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Home is where the Heart is

My trip to Australia is rapidly drawing to an end. I’ve managed to get some good work done on the book. And more than this, I’ve had good opportunities to test my own political philosophy against the realities of the land of my birth. There have been many discussions about the legitimacy and implications of government efforts here to introduce a carbon tax and a mining-windfall tax, not to mention discussions about the current danger to Australia of becoming a “Dutch disease” economy dependent on a single industry at the expense of all others. I have also had a chance to think about a matter close to my heart – that of public housing.

I had the honour today of being given a guided tour of a site of a non-profit housing provider in inner Sydney by a good friend who works there. It was a heart-warming experience, not least to see the amount of satisfaction my friend derives from the work and the difference she can make in the lives of vulnerable people. The building I visited contains apartments that provide affordable housing to homeless people and the working poor. Within the building are workers who provide medical facilities as well as counselling and advice to the residents.

It was an eye-opening experience. It is too easy to ignore the poor and the homeless without giving a second thought to what their realities are like. The people working here deal with these problems every day and meet them with creativity and enthusiasm. To give some examples, the building has been made “pet-friendly”. It’s not something I’d have given any thought to, but the benefits of this are obvious. Clinical tests have shown, for instance, that pet ownership is a major reducer of stress. Pets offer great companionship which can be vital for people who have lived rough and have endured loneliness and rejection. They are also a great way to meet people (sad but true that we are often more likely to give money to a beggar with a dog than without one). Another example: the building had a bicycle rack with donated bicycles. Again, obvious enough on reflection: car ownership and maintenance is prohibitively expensive even for those who do have money. One last example: I was told a touching story of how one of the tenants was bamboozled by those little plastic covers that come on electric plugs when you buy appliances. The in-house workers helped them through it. It might sound like a funny story but imagine that you’ve never owned an appliance. We take far too much for granted.

So I walked around this building, looking at it through the lenses of my own political ponderings, thinking, as I often do, about the appropriate role of the state. Anyone who knows me, or has followed my arguments here, knows that I envisage a role much bigger than the “minimal state” found in neoliberal fantasies. Particularly I believe that we have rights, arising from “standard threats” and discovered through democratic discourse, that go well beyond the rights of contract and private property. The state is obliged to ensure the fulfilment of these rights. And it is difficult to think of many more obvious threats than having no home.

One of the more objectionable articles of faith put forward by the New Right is that private charity should step in and sort out problems such as poverty and homelessness. I’ll write another time about how these problems are in varying degrees side-effects of the property and market systems that the New Right would like to see replace all public enterprise – today I’ll just assume that this is fairly self-evident. The recourse to charity is insidious. It is nothing short of the denial of people’s rights. A right is a right because its fulfilment is guaranteed by a state. Private charity is, by definition, discretionary. Any system that replaces rights fulfilment by private altruism removes the decision on how (and even if) something should be rectified out of the democratic domain, placing effective control into what is typically a very small number of hands. There is the obvious question as to whether a wealthy altruist making charitable donations is doing so out of kindness or out a desire to be seen to be altruistic (morally very different prospects, even if the end result might be the similar as far as the recipients are concerned). There is the more compelling question as to whether such an altruist can have any understanding whatsoever of what are the most pressing problems (especially ironic given the neoliberal defence of markets, that “local knowledge” is the only knowledge there is). Wealthy donors exercise considerable control through their choice of charities and often insist on further control beyond this: we can easily find some very odd charities in existence that come from the pet fancies of the rich. This is not to disparage the amazing and laudable work done by charity workers everywhere – their own good work is ultimately compromised by this funding problem too.  Finally, there is the two-part concern that charity has never, at any point in history, been anywhere near sufficient to address these kinds of problems and, at the same time, our social structures have never been so potent at creating the problems in the first place. We can put these questions aside for today. What matters is that a right implemented primarily through discretionary charity is not and cannot be truly considered a right: it simply lacks the qualities that identify it as a right. The ideological recourse to charity is, ultimately, nothing but a shield to allow certain groups of people to opt out of their obligations to satisfy rights.

The other article of faith of the New Right is that governments are bad and that anything they provide is bad (be that through inefficiency, potential for coercion, or whatever). Government provision must be done badly because governments do things badly: the market and private provision clearly don’t have these problems. This is all, of course, poppycock. No such generalisation can be made and credibly maintained. Don’t get me wrong – things can certainly be done badly: I grew up in social housing and can give you a long list of things that were done poorly, not least of which is putting a great many people with problems together. But we learn from mistakes. The state here is slowly but surely dismantling the vast welfare suburbs and dispersing them. The organisation running the building that I visited is part of that process. It is, of course, a private organisation. But it is also a public organisation: it is mostly publicly funded (about 80% is government funding comprising 60% federal and 20% state), and its funding is dependent on transparency and accountability to the electorate. I have niggling doubts about the small remainder of the funding, but the ratio is sufficient to ensure that they do the right thing, and it is infinitely better than wholly or mostly relying on the whims of the wealthy. But the question of funding, if we are to take rights seriously, is wholly nonnegotiable: it must be funded by public money raised through taxes or through other government fund-raising activities (contrary to the myth, governments can and often do manage to run profitable enterprises). It is a separate matter of how that money is used most effectively. The state-funded-multiple-provider model that this organisation operates under is promising. It decentralises control putting it into the hands of the implementers, embeds the solution within communities, encourages creative solution-finding, and gives people some degree of choice while preserving the majority of the rights fulfilment aspects and retaining accountability. It won’t do in every single case of government provision, but this is a practical matter and not ideological, and is to be resolved by experimentation and learning.

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