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Poor-blaming lets governments off the hook



Last week, former NSW Liberal minister Pru Goward contributed an opinion piece ‘Why you shouldn’t underestimate the underclass’ in the Australian Financial Review, which, since publication, has been widely condemned as offensive, owing to its contempt for lower socio-economic Australians. ‘They are damaged, lacking in trust and highly self-interested’, the article begins.

Referring to disadvantaged people as ‘proles’, Ms Goward writes: ‘Like the stoats and weasels of the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows … they rejected the rules and lived by their own. They were to be feared and were, to use my mother’s words, not very nice’, and ‘they are over-represented in their use of government crisis services and are always the last to give up smoking, get their shots and eat two servings of vegetables a day.’ And yet Ms Goward claims to ‘like’ the people she writes about, because ‘they call us out.’

In light of the above, I feel it is important to share my experience of being involved with the St Vincent de Paul Society for 27 years. The people described by Ms Goward are not the people I’ve visited, helped and interacted with in my time with the Society.

The people we assist are often the first ones to give away what little they have. I remember a home visit, delivering a box of food, sitting with this guy and hearing his story, and feeling how meagre this box of food was given his significant needs, yet he was so grateful and speaking of how he would be sharing it with the single mum next door because she has a kid and they struggle to get by. This sort of thing is more the rule rather than the exception. These are not people driven by naked self-interest.

Marginalisation and disadvantage are, by their nature, circumstances that make human flourishing difficult. But when we know that parents on JobSeeker are forced to live below the poverty line on $44 a day and often go without meals to feed their children, to then complain that these are the people who are the last to ‘eat two servings of vegetables a day’, is hypocritical and cruel.

The Society advocates strongly and constantly on behalf of people who need assistance. The reality is that often, Governments and elected MPs just don’t want to hear the message, let alone be brave enough to do anything about it.


'We don’t need further commentary that gives people who are well off yet another excuse to demonise people living in poverty and to blame them for their circumstances. It lets governments off the hook – governments which should be addressing the structural causes of poverty.'


We don’t need further commentary that gives people who are well off yet another excuse to demonise people living in poverty and to blame them for their circumstances. It lets governments off the hook — governments which should be addressing the structural causes of poverty.

If people living with poverty are ‘over-represented in their use of government crisis services’, perhaps governments might consider investing in the well-being of all people living in Australia. As long as this stigma is perpetuated and even encouraged, some people will find it difficult to access the services they and their children need.

Of the hundreds of home visits I've done, I'm yet to meet a person who is capable of working but simply doesn't want to or thinks it’s easier or better to exist on Centrelink payments. I know of one woman who is on a Disability Support Pension who would love to work, and has been applying for jobs, but is unable to secure work because potential employers don’t want to employ someone with a disability. For her, work would almost be a break from full time parenting and grandparenting. When I visit her, I am often there for an hour as she talks — so full of life, love and joy because of her family. She glows with pride despite the fact the housing trust place she shares with her adult children and their kids is sub-par because repairs they’ve requested are not a priority. These are not people entirely lacking in discipline.

During the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people accessed Centrelink payments, some for the first time — people who never thought they’d experience unemployment, now faced with that very prospect. Their children had to join the dole queue.

Most of us are just a pay cheque or one or two life events away from hard times. If we miss a few pays, and deplete our savings, we are at the mercy of a system that currently judges and demeans. If we become unwell, lose our job, or go through a relationship breakdown, we often have little to draw on. And this is especially so for people with limited resources and support networks.

Providing a hand up for people who fall on hard times not only keeps children out of poverty, it acts as a stimulus for the local economy. And in the long term, if we invest in children and families early, we save in the long run, keeping young people meaningfully engaged in the community and contributing to society.

Ms Goward is welcome to her opinion, but to use a rare opportunity in a national daily to peddle this stuff is an opportunity lost for serious debate about the issues currently facing people living in Australia. As a nation, we already make people feel bad for being poor. The rhetoric in articles like hers only contribute further to that marginalisation.



Claire Victory is the National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia.

Main image: A man walks past tents at a camp for the homeless in Australia. (Brendon Thorne/ Getty Images)

Topic tags: Claire Victory, Pru Goward, AFR, underclass, government, poverty, SVDP, St Vincent de Paul Society



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Existing comments

Clear and to the point, Claire. We need responsible government, not excuse-making.

Kevin Liston | 26 October 2021  

Couldn’t agree more. I’m absolutely stunned by Pru Goward’s words. And I’m amazed that The Australian would so unconcernedly publish them. Has their editorial policy become so blatant? “ All too full of contempt is their soul”.

Joan Seymour | 27 October 2021  
Show Responses

Joan, I'm not at all surprised that "The Australian" would publish that piece.

Bruce Stafford | 29 October 2021  

How can we get Claire's article in the AFR?

Joanna Elliott | 27 October 2021  

Ah yes, the 'Give them cake' approach! Like many retired politicians Pru Goward should, well, retire.

Edward Fido | 27 October 2021  

The economist, Colin Clark in his book, "The Conditions of Economic Progress" [printed in 1940] wrote that 'to deprive economics of the welfare and what do you have left? Nothing: except possibly the theory of the trade cycle, where all values may be capable of expressing in money terms without the introduction of the concept of welfare.'

The vacuous comments of Goward and her ilk only show that arrogance and ignorance are good bedfellows. They should be treated with pity, not contempt, as they are below that mark.

All we can do is to care for the poor, the weak and infirm. And don't expect anything from the rich and arrogant. Always be at peace and you'll be happy helping other people- that is something the Gowards of this world will never experience.

JOHN WILLIS | 27 October 2021  

The idea in this article seems to be that the ‘underclass’, historically being anti-authoritarian by disposition, are not given to ‘meekism’ and can see through the cultural hegemony that the progressives want to establish. If she isn’t exiled from Western Sydney University, it’ll be interesting to see whether her ideas on social intervention can turn the ‘underclass’ into a kind of John-Howard-aspirational demographic that supports the coalