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Standing the Test of Time

Revisiting Common Wealth for the Common Good

In 1992 the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released Common Wealth for the Common Good. It was described in the sub-title as A Statement on the Distribution of Wealth in Australia.

This was a significant document for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was five years in the making and reflected the findings of a consultative process that dated back to 1987. Several hundred submissions were received from individuals, groups and parishes in the lead-up to the 1992 release, many from individuals and organisations outside the Church. In other words, it was a document that came partly from the lived experience of the People of God and others concerned for the common good. Secondly, the focus was on the distribution of wealth at a time when the mantra of 'wealth creation' was being used to legitimate a major turnaround in the orientation of public policy in Australia. Economic rationalism as an ideology had taken hold of public policy and seemed unassailable. Further, Common Wealth for the Common Good brought the Church's best kept secret, Catholic Social Teaching (CST), out of hiding. CST was central to this document. This emphasis on CST drew upon the scriptures and the application of Gospel values to the major social, economic, cultural and political issues of the day.

Finally, it was a call to action to ensure that the common wealth of Australia was dedicated to the common good and not just for private benefit. It captured well the intent of Pope John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Of Social Concern) when he commented on the need to balance the right to hold private property with the claim of all persons to a share in the goods of this world. The Pope wrote:

It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a "social mortgage", which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods. (42)

A decade has passed since the release of Common Wealth for the Common Good and it is worth considering just how relevant it is today. How has it stood the test of time?

The consultation process that lead to the release of Common Wealth for the Common Good began in 1987 - the year of the biggest stock market crash since the Depression and around the time of the demise of the Skase and Bond empires. So, it is interesting that today we are again being revisited by stock market jitters, corporate collapses and corporate fraud - on a grand scale. Too often wealth is pursued at any expense, and the victims of this greed lose jobs, life savings and faith in the social system.

Further, as in 1992, wealth in Australia is today increasing in some industries and declining in some. For the moment, profits are up and up in banking, defence industries, retail, the wine industry and some areas of telecommunications/information technology. Other indicators of growing wealth include:

  • the exponential growth of the wages of Chief Executives in major corporations and even in some not-for-profit organisations, including Church organisations;
    and,
  • the increase in the number of Australian billionaires and millionaires.

Overall, since 1992, growth in salaries at the top of the income scale has consistently outstripped growth at the lower end.

Against this background, many of the issues raised in the1992 Bishops' statement are still relevant today even if some aspects of these have changed. For example:

  • The prevalence and depth of poverty have remained significant and most research is showing that, despite positive economic growth in the 1990s, the resulting benefits have not been evenly distributed;
  • While child poverty remains unacceptably high in Australia the incidence of poverty among sole parents has declined. Research indicates that government assistance to families has had a positive impact in reducing poverty in this population group;
  • Single people are now most at risk of poverty in Australia and housing costs are a real factor in this;
  • Housing remains an issue despite low interest rates and government subsidies for home ownership and investment housing. The cost of home ownership in some parts of the nation is outside the reach of many younger Australians. The vagaries of the private rental market mean that many tenancies fail, especially for people on low incomes. At the same time the commitment of governments to public housing has been declining;
  • Official unemployment figures have declined but this can disguise the real issues about work and income security. The fact is that work patterns are changing and casual, part-time work is figuring as the main area of jobs growth. The result of this is that job security is not assured. This new work environment has given rise to the new phenomenon of the 'working poor';
  • Uneven economic growth in regional and rural Australia is entrenched;
  • The colonial dispossession of Indigenous people continues to carry with it unacceptable levels of poverty, homelessness, high unemployment, unacceptable morbidity and mortality rates compared to the general population. However, the recognition of native title and a stronger political and cultural voice has changed the landscape significantly in the past decade, despite considerable resistance from opposing interests;
  • Access to health care remains an issue with the subsidisation of private health care and the erosion of the publicly funded Medicare underscoring a growing health gap between rich and poor.

It is evident that the analysis of the Catholic Bishops in 1992 finds a clear and resounding echo in 2002.

Probably the most significant and enduring change since 1992 has been the transformation of the economic and political landscape. The reform agenda of successive governments since 1992 has transformed many areas of Australian life. The deregulation of the financial sector in the early 1980s heralded further reforms that have gained momentum in the last ten years. Welfare reform, taxation reform, public sector reform, labour market reform and selective industry reform have combined to alter radically the economic and political landscape. This has occurred at the same time as the lexicon of 'social justice' has been largely removed from policy discourse at a national level. Some political leaders are openly dismissive of the term.

The proponents of reform argue that this is necessary to position Australia to integrate better into the global economy. 'Globalisation' has become the new mantra of the political class. While this is bringing positive benefits to some, the lens of 'the common good' must be brought to the globalisation of the world's economies as there are many limitations and ambiguities to confront. Many people embrace the Internet, bio-technological developments and the seamless borders of global finance and travel as positive aspects of globalisation. However, the fact remains that unredeemed globalisation plays little heed to those whose poverty and economic marginalisation excludes them from sharing in the benefits. Any statement on the distribution of wealth in 2002 would have to address globalisation and Australia's place and role in this brave new world.

Finally, the environment and sustainable development have emerged as concerns of faith. In recent times Pope John Paul II has called for an 'ecological conversion'. Today human activity threatens to destroy the very fabric on which life depends - the land, water, air and biodiversity. The urgency of arresting this trend is clear. Report after report on the environment tells the same story. Urgent action is needed. Again, the critical lens of 'the common good' must be applied to this and the needs of other species and life forms integrated into the whole picture.

The social dimension of faith is emphasised strongly in Common Wealth for the Common Good. Perhaps, more than ever in its 110 year history, the Church's social teaching is emerging as a central tenet of contemporary Catholic identity, posing challenges for the Church itself as well as for how it engages with the wider society. In a world dominated by free-market economic doctrine and the individual pursuit of private wealth, such principles as solidarity, the common good and the preferential option for the poor, applied to life situations, constitute a real challenge to this dominant ethos. At the heart of this Church teaching is the proposition that no one lives in isolation and that faith calls us into community where respect for the dignity of each human being and the overall common good must be upheld. Where this is being violated the Church speaks of sinful structures that must be overcome. Indeed, people of faith must be engaged in the transformation of Church and society if they are to be true disciples of Jesus, bringing the reign of God into the here and now.

The timelessness of the Gospel calls us to this task in 2002 as it did through the call of the Bishops in 1992 with Common Wealth for the Common Good. In this sense, it has stood the test of time.

Coralie Kingston
Coordinator
Social Action Office
Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, Queensland
August 2002

 

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