Opinion

John Hewson
I grew up as one of Pru Goward’s ‘proles’ and her views are deplorable

How often have you heard that we are a very egalitarian nation, and heard politicians claim that we have one of the most effective and fair social welfare systems in the world – yet inequality remains a significant political issue? I was appalled and disheartened by a recent and very condescending column by Pru Goward, printed in The Australian Financial Review. As I read the column, I felt that I couldn’t personally let it go unanswered. It was very close to home for me. Goward focused on what she termed the “underclass” of Australia, whom she described as appalling housekeepers and neglectful parents, “often damaged and almost entirely lacking discipline”.

From the age of 10, I grew up at 81 Welfare Avenue, Beverly Hills, in Sydney. My earlier life was spent living with my grandmother in a small two-bedroom Federation home in Carlton, in southern Sydney, along with my mother, father and two younger brothers. We were, by Pru Goward’s definition, “not very nice … proles”.

Goward launched into the “underclass”, stating that we “rejected the rules and lived by [our] own”. She said this made us “like the stoats and weasels of the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows”.

Let me tell you about rules. In a household dominated by my grandmother, there were rules. As a Baptist Fundamentalist, not uncommon in the area at the time, rules were the cornerstone of our household and lifestyle. You ate what was put in front of you, answered questions when they were asked of you, and always, but always, respected your elders.

Nothing was easy for our family, but my father was a very strong education advocate. His instruction to me was to get as much as you can, as fast as you can. However, he painfully admitted that he didn’t have the money to make this a reality. Indeed, for me to finish five years of high school instead of three, he asked that I pay a weekly board and fund this by way of winning scholarships and doing a series of weekly jobs.

Dad had returned from the war, having given up his secure job in a protected manufacturing industry. When he came back he had to re-establish himself, and was forced to take a series of tech courses at night. Finance for a house was not easy. In the end, Dad had to rely not on a bank but on an organisation called Starr-Bowkett, a co-operative secondary financing institution where people supported each other to realise the dream of home ownership. In short, when your number came up you got the loan, with endless conditions.

By anybody’s standards, we were poor. The Beverly Hills house, when finally ours, was revealed to be a nine-square, two-bedroom fibro (asbestos) house, subject to a main roads warning pending the arrival of what is now known as the M5. For the five-and-a-half of us – we had a sister due – we had struck gold.

In the 1950s and ’60s, when we had moved to Beverly Hills, the area bordered what was then the Herne Bay migrant settlement centre. Later, it was given the more salubrious name of Riverwood. This was my first exposure to people who were genuinely more marginalised than we were.

The word marginalised is overused these days, so much so I recently heard Bridget McKenzie refer to some National Party members as among the most marginalised in the country. It’s not clear to me how these “poor” people missed the allocations from the regional development pork barrels, but somehow they must have.

In Herne Bay, the residents were recently arrived migrants. The people were poor, having given up their home countries and left much of anything they had behind for a new life in a new country. A mixture of ethnic groups, ten-pound Poms, Greeks, Italians and Lebanese, their concerns were all our concerns: to get a secure job, educate their kids and have a home to raise a family.

After World War II, immigration was a significant investment by the government, underwriting decades of growth and prosperity. It’s reasonable to acknowledge that one of the great successes of our society in the postwar period has been the development of a successful and tolerant multireligious, multiethnic society. This remains a significant work in progress. In the context of this success, it should not be forgotten that we pushed so many First Peoples into Goward’s “underclass”. It’s the persistence of their disadvantage that remains a priority challenge for any government.

Goward’s piece is really an insult to anyone concerned about genuine reform of social policy in this country. In my initial reading of it, I feared the argument was the worst manifestation of the “born to rule” mentality of Liberal–National governments, so quick to socially profile different groups of Australians but failing to recognise their responsibility to effectively address these social policy challenges, some of which are of their own creation. Goward, of course, was twice minister for Family and Community Services in the New South Wales Liberal government.

I was staggered not just by what I was reading, not just by the flippant and condescending prejudice of a person whose ministerial responsibilities covered the poor, but by the fact that the AFR saw merit in publishing it. In a wealthy country of 25 million people, it is disturbing that the mainstream media can perpetuate such distressing and divisive views. This is social profiling at its worst, by an elite few.

You might have thought that a leading business newspaper such as the AFR would be better invested in focusing on the urgent need for broad-based reform to ensure that so many more don’t get left behind. You might have also thought that the AFR would have focused on Goward’s claim that government agencies view this underclass with alarm as “huge cost centres”.

This cost is better understood in the context of the huge wastage of money by the Morrison government in allocating project grants to marginal seats they are concerned to keep or win, in the names of sporting facilities, commuter car parks and regional development. More broadly, it is important to recognise a significant distinction between “cost” and “investment”. Surely world-class health and education systems should be realistic aspirations for all Australians – and it should be a responsibility of government to deliver them.

One of Goward’s most indefensible assertions – of many – relates to the “chronic mental illness” of the underclass. There is no doubt that being poor is tough. My mother, Eileen, like many others, wanted a better life for all of us. I can remember us hiding behind the couch from the bill collectors when they came knocking at the door. Mum was in the habit of using catalogues to buy items that we simply couldn’t afford. Not big things; little things to make life nicer. I do, though, remember a bike that came my way, a green Speedwell, an item that Dad had flatly refused, which then had to be paid for by my irate old man, likewise doilies, tablecloths or other such niceties that she thought would improve our lot. It wasn’t evident at the time but Mum was mentally ill, a process that started with postnatal depression after the birth of my sister, obviously untreated and compounded by an overreliance on readily available prescription drugs.

Postnatal depression is not just the experience of the poor, nor is drug abuse, cognitive disability or the traumas of childhood, perhaps associated with sexual, physical or mental abuse. To suggest that these tragedies don’t occur on the posh side of the harbour, in Goward’s “nice families”, is poorly imagined and pure recklessness.

To create these impressions is devastating. She should have known better. Ministers should recognise that they are elected to do a job in the national interest. This should never include social profiling or being deliberately divisive. Poverty and disadvantage are very real challenges in our country. We’ve seen that the impact of Covid-19 was much more significant for the poor. As Craig Emerson recently pointed out, poor Australians are four times more likely to die from a Covid-19 infection.

Mum’s illness was very disruptive to our family. We had to pitch in however we could, and we did. There was nowhere to go; we certainly would have shielded Mum from the notice of the church. I only wish there had been help around that was accessible to us. I would like to think that any Australian today could feel that there is somewhere to go to get that help. Despite our difficulties, we were happy. We had an extremely strong sense of family. That said, we need, the country needs, a mature debate based on genuine truth-telling about poverty and disadvantage, rather than inciteful and insulting language and anecdotes.

Comparing the country’s poorest to the weasels and stoats of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is deplorable. It is perhaps instructive to note that it was in fact the mischievous and arrogant Toad, a wealthy character Grahame modelled on his own son, who went to jail for flagrantly and repeatedly flouting the law. Grahame wrote Toad in part to make up for how neglectful he and his wife – moneyed and absent parents – had been.

Families across the divide are almost always made up of badgers, rats, moles, toads and, yes, Pru Goward, sometimes stoats and weasels.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "81 Welfare Avenue".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.