IN a seminar held on March 29 in which poverty and disadvantage in affluent Canberra were the focus, Dr John Falzon, chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia highlighted the role the spread and adoption of neo-liberalism is playing in not just entrenching poverty but in maintaining and expanding inequality in society.
In addition to Dr Falzon, the seminar featured Ms Toni Hassan, journalist and scholar with the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Bishop Emeritus Pat Power and Ms Sarah Murdoch, chief executive of St John’s Care.
The panel engaged in a discussion about the nature of poverty in Canberra and the apparent incongruity of an affluent city such as Canberra being home to somewhere in the order of 40,000 people living below or near the poverty line.
A theme in the discussion was whether the existence and circumstances of these 40,000 residents of Canberra was of apparent concern to the ACT government or middle-class Canberra.
Sadly, of the people living in poverty in Canberra almost 8000 are children under the age of 14 – a disproportionate number of whom are Aboriginal.
The panel was unanimous in supporting a call for the ACT government to institute a full-ranging and independent inquiry into poverty in the ACT. A call which, I am aware, has been made repeatedly in recent years by the CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service, Ms Julie Tongs.
The government has, regrettably, formally advised Ms Tongs that it does not see the need for an inquiry into poverty in Canberra.
One of the issues raised at the seminar as central to the widening of the gap in wealth and privilege in Canberra was the accelerating rate of the cost of housing, including for rental. That this has occurred is almost entirely a consequence of a decision taken by Chief Minister Andrew Barr and the ACT Labor/Greens government to abandon the ACT Housing Affordability Action Plan
I cannot comprehend why the ACT government has, most particularly by deliberately refusing as a monopoly provider, to meet the demand for land for detached housing, knowingly forced the median price of detached housing up by an average of $50,000 a year for each of the last six years.
I have been forced to wonder whether the simple answer is that the Chief Minister and his Labor and Greens colleagues have chosen to channel ex-Liberal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s infamous and classically neo-liberal advice to people who have been priced out of home ownership to “get a better job”.
The ACT government’s unapologetic disregard for the overwhelming demand of young Canberra families and first-home buyers to either own or live in a detached house can reasonably be assumed to reflect a neo-liberal instinct within the ACT government. What other possible explanation can there be – other than, of course, that the underlying Budget position is completely cactus.
What is indisputable is that it has resulted in a massive transferral of wealth from those young families and first-home buyers who are mortgaging themselves to the hilt to gain entry to the housing market to those of us lucky enough to have been able to enter the housing market at a time when governments were not deliberately gouging home buyers.
I have many classically middle-class, home-owning friends who are understandably thrilled at the bonanza that the runaway increase in house prices that have resulted from the ACT government’s policies will deliver them when they sell their homes.
They are grateful to the Labor Party for enriching them so generously and many will no doubt repay that generosity at the ballot box. They now represent ACT Labor’s true base – white, white-collar, middle-class, homeowners and the wealthy.
I am accused of being a party pooper and spoilsport when I ask them to reflect on where the (say) extra half a million dollars or more which they will now unexpectedly reap when they sell their house will come from.
The answer is, of course, that it will come from their children and their grandchildren and young families and people who are in the rental market – people who are paying far, far more than they should be for housing.
It will come from those with working-class backgrounds and lower-paid employment, people who would once have joined unions such as United Voice and the SDA, and whose families are probably less likely to be able to support them with a deposit or a mortgage but who dream, forlornly, of the opportunity of bringing up their children in a house with a yard, a garden and a sand pit.
In other words people from Labor’s traditional base. But it is not to be – Andrew, Shane, Yvette and the rest have ordained that it’s a south-facing, two-bedroom flat on the tenth floor for them.
Who can be trusted?
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Ian Meikle, editor