Ronald Henderson, the chair of Australia’s only comprehensive inquiry into poverty, had what a friend called “an offended conscience”. His inquiry, whose main report was released a few months before the Whitlam government was dismissed in 1975, did as much as any single act before or after it to prick the bubble that Australia was a country of the fair go for all.
To read it is to be struck by how much has changed – women have poured into the workforce, we have been buffeted by globalisation and a rise in precarious employment – but also how much has stayed the same. Henderson insisted that poverty was a moral question. “Poverty is not just a personal attribute: it arises out of the organisation of society,” he said, a statement at the heart of the tension over poverty today. And a few years later: “For some 2 million people, including over three quarters of a million children to be left in deep poverty in this rich country is a disgrace.”
Australia’s peak body for community services organisations, the Australian Council of Social Service (Acoss) routinely calls our persistent poverty rates disgraceful, its Poverty in Australia report last year finding that 3 million of us, or just over 13%, live in poverty, including 739,000 children. “Poverty is now a consistent feature of Australian life,” said its CEO Cassandra Goldie. “Are we prepared to accept this?”
It seems we are. For decades, poverty and deep disadvantage have been all but absent in our political debate, and it’s unlikely any major political party will make ending or halving or tackling it in any targeted way a “vital national goal”, as Henderson once urged.
It’s as though the word is shameful. John Howard’s government removed references to “poverty” as it introduced its radical welfare reforms. The Rudd and Gillard government’s preferred term was “social inclusion”.
SOURCE: Alcorn, Gay. “Poverty as a moral question: do we have the collective will to end it?” The Guardian, 15 April 2019.
Produced by the librarians at the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne, Australia