in 2015 (p. 5).

What has gone wrong? The Statement blames the extreme free market economic ideology (often termed neoliberalism) that radically changed our economy so that economic benefits were skewed to the wealthy at the expense of the working and middle classes. Deregulation of labour markets resulted in people working on short-term contracts and casual, part-time employment, especially for younger workers in food services, retail and accommodation.  Despite improved productivity, average wages have stagnated, and low-income wages have fallen below a living wage. Women and single parents have been particularly affected. Particularly outrageous is the Newstart allowance which after inflation had not been increased since 1994. In May 2017, there were 730,000 unemployed.

The Statement noted shocking reports of wage exploitation by major firms, with widespread underpayment of young people and visa workers, migrants and people with disabilities.

 ‘Competition policies without adequate regulation have meant that excessive power has been placed in the hands of private interests’, as in gas and electricity services. There has been excessive privatisation of government services and ‘concentration of power, notably in essential services such as supermarkets, petrol, road infrastructure, prisons and media’ (p. 9). In addition, the nation was stunned by revelations of scandalous malpractice in major corporations, particularly in the banking and insurance industries, at a time of record profits and remuneration to senior staff.

Pope John Paul II warned ‘a radical capitalist ideology could spread’, and insisted that markets needed to adequately regulated to ensure they worked fairly (p.11).

The 2017 Statement listed five key pointers on our moral compass.

  1. The market must not be a place where ‘the strong subdue the weak’. We need to review our economic systems to operate with greater respect for persons, and take urgent care of the environment and sustainability of resources.
  2. The Church rejects an ‘ideology of the market’ that ignores social and distributive justice. It deplores the astonishing extremes of wealth globally. The Church insists that to work justly, markets need the guidance the moral values in cultures, customs, law and religion.
  3. Common good includes all the goods that contribute to universal wellbeing, especially the issues are climate change and global warming.
  4. The roles of good business practice and economic enterprise are critical to design well regulated markets that genuinely improve living conditions for everyone sustainably and equitably.
  5. The Statement called for a more ‘inclusive’ economy  that fosters the rights of all affected parties to participate in decisions affecting them.

Finally, following Pope Francis and input from the development agencies, the Statement urged greater concern to support international development efforts agreed to by Australia in the UN Agenda 2030 endorsing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Briefly they aimed to lift people everywhere out of the most extreme forms of poverty and hunger, promote sustainable development, with policies promoting full employment, and a focus on the poorest groups and most disadvantaged. Other key Goals included measures to improve social equity, and end tax evasion and avoidance. Opportunities for education beyond primary school, especially for girls, were seen as critical in making lasting achievements.

The Bishops Statement concludes: ‘Developing a new economic model, with a balance between market, state and civil society, is not revolutionary. This is a vision that Catholic social teaching has been working towards for well over a century.’ (p.15).

Reprinted with permission from Bruce Duncan, guest speaker at Convocation Session 6.