The Be-All and End-All of Reprieve & Charity


A commentary on the week in review – week 45/23

“Charity is the drowning of justice in the cesspit of mercy” – words that were put into the mouth of the social reformer Heinrich Pestalozzi and which I like to quote again and again because they contain so much truth. They point to an untenable situation in the system of our society that urgently needs to be changed. How did I come to this conclusion – right at the beginning of my weekly conclusions on world events?

I recently read a mini-message in the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten (OÖN) about a press conference held by Verbund CEO Michael Strugl, who is also President of “Österreichs Energie”, stating that the intention is not to shut down electricity and gas plants in the period from Dec 1st 2023 to March 31st 2024 due to late payments. The charging of interest on instalment payments will also be suspended during this period. Mention was also made of his company’s relief fund, which is endowed with 10 million euros. In conclusion, Strugl appealed to customers who are unable to pay: “Contact the companies, including the social organisations”, as this option is used far too little.

In the same issue of OÖN, it was reported that energy prices had risen for the second month in a row in September, namely by 1.9% compared to August. The reason given for the increase was the rise in fuel and heating oil prices. A chart in the article, which shows the changes in prices compared to September of the previous year, is also illuminating: natural gas has become 38.6% more expensive and district heating 22.3% more expensive. However, no explanation is given for these price increases, as we already know – the war sparked by Russia is to blame. Of course, there is nothing that can be done about it – except to show mercy before justice, as Michael Strugl put it. In this understanding, justice is the right of the energy company to demand money for its services and to take legal action for non-payment. The focus is not on people’s right to heating and hot water; rather, those who are financially strapped are given a grace period to pay off their arrears in instalments or a reprieve in which one or other payment is taken over for them for the first time. But of course this cannot become a permanent state of affairs: after all, everyone is the architect of their own fortune and should take this seriously by finding sufficiently well-paid employment – according to the AMS, there are a lot of vacancies that nobody wants to take on. There is no need to speculate about what awaits those customers who are in arrears after March 31st. From April 1st, a heated flat with a hot water supply will no longer be necessary; after all, spring will be more than ten days old by then.

These measures will never do justice to the situation of those affected; on the contrary, they will either put them into further difficulties or into an unpleasant dependency on the public sector or a company. This is anything but humane. Equally inhumane are the conditions in some job, where despite a 40-hour week, not even the necessary income can be earned (one can only speak of an income when there is something left over to put aside or to cover expenses that go beyond basic daily needs such as holidays, cultural events or necessary new purchases).And anyone whose dignity is violated in this way no longer feels worthy and ultimately lacks the drive to achieve anything. This is a vicious circle that can only be overcome by taking preventative measures, namely by ensuring living conditions that are humane and that enable a secure existence rather than mere survival. None of the parties represented in the National Council has yet proposed a coherent and viable solution to this, although it can certainly be found with some effort. Instead, there is a lot of whinging and moaning and the slogan “We all have to tighten our belts” is celebrating a happy anniversary. After all, the majority of politicians have decided against the automatic adjustment of wages to the inflation rate, which has recently been regulated by law, but the moaning in these circles is at a very high level and does not even reflect the situation of the average citizen.

Spending money is also a matter for the state. Who is given what, when and under what conditions. Those responsible took the cake when, during the “corona peak phase”, they quickly set up an agency to distribute subsidies to companies in need due to the government’s measures to “combat the pandemic” (including companies of the SIGNA holding company, which has now slipped into crisis, such as Kaufhof or Kika/Leiner) – and they did so without parliamentary oversight. The so-called COFAG was recently categorised as unconstitutional in large parts by the Constitutional Court (VfGH). However, it is also a fact – and this is even more serious on closer inspection – that the legislator has been given until October 31st 2024 to repair the relevant law or the resulting ordinances and any necessary winding up of COFAG. Until then, the agency may continue to pursue its activities, which have been categorised as illegal, unhindered; open funding applications can be completed and repayment claims do not have to be made. If this were the case, then in realpolitik terms there would not only be fire under the roof, but the whole house would be in flames, because the result would be a wave of bankruptcies on an unimaginable scale. Although this realisation is an Austrian solution, it unfortunately stinks to high heaven and, in my view, does not make our constitutional state any leaner. After all, the constitutional judges, who are eager to eliminate possible violations of equality, ultimately apply double standards here – or, on the one hand, they enable and even legitimise such a view. On the other hand, citizens who were sentenced to a fine for violations of ordinances that were then cancelled by the Constitutional Court with regard to the corona measures were no longer reimbursed. That is the real scandal behind the scandal. And there hasn’t even been any media excitement in this context: people are perhaps (a little) astonished and deliberately remain silent. Quite a few people said to themselves: “Serves the swearers right.”

