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By Dr Andy Marks

3 March 2008

Poverty and inequality in Australia “We no longer judge society by the fate of the poor but by the fortunes of the rich.”


his comment, made by journalist Mark Davis, pinpoints a disturbing trend in the way in which the notion of community is discussed in contemporary Australia. Davis’ observations, detailed in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 2008, are taken from his forthcoming book, Land of Plenty. The book is a call to reassess the things we value as a nation. Central to his aims is to attempt to view Australian society, not through the impersonal appraisals of economists or statisticians, but through the prism of the people who have been left behind in the wake of 15 years of record economic growth. Much of his reading of the current situation mirrors that which St Vincent de Paul Society members have known for years; quite simply, the growth in the nation’s prosperity has not resulted in a fairer society, if anything, it has only served to broaden the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Davis’ choice of topic is not groundbreaking; however, what makes his comments particularly interesting is his ability to look beyond the rhetoric and simply trust his experiences. “A couple of years ago”, says Davis, “driving through the industrial zone of the outer Melbourne suburb of Airport West at around knock-off time, I switched radio


stations and came in on a conversation between two commentators discussing how class was dead in Australia. As I listened, I watched young and old men walk across a dusty gravel carpark to an assemblage of 15- and 20-year-old rusty Fords and early model Commodores. Men earning $30,000 or $40,000 a year, caked in foundry dust.” Davis drove on to an appointment in a leafy suburb in South Yarra. The radio debate continued as he journeyed in matter of minutes between areas that seemed more like different planets than nearby suburbs. What he witnessed crystallised his view of the realities of inequality in Australia. “A whole class of people has disappeared from popular consciousness and analysis”, says Davis. This group of disadvantaged Australians, he adds, has been “filtered out of everyday conversation”. Much of this problem stems from the fact that while divisions between classes are not as pronounced or openly discussed as they are in for instance, the United Kingdom, they still permeate everyday Australian existence. According to Davis, examples of this divide are subtle but easy to find. Davis goes on to recall what occurred when he observed a family of “outsiders” entering a space surreptitiously “reserved” for wealthier Australians. On the outskirts of the city, Davis visited an architecturally designed restaurant perched upon the top of a manicured garden hill surrounded by a shimmering dam, where “the basic meal costs more than $50 a head, the crowd is almost entirely white” and the drive is lined with prestige European cars. All of a sudden, the tranquil murmur of classical music and clinking glasses was shattered by what he describes as “a wonderfully liberating moment”. A young family arrived, looking distinctly out-of-place. “Four noisy, barefoot young kids tumbled and cartwheeled down the lawn to the dam” while their mums and dads in modest secondhand clothing “stood uneasily at the top of the hill… looking particularly self-conscious and uncomfortable.” All of the “filters” designed to keep these kind of people out had failed, thought Davies, bar one. “There was nowhere for them to sit – not without spending $50 a head. For the kids, wonderfully, this didn’t matter”, Davis continues. “They charged up and down the hill for 15 minutes while the parents improvised, filching a vacant restaurant chair so that the women could sit down in the heat, one perched uneasily on each corner, while the kids finished their game.”

The growth in the nation’s prosperity has not resulted in a fairer society, it has only served to broaden the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Davis’ observations of kids blissfully unaware of the barriers of difference, class or poverty remind me of an insightful comment made by a social worker at a Family


Centre in a depressed rural town in northern NSW, whom when asked how she coped with the despair and poverty she saw in the new mothers she helped every day, replied how she tells despairing parents, “babies don’t know whether their born in to a rich or poor family, all they know is love, and all they ask for is to be loved.” This is a simple yet extraordinarily heartening comment, one that reminds us how the thoroughly illogical propensity to love abounds in us all, regardless of the crude divisions so often imposed by a society so readily seduced by the vacuous “logic” of the market. If Davis’ book achieves one thing it will be to start a conversation, one that is long overdue in mainstream Australia, a conversation that addresses the predicament of the most disadvantaged members of the community. The St Vincent de Paul Society has been contributing to this vital discussion for 175 years.

In all the debate about pensions and welfare, no one seems to have spared a thought for the single adult unemployed, living on $219 a week. The signs of a change in public discourse are encouraging, even among economic analysts. Columnist Ross Gittins recently wrote, “Governments have become so obsessed by the economy that they aren’t always aware of specific instances of the limitations of markets”. Gittins goes on to talk about the fundamentals of a responsible government and a compassionate society, observing that in all the debate about pensions and welfare, “no one seems to have spared a thought for the single adult unemployed, living on [$219] a week.” Gittins critiques the modern day obsession with economics, stating, the “justification for putting so much emphasis on economic growth is that the richer we are the more easily we can afford to buy the solution to our problems. That may be true of many problems”, he concludes, “but most of us know money is often a poor substitute for the support of family and friends.” The St Vincent de Paul Society remains committed to ensuring that we define the worth of our community through the manner in which we address the needs of disadvantaged Australians.