Descent into Cruelty
What has happened to Australia? The land of the “fair go”, the egalitarian country, has disappeared into the myths of the past and we now focus on punishing those who are vulnerable or in need.
The Budget, despite pleas from the Business Council and St Vincent de Paul, did not raise Newstart, the unemployment benefit which, at its present level, confines people to abject poverty. Overseas aid was frozen at its lowest point ever, drastic cuts were made to funded projects in Africa and the Middle East and much of our aid was shifted to the Pacific, less, I would hazard a guess, because of an increasing need among the people of the Pacific and more to keep Chinese encroachments at bay.
Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is directed to asylum seekers in Australia – those who have arrived by plane or come from Nauru and Manus Island for medical treatment. Asylum seekers awaiting visa decisions from the Department of Immigration are given the right to work and have been entitled to a support payment of around $200 a week until employed. From 4 June the Minister has decreed that all asylum seekers will be assessed as to their “work readiness” and these payments will then stop. Such a decision pays no heed to current rates of unemployment, nor to the difficulty of finding a job if your visa status is uncertain.
John Falzon, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul, describes this decision as “an unprincipled act of cruelty towards people who already bear an enormous burden of inequality”, while a joint statement from Catholic agencies indicates that “hundreds, if not thousands, could be left hungry, homeless and vulnerable to exploitation” and Dr Cassandra Goldie from ACOSS asks the fundamental question “What are people to do with no income at all?”
Agencies such as House of Welcome, Jesuit Refugee Service, Red Cross and Anglicare are pleading with the government to re-think this decision as none of them are able to support the estimated 7,000 people who will be forced into destitution. Refugee Week 17-23 June is an opportunity for us to write to our politicians and to think seriously about donating money or goods to agencies supporting asylum seekers.
It is incomprehensible that Australia could have drifted so far from its moral compass that punishment is now the response to those who are in need. So far off course are we that the fundamental right of people to seek protection when their lives, their religious or political beliefs are threatened seems to have disappeared into a fog of suspicion, antagonism and punishment. For those of us who are Christians the words of Jesus “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” ring hollowly in Australia today.
Words: Libby Rogerson IBVM