Recently, no mercy has been shown to those people who avoid compulsory schooling by embarking on a self-determined educational path. Families reported for so-called compulsory schooling (which is actually a teaching obligation that can also be completed at home – but this discussion is going too far now) are allowed to “burn like a chandelier” on the one hand and get problems from the state child and youth welfare services due to suspected endangerment of the child’s welfare. Both custodial parents are subject to administrative penalties at regular intervals – even several times within a school year – and the “youth welfare office” investigates in order to report to the competent family courts. There are threats of withdrawal of custody, at least in educational matters. Fortunately, parents are not allowed to force a young person to go to school against their will – this would violate the ban on violence in education, which in turn would be a criminal offence – but it is legitimate for the state authorities. I don’t want to paint any of the horror scenarios circulating on the net here; the fact that this is possible is cruel enough.

The fact that coercion in the education sector has little, if any, effect is demonstrated by the number of young dropouts. 120,000 adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 are said to drop out of school or training every year despite the obligation to complete education by the age of 18 and the threat of hefty administrative penalties if they fail to do so. For this reason, the University College of Teacher Education (PH) Upper Austria has launched the educational research project “Promoting Life Skills (ProLiSk)” together with the JKU Linz and the PH Vorarlberg. The aim is to analyse and evaluate existing support programmes for young people in order to incorporate them into the curriculum. The aim is to reduce the number of early drop-outs and keep young people in the education system, it was emphasised at a press conference. Education Minister Martin Polaschek is making 8.8 million euros available for this purpose, as “inadequate education not only has negative consequences for the labour market, but also has an impact on people’s prosperity, life satisfaction and health.” The fact that this can also be the case if the right to education is made possible by compulsory education has hardly been considered by those responsible. The results of a study on this would be very interesting.

Opinions are divided as to how long the Ukrainian president’s supporters’ reprieve will last. There are rumours of internal quarrels between him and his army commander as well as his former advisor, who is now also claiming ambitions for the office of Ukrainian president. Selensky himself has initially postponed the presidential elections scheduled for next year because “it is not the right time”. However, the USA certainly sees a need to hold these elections despite the war. It remains to be seen who will ultimately prevail and how. It also remains to be seen whether the EU Commission’s offer – which still has to be approved by the member states – to start accession negotiations with Ukraine can be described as a reprieve. Before these can formally begin, there must be a peace settlement between the parties to the conflict – and this may not be entirely to Zelensky’s liking. On the other hand, the accession perspective has been dated at 2030, which still means a lot of time. But there are also the other accession candidates who have been waiting for years for talks to (re)begin and who have been repeatedly put off. In addition, the EU also has to do its internal homework, as experts believe that the Union in its current state is not fit for such an enlargement.

An ardent European who also took a prominent transatlantic stance has recently passed away: Karel Schwarzenberg described the period from the fall of the Iron Curtain to the collapse of Czechoslovakia as the best time of his life, when he was head of office alongside Vaclav Havel after returning to Prague from exile. He was a man with rough edges, but this gave him a profile compared to other politicians currently in office. And profile suits a statesman very well.

A reprieve for the Tories and a reprieve for David Cameron? You could almost come to this provocative conclusion when you consider the government reshuffle carried out by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak due to the Conservative government’s horrendous poll ratings in the UK. Home Secretary Braverman, who had become unacceptable to him due to her perceived xenophobic statements, was replaced by the previous Foreign Secretary, leaving his post vacant. This was offered to former Prime Minister David Cameron, who gratefully accepted and can now bask in the media and political limelight again. It is worth noting that no British former head of government has accepted a “cabinet job” for more than 50 years. The last was Alec Douglas-Home, who was appointed Foreign Secretary by Edward Heath in 1970, six years after losing a general election.

And if we are already in the UK, then we should also think about the inhumane treatment of investigative journalist and Wiki Leaks founder Julian Assange, whose pardon is still not imminent. It is not really possible to say how long he will be able to hold out under the difficult conditions in solitary confinement in the high-security prison. In any case, the situation is said to be very serious. Now in the USA, Republican and ardent Trump supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene and left-wing Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have joined forces with 14 other members of the US Congress to launch a joint initiative for the release of the Australian WikiLeaks founder. The initiative calls on President Joe Biden to drop the United States’ extradition attempts against Assange and immediately cease all criminal prosecutions. The group warns that the continued prosecution of Assange could jeopardise the USA’s bilateral relations with Australia. The group hoped for the support of other members of parliament to stop the prosecution of Assange before the official visit of the Australian head of government, Anthony Albanese, to Washington in October. He and his government have set themselves the goal of securing Assange’s release, but his demands have been repeatedly rejected, including at the last meeting. Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton called on the Australian Prime Minister to intensify his efforts.

In the face of countless injustices and many a ground-breaking injustice in the world, one certainly loses all hope – at least from time to time – that law and justice can make their way. And history teaches us that this is certainly within the realms of possibility. However, history also teaches us that people and even entire societies cannot be governed by mercy in the long term. And this is the opportunity that we should definitely keep in mind and for which it is worth working here and there, on a small and large scale, with all our heart and strength.

Picture Link David Cameron:


Image Title Author License
WG – 2023 KW45-E-YT Wolfgang Müller CC BY-SA 4.0