Anti-Poverty Week 2017: Making history at the ACOSS Congress?

At the height of the neoliberal period in Australia, Anti-Poverty week was always a somewhat dismal reminder of the absence of any serious political agenda on the subject. But are people listening now? And are the moving beyond listening to action? In this post, Whisperer Paul Smyth tackles these questions and more.

At the height of the neoliberal period in Australia, Anti-Poverty week was always a somewhat dismal reminder of the absence of any serious political agenda on the subject. The frustration among advocates was well captured by Peter Saunders (2005) in his book, The Poverty Wars: people, he wrote, were no longer listening to the ‘“p” word’!  Over a decade later and with the demise of neoliberalism we may be wondering will they listen now? After all they did once. What made poverty centre stage then? What pushed it to the margins?

The poverty agenda achieved a pride of place in the 1960s and 70s. A spate of books in the US (e.g. Harrington’s The Other America; the UK (ego Townsend’s (1979) Poverty in the United Kingdom; and Australia (e.g. the 1972 report on poverty by ACOSS and Peter Hollingworth’s The Powerless Poor sold out in days). What propelled this rediscovery of poverty to political centre stage was its stark challenge to myths of all boats rising amid post-war affluence.

It was also reinforced by global concerns that economic growth in developing countries was not translating into integral human development for all. This challenge to the growth model was epitomised in a new UN development agenda called ‘Growth with Redistribution’. Importantly, this agenda shaped the advocacy of a newly invigorated ACOSS at the time.

So, if we want to understand the political energy and positive enthusiasm surrounding the resulting Henderson (1972-) led Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into Poverty initiated by the Liberal Government we need to situate it in this wider context of a global movement for a new economic model within which growth translates into human development for all.

So, what shifted poverty to the political margins by 2005? It was, of course, the change of economic model. Neoconservative politics restored faith in the rationality of markets, the desirability of increased inequality as an incentive for wealth creation, and ‘trickle down’ as the best way to help those at the bottom.  Sixties style hopes of radical social change to eliminate poverty reduced to a mere welfare agenda. With ‘the economy’ left to the market, social politics descended into that rather desperate tussle we see today of Neocons intent on ridding Australia of the ‘poison’ of welfare jousting with community advocates begging a few more dollars to raise income support above carefully measured poverty lines. Not many have been listening to the ‘p’ word.

Crude and broad brush this analysis might be but it ought to focus our minds on the importance of the wider policy framework through which we advocate for an end to poverty. And in this light, I think that 2017 may well be emerging as a turning point for the poverty agenda. As I explained in my recent talk for St Vincent de Paul’s Social Justice in the City, ideas of ‘inclusive and sustainable development’ have informed the recent Catholic Bishops’ statement on the economy, Everyone’s Business and are achieving a wider currency among trade unions, community organisations, and indeed the Australian Labour Party.

These ideas have coalesced around the UN Agenda 2030 and this is why I think the upcoming ACOSS Congress holds such promise. With the strongest echoes of its platforms on integral human development in the 1970s it has geared its Congress this year to thinking through what this new economic and social model might mean for us here in Australia. The UN has asked each country to take up this dialogue an effort to create a ‘new social contract’ for the 21st century. Who knows? History might well come to see the ACOSS Congress 2017 as a turning point on this journey.  

Posted by Luke Craven.