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Issue 19: The struggle for housing justice

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From the editorIt's a real treat to welcome another guest writer this week. You've probably read Dr J
 

SundayFocus

November 24 · Issue #19 · View online
Your weekly wrap of national affairs, society, culture and politics, published by UnionsACT.

From the editor
It’s a real treat to welcome another guest writer this week. You’ve probably read Dr John Falzon’s work or seen him dropping truth-bombs on Q&A. He’s a wonderful writer who brings a real moral clarity to the economic and political issues of our age. I hope you enjoy his piece on housing justice as much as I did.
Also this week, ACTU president Michele O'Neil has a special message for SundayFocus subscribers about the Ensuring Integrity legislation, we share some good news about robo-debt and Benjamin Netanyahu, and we take a look at Anthony Albanese’s latest “headland” speech.
Last, could you please forward this issue to friends and family and invite them to become a Solidarity Subscriber. It helps us grow our community and ensures that we can keep delivering SundayFocus to you every week. We’ve even created a Gift Solidarity Subscription and a Yearly Gift Solidarity Subscription, perfect for someone’s virtual Christmas stocking!
Enjoy the issue!
Guy Mosel, Editor

The struggle for housing justice
by Dr John Falzon
Photo by Tom Rumble | Unsplash
Photo by Tom Rumble | Unsplash
One of my earliest jobs was doing community development in public housing estates on the outskirts of Sydney. I loved this work. I was not terribly good at it but that didn’t matter too much because the people I was sent to organise had no difficulty organising, and educating, me.
We ended up doing some good things together and the organisation and education soon led to some serious agitation! It was one of my most important political lessons in life: that good policy comes not from above but from the people who are living in the concrete conditions the policy seeks to address.
There were many problems on these housing estates, all of them caused by the bad urban planning decisions made for people, on their behalf, instead of by them as agents of their own collective destiny.
The subsequent stigmatisation of public housing and the convergence of other forms of residualisation such as unemployment and exclusion from social infrastructure meant that the people, many of whom were immensely proud of their communities and deeply engaged in their ongoing social transformation, were constantly battling the mark of collective shame that the mainstream media and the financial interests behind it, had branded them with.
Public housing is tarnished, not by the people who use it but by those who would prefer it did not exist: the choristers who sing from the neoliberal hymn book, fanatical in their hatred for all things public. All the more reason why we should passionately fight for it, against the machinations of market logic embedded in our current neoliberal dystopia. It is worth fighting for because it has the potential to be the guarantor of everyone’s right to a place they can truly call home.
During the GFC Labor made a massive investment in 20,000 units of social housing. I remember saying at the time to the then prime minister: “This is good. But we also need to change the narrative around public housing; to speak of it as something we, as a society, are deeply proud of, rather than something you need as a last resort and will want to get out of as soon as you are able. We need to shape the public imagination so that people see public housing as a social good, like public education and public health.”
Private wealth over the common good
The housing market delivers profits but it will not deliver housing justice. Governments must do what markets cannot. Housing is currently framed, not as a human right, but as a speculative sport.
And if you want a sneak preview of the neoliberal vision for education and health, take a look at the deliberately manufactured housing crisis of today. We are currently seeing the ravages of privatisation in aged care, where the ethics of care take a back seat to the practice of profiteering. And as my dear friend and comrade, Angelo Gavrielatos, from Education International, has pointed out, the commercialisation of education is worth an estimated $5 trillion globally.
So it’s no surprise that public housing is being run down, in both neoliberal discourse and economic practice. The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute estimates that Australia needs 727,300 new social housing properties over the next 20 years to meet the current shortfall and address rising need. In the meantime, the global trend of the financialisation of housing is seeing a decline in the availability of housing for the working class at the same time as windfall profits for multinational investors, cementing the status of housing as “a commodity – a vehicle for wealth and investment rather than a social good".
It is not poverty that causes homelessness. It is wealth. Especially speculative wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, constraining the choices of the many.
As the beautiful Irish proverb reminds us, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” If any of us is without shelter, it is because the rest of us, through our political choices as a society, have failed them. Thinking critically about the causes of homelessness, housing stress and inequality is crucial. But acting collectively to build the kind of society where we really are a shelter to each other; this is the key to making a concrete difference.
This is not an act of charity. It is an act of justice. 
Dr John Falzon is Senior Fellow at Per Capita. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018 and is the author of The Language of the Unheard (2012) and a collection of poems, Communists Like Us (2017). He is a member of the Australian Services Union. 
The week in review
Good news… Robo-debt looks like it’s finally been killed off. The government finally yielded to years of sustained pressure, yet still refused to apologise for the pain and suffering the automated debt recovery system has caused. But with the government’s sweet, precious budget surplus now threatened, the relief may be short-lived for Australia’s most vulnerable.
Bad news… In the same week that Sweden dropped its investigation of him, Julian Assange was denied a request to delay his extradition proceedings to give his legal team more time to prepare. The full hearing is set to take place in February. In entirely unrelated news, Lady Emma Arbuthnot, the Westminster chief magistrate presiding over Assange’s extradition, has finally stepped aside over family connections to “the British military establishment, including institutions and individuals exposed by WikiLeaks”.
Good news… Benjamin Netanyahu might finally be gone after Israel’s attorney general announced that the country’s longest-serving prime minister would face criminal charges for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He’s also, as Crikey puts it, “likely the first head of state to face prosecution because of a bromance with James Packer”.
Bad news… In news that will shock only those who have been recently awakened from a decade in cryosleep, a bank has been up to no good again. This time, the financial intelligence agency Austrac has accused Westpac of 23 million breaches of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist finance laws involving $11 billion in transactions. The government has given no indication it will shut the bank down, despite trying to pass legislation that would empower it to do just that to a union for filling out paperwork incorrectly (read more about that below).
A bit of both… Prime minister Scott Morrison said last week, “Prudence and mutual obligation are values I learnt growing up and they are values that I will take to fiscal policy. I want to lead a fiscally responsible government that invests with an eye firmly fixed on productivity.” Actually, just kidding: that was ALP leader Anthony Albanese in a speech in Brisbane on Friday, doing his darnedest to reach out to disaffected Labor voters by echoing IPA talking points. It wasn’t all bad though, with Albo making some good noises about climate and wages. He even referenced Thomas Piketty!
A message from ACTU president Michele O'Neil
The Morrison government has made it perfectly clear since the election that one of its central objectives is to attack unions and erode the power of working people. 
The Ensuring Integrity bill is an ideological attack against unions. The bill would make even minor civil breaches by unions, union members or officials punishable by deregistration of the entire union, nationally.
A five-minute protest action, a stop work meeting or even a official submitting paperwork late could mean an entire union is wound up, with officials banned from holding office in the future.
This is legislation which has no precedent in the developed world. In fact, an international report into the bill found that the most similar piece of legislation on record was from Brazil, during a period of fascist rule. 
The government wants to pass this before Christmas and the crossbench senators hold the deciding votes. The legislation has been listed for debate this week.
We are encouraging all union members to work with their unions to contact the crossbench senators and ask that they vote against this legislation: Rex Patrick and Sterling Griff from Centre Alliance in South Australia; Jacquie Lambie from Tasmania; and Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts from One Nation in Queensland. 
You can take action at standupforworkers.com.
We have a responsibility to do what we can to block this bill, and the time to act is now.
Longreads
How to abolish the Hong Kong police
Against economics
For your bookshelf
Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre, by Jeff Sparrow
Superpower: Australia's Low-Carbon Opportunity, by Ross Garnaut
Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, by Bruce Pascoe
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