July 2003 #5

What Can We Learn From Silent Voices

It seems we have a new intrepid warrior, ready to mount his trusty steed and ride like the wind as he leads us into another battle. This time it’s the federal Treasurer and Prime Miniature hopeful, Peter Costello, leading the charge against the evil of political lobbying.

While he’s not cooking the national books to attempt to demonstrate that he is the best treasurer since Genghis Khan rode into China, Peter has been working on a new bill that will change the way welfare, civil rights, environmental, indigenous, disability and other organisations, working to improve the lot of those far more disadvantaged than himself, are able to access generous tax concessions.

These concessions allow such groups to provide tax deductibility for their donors and to allow them certain exemptions from paying some state and federal taxes.

However, what seems to stick in Peter the wanna-be’s craw, is that many of these groups engage in lobbying for changes to laws that hinder their members from bettering their life chances and therefore calling for a redistribution of our common wealth. Before going any further with this argument a little clarification.

Organisations setting themselves up as charities, and whose charters establish them as “not for profit” organisations are able to apply for exemptions. The types of organisations we usually associate with these charitable works are churches, local fire brigades, sporting clubs, community groups, welfare agencies providing immediate relief for those in need and carer’s groups. Its this last group I want to bring together with Peter the Lesser’s latest crusade.

What has not been spoken about in the last couple of days are that not only are registered charities who do welfare and other works like those I’ve just mentioned able to claim such exemptions, so are some of the most powerful organisations in the country. Organisations populated by those whose daily income exceeds what many unemployed people receive in benefits in a year. Such organisations as the Business Council of Australia, The Melbourne and Sydney Clubs, The Australia Institute – you get the picture? In other words some of the wealthiest organisations in Australia, whose charters are not about charity and giving to or assisting the needy, are able to set up special accounts (usually under their ‘research’ arms) into which tax deductible donations can be given and from which these wealthy organisations are able to claim tax exemptions.

But what about Australia’s 2.3 million unpaid carers? Those people whose prime task in life is to care for, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, a loved one with a disability of whom 650,000 are primary carers. These 2.3 million carers, if they are lucky – and there is a review of all carer payment recipients going on at the moment to assess their ongoing eligibility – are able to access a carer payment of around $84 per fortnight.

As someone who has worked from home I was surprised to learn many years ago that under the tax laws I could claim for the room in my house that was “the office”. I could claim for the phone, the fax, the computer and internet, travel where it was business related, tools, uniforms, and sundry other items related to income earning activities. This meant, of course, some benefits flowed on to me personally, but these are treated as ‘incidental’ by the tax office and as long as I make a “good case”, she’ll be right mate.

However, for the full time or part time carer there is no such work place benefit. Although conservative estimates by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare put the contribution of unpaid carers to the Australian economy at $27 billion (that’s right $27 billion) per annum (that is they save the health and welfare sector money), these carers receive no tax breaks for their efforts.

It seems to me that Peter the Little, is barking up the wrong tree.

The rich in this nation don’t have to “lobby” the government. They own it. They are able to pay for the $1,000 a head fund raising dinners to buy a place at the table with a government minister of their choice. The rich are able to relax with a cigar and good cognac at an exclusive club as they and the minister “chat” about “things”. The wealthy are able to access the highest levels of the bureaucracy at “social” functions from which society is excluded. They don’t need to lobby simply because they pay for their privileges at our expense. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone whose personal wealth allowed them a luxury lifestyle holding a banner at a rally, leading a community meeting to save a park or serving coffee from a soup van for the homeless?

I certainly have no problem with laws dating back to 17th century England being reviewed, revised and modified, but I do think the Treasurer and his coalition of the ignorant mates, are attempting to silence those voices that irritate them and remind them of their abject failure to distribute the “common wealth” equitably and justly.

While unpaid carers are forced to remain hidden and the organisations that lobby for change on their behalf face another threat to their meager funding sources, whose side do you think the Treasurer is on? It must be terribly upsetting for him and his rich mates if they come across a small but vocal demonstration whose purpose is to highlight the failure of their policies and point out their injustice. Mmm, I wonder if Phillip – is he really alive in there – Ruddock has had a word in Peter’s ear?

Looking at the history of laws we find that down through the ages the poorest and most needy among us are the ones whose rights are taken away more often than any other section of our society. This latest attempt by the holder of the public purse is another example of the well heeled directing policy against those who our society has a duty to protect.

When I was working from home I could claim the room I worked in as an expense. Don’t you think the Treasurer might better win us over if he allowed carers to claim the room in which their disabled loved one “lives” in as an expense? What about their car? These unpaid carers spend endless days transporting their loved one too and from doctors, hospitals, therapists, schools, and if they are really, really lucky, respite care. And who pays for this? They do and they’re expected to do so out of the measly $80 odd a fortnight carers payment. Where is the justice in this? Peter probably wont comment as its not his portfolio.

I’m afraid the Treasurer has revealed once more the ideology driving our major political parties. The Bracksward government in my home state is just as ideologically aligned with the federal government as both government’s rich mates are. They share an ideology that leads them to attack anyone who questions their interpretation of the world. A world in which they claim each of us is responsible for our selves. A world in which there is no such thing as society. A world in which social Darwinism reigns. A world where personal problems are just that, your problem, sorry!

Rather than attack the good works of those who are able to organise lobbying campaigns, or organise people to attend rallies and, for the more established ones, able to access the halls of power to lobby at senior levels, the Treasurer would serve all of us better by focusing on reducing business welfare and dodgy deals for the major party's business mates.

Of course there are many rich people who do do charitable works and who do contribute to their community in beneficial ways. The strange thing is, as far as the ones I’ve met goes, they don’t want a fuss about it. They’re happy to use the “system” to put back in what it takes out (a zero sum game if you like). They consult and discuss with local agencies the best way to assist them. In return they ask that their privacy be maintained. These philanthropically minded people don’t want to screw the system, they want to use it to assist those they recognise are not able to share in their comfort.

The growing divide in our national interests can be measured in many ways; wealth (or poverty), jobs growth (or loss), imports (or exports), health (or disability), the freedom to speak (or to be oppressed). All of these measures are important and all have a part to play. But I’m reminded of an old story of a man in a cave who was seeking his god. A storm came, but his god was not in it. A violent wind came but his god was not in that either.

Finally a gentle, silent breeze blew and he found his god there. A survey of those whose voices remain silent are the best measure of the state of our nation. 

If, as Peter and John keep telling us, we are a Christian nation, founded on the principles of right, justice and mercy (I’d like to know where they learnt their history), we all have the responsibility to seek out and listen to those gentle but currently silent voices who may help us create a better society than the one we currently endure.