Prioritise creating strong community and the economy will follow – The Mercury, January 2016

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WE SPEND a lot of time talking about the economy. Is it healthy? Is it growing? What do we have to do to make it happy? We speak as if it is a living thing, with feelings, and as something we have to serve.

Surely in this we are mistaking the means for the ends.

Let’s make 2016 the year we talk first and foremost about our community. Is our community strong? Is it healthy? What do we have to do to make our people happy?

In doing this, we will place discussion about the economy in its real context; as a critical tool for achieving community happiness not as an end in itself.

It is tempting to agree when the Government says it must get the economy sorted before it can address the social challenges in our state. But achieving economic and social success go hand in hand. An easy example is seen in health.

Chronic health problems drain our budget, which is why extra spending in preventive health is so important now.

Yet the government’s approach delays the investment required, which just entrenches unhappiness and expense from chronic health issues.

It is this approach that has led to there being “two Tasmanias”.

On the one hand, some Tasmanians and parts of our economy are thriving and we are achieving national and international accolades.

On the other hand, we know Tasmania has some of the worst long-term disadvantage in the nation.

Too many Tasmanians struggle with poverty, insecure housing, lack of education, long-term unemployment, bad health and early death.

This side of the picture sits in our shame file, our too-hard basket.

Yes, we need money to help fix some of these problems. But, more than that, we need an approach that recognises addressing these problems is the key to a happy community and healthy economy.

Economic inequality does not fix itself, it just gets worse if ignored. This is why long-term inequality is entrenched for some Tasmanians. We need to resolve this. And to do so, we will need to turn to the idea of social justice.

Social justice simply means everyone has choices about how they live and they have the capacity and means to make those choices. In real terms it means everyone has an affordable, adequate home, can access the healthcare they need when they need it, enjoys an education that allows them to reach their full potential, and has the opportunity to get a satisfying job throughout their working life.

All the major religions share the concept of social justice. It is a principle that has always been instinctive to Australians and why we always talk of the importance of a “fair go”. Commonsense tells us that life is not a level playing field.

In order for everyone to have choices, to make the most of their opportunities, we need to purposefully work for social justice: to remove barriers that stand in people’s way, to provide assistance to those who have been dealt a tougher hand, to establish a robust safety net to break the fall of those who encounter misfortune.

There is no brand of politics that owns social justice. I find it resonates across the political spectrum.

I believe we are capable of a whole-of-community conversation about how we can achieve a Tasmania that is an exemplar of social justice, an equal and happy community.

So, what are the things we need to talk about in relation to social justice in Tasmania in 2016? Here are some of my suggestions.

We need to address the cost of living. Our social safety net isn’t working. Many people simply do not have enough to get by. And it’s not just those on the unlivable Government allowances such as Newstart, but also those who are struggling with insecure, casualised work. We need to do better at providing the right support at the right time.

We need to invest in the basics for a reasonable life.

 Housing, health, education, employment — these make up an essential foundation and are each inherently connected. Disadvantage in one of these areas will erode the security of the others. We need to ensure everyone has access to and is supported in maintaining these basics.

We need to break down intergenerational cycles of disadvantage.

Support to families is the essential ingredient here. We now know trauma, especially that experienced in early life, is a key barrier to development and the cause of many behaviours that entrench disadvantage. We need to build this recognition into the support provided to families, otherwise we just band-aid symptoms and don’t treat the causes.

Prioritising community health and happiness as the key to economic success is the best decision our State Government can make.

So let us hear no more talk of the economy before people, and put achieving social justice at the heart of 2016.

Meg Webb is manager of the Social Action and Research Centre at Anglicare Tasmania.

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