Twelve months on from the arrival of COVID-19 on our shores, we are still coming to terms with what the pandemic means from a health, an economic and a social perspective.
As governments, community leaders and other key decision-makers look for ways to lead Australia’s economic recovery, they would be well advised to consider some of the key principles of Catholic social teaching.
Several of those principles – predominantly solidarity, the common good and the dignity of each human person – form the foundation of a paper Catholic Social Services Australia has just published.
Strong Economy, Stronger Australia – Building Our Prosperity to Serve the Common Good outlines some of the detrimental effects of the pandemic, including those felt by some of the country’s most vulnerable workers and citizens, and offers a series of strategies to support a person-centred economic recovery.
Central to that task is a continuation of the sense of national togetherness that emerged in battling our invisible enemy in the form of COVID-19.
While others may choose words like “mateship” or “community”, we use words like the “common good” or “solidarity”.
Catholic social teaching is embedded in much of our society, even if people might not recognise the Church as the origin of those principles.
In a similar way, the Catholic understanding of the dignity of work, aligned with the provision of a social safety net, can underpin the Australian recovery.
Strong Economy, Stronger Australia dips into the rich Catholic archive, drawing on the seminal document on the dignity of work and on social teaching. Rerum Novarum might have been written in the 1890s, but its relevance today could not be clearer.
The value – financial and psychological – of people having a job, which was enunciated in Pope Leo XIII’s document 130 years ago, continues to be affirmed in studies across various disciplines today.
The Catholic Church in Australia knows a fair bit about the importance of a job for people’s wellbeing. Indeed, the Church is one of the largest employers in the country, with more than 220,000 people working in the Church’s varied and impactful ministries.
But in some of those key ministries, in particular disability care, aged care and social services, we know that many more people are needed to provide support to those who are among our most vulnerable.
To cite just one example of the obvious shortage of people in the care sector, one need only look at the interim report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. The report revealed the difficulties of recruiting and retaining staff in aged care, as well as the ability to train them appropriately for the tasks they will face.
While that report had an understandable focus on aged care, the challenges exist in disability services, key social services and many other parts of our community.
The Government must look at how targeted investment in training and skills development, as well as more favourable employment conditions, can boost the care sector while also boosting the economy.
That focus on those in work and seeking work mustn’t distract governments from the needs of those who, for a number of reasons, cannot work. Some people in that situation have found themselves there because of the pandemic; for others, the situation is more persistent.
The Church, just as it has regularly advocated for fair wages for those in employment, continues to push for more just solutions for those on JobSeeker – what used to be called Newstart.
The pursuit of the common good, the quest for solidarity within our community and the preservation, or restoration, of human dignity must include an adequate social safety net.
It is important that the setting of welfare payments moves from a case of political will to one that’s based on robust economic analysis. That’s why we continue to call for the establishment of an independent, expert panel to recommend the level of welfare payments, including pensions.
That panel should also make recommendations for the indexing of such payments, rather than allowing woeful levels of support to languish at the same level, or with inadequate increases, for years on end – as has happened in recent memory.
In the short term, the Jobseeker priority is responding to the ongoing reality of the pandemic, and extending the coronavirus supplement until at least June 30.
There is not enough stability in the Australian economy at this moment to see larger numbers of people asked to live on payments that have been shown to be insufficient to allow people to live with dignity.
Our country has a particular responsibility to support our First Nations brothers and sisters, whose health and economic outcomes are often shocking and unacceptable. Our care for them during and beyond the pandemic is part of a wider journey towards reconciliation.
There is so much more than could be said, and much is contained within our new report.
The path to an economy that is strong, and delivers a stronger Australia, isn’t an easy one. But it’s one that can be forged with the wisdom of the Church and its pursuit of policies and attitudes that deliver for all Australians.
Dr Ursula Stephens is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.