When visiting the Wayside Chapel’s annual lunch for the homeless on Christmas Day, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said of the event, “It’s practical love, it’s unconditional love, it’s really what Christmas should be all about” – a laudable sentiment.
By 2 January it seemed that “practical, unconditional love” was nothing more than a sop for the season as the Turnbull government celebrated a deal with the Nick Xenophon Team that would allow them to cut people’s income support for a month for failing to meet certain obligations. On Christmas Day, love. In the new year, judgment.
It’s worth considering what, exactly, is meant by the concept of “love” in a social context. What would it mean for a prime minister, or others with their hands on the levers of change, to truly commit to “practical, unconditional love”?
Practical love is the firm decision to use whatever power and privilege one has to bring about meaningful change for the better for those whom you claim to love. Love without accompanying action is just a word, bereft of meaning and powerless to bring change.
Welfare changes, such as those the Nick Xenophon Team is supporting, should be immediately discarded. According to social services peak body, the Australian Council of Social Service (Acoss), up to 80,000 job seekers will have their payments cut, people who find themselves in hospital will have their payments delayed and people without work will no longer have their income support back-payed to the date of lodging their application. Clearly, none of this will help people pay their mortgage, rent or find secure housing.
Those without secure work are already forced to live on Newstart payments that haven’t increased in real terms for more than 20 years and place recipients more than $390 a week below the poverty line. Rather than threatening deeper destitution, Newstart needs to be increased to give people a decent foundation on which to begin to build a life that meets their potential.
Employment should be a means to an end – including being able to afford a place to live – but the current government glorifies casual, insecure work, seeks to cut penalty rates and other benefits and attempts to undermine the ability of workers to organise and protect their jobs through a sustained attack on the unions that exist to defend them.
The government should abandon the pretence that casualisation of the workforce benefits workers and their families and instead support legislative change that would ensure casual workers would automatically convert to permanent status after six months with one employer. With family and domestic violence being the most common cause of homelessness, accounting for around 36% of demand for homelessness services, support for compulsory domestic violence leave would help more survivors transition into secure housing.
Adequate funding backed by the development of a coherent national community mental health strategy would assist in both the prevention of homelessness and the successful transition of homeless people into homes and employment.
With more than 250,000 people in Australia sitting on public housing waiting lists and more than 460,000 households spending more than 50% of their income on housing, practical love for those in power would involve addressing both the causes of housing stress and increasing the supply of social housing. Despite broad acknowledgement that public and community housing is grossly underfunded, there have been no significant increases in housing stock for the last 20 years.
Practical, unconditional love would not only cause those who control the nation’s budget to invest in building more homes for those who need them, it would also seek to stop people becoming homeless in the first place – as far as that goal can be obtained.
One place to start could be the broad adoption of the principles of the “Zero Project”, coordinated by the Don Dunstan Foundation, in which Adelaide has committed to becoming the first city outside of the US to achieving “functional zero homelessness” which is reached when the number of people who are homeless on any given night is no greater than the housing availability for that night.
The adoption of any – in addition to increased recurrent funding for new social housing stock – of these strategies would significantly reduce the number of Australians suffering housing insecurity and see Turnbull acting out his definition of the Christmas spirit rather than his harmful New Year resolution.
At the Wayside Chapel’s Christmas lunch, Pastor Graham Long said, “I think this event will get bigger and that’s because more and more people are becoming homeless.” If the prime minister truly loves the people he danced with, we will see him leverage his considerable power and privilege to avoid the fulfilment of this tragic prophecy in 2018.
Australia news | The Guardian