There are many Australians today who are living on the Newstart allowance, one of the lowest payments available to those who are currently out of work. The payment totals about $35 a day, which in a country like Australia makes it impossible to make ends meet.
One of the things I’ve always tried to do in my time as a Bishop is stay in contact with the real people. It’s through this connection that you get to hear their stories, their reality – good and bad. I’ve always had a heart for social justice ever since my early years as a priest, having been born in Cooma and growing up in Queanbeyan
During last week’s tax forum, as I walked into the room, I was asked by a journalist whether I thought it would be just another “talk fest”. My response was that I hoped it wouldn’t be, because this area is so important – tax reform is so vital to how this country is managed, because the way in which people are taxed makes such an impact on their lives. It would be my hope that any taxation system would consider fairly the income of people and tax them accordingly.
I was attending this important forum in my capacity as chair of the Bishops Commission for Health and Community services. Paul O’Callaghan, the Director of Catholic Social Services was there to assist and advise me in addressing the people assembled.
I’ve spent most of my 25 years as a Bishop involved in the welfare arm of the Bishops commissions. The Church was offered a place at the forum due to her special knowledge of working with people at the grassroots. I was nominated to fill the place to address the forum. Paul advised me and prepared me for the submissions to the forum.
In many ways, we are reasonably happy with the status quo. There is support given to welfare agencies. Most of the money for our work does come from government and we are sincerely grateful for that. However, there are always some questions we have about the way in which people are taxed, and the injustice that sometimes emerges from this.
One example here of course is the GST. The treasurer initially said that the GST wasn’t up for grabs at this forum. But of course it did come up for discussion being a major feature of our taxation system and was addressed in many of the submissions received by the tax forum. The GST is considered by many to be a regressive tax, because basically, we have a system where the millionaire is paying the same amount of tax on his groceries as the poor person with five children to support.
As I mentioned to the forum on the final day, people on the Newstart program are paid $35 a day, and that is quite out of proportion compared to other services including the aged pension. We want to propose to do away with some of the distinctions between pay so that there is a minimum standard of living for all people. This is a matter of justice, of solidarity, and our faith compels us to speak on behalf of those people.
I spend a bit of time with a group of mostly migrant women who are part of a cleaners union, and they are among the most marginalized people in this country. I hear their stories of how they try to support their families on a minimum wage and work long hours into the night and the early morning. It is them, the “working poor” who are battling so hard to make ends meet and who inspire me to speak on their behalf.
Our treasurer was recently awarded as the world’s best treasurer by the World Bank, an honour which was due, in part, to the way in which the Australian Government avoided falling into the massive recession the way other developed nations had.
It is my hope that this award would challenge him, and the government to look deeper, to give thanks for relative economic prosperity and distribute this wealth in a way which favours those who most need it – the poor.
I always go back to the phrase which I often heard from Sir William Deane – which says “Our society will be judged on its treatment of our most vulnerable people.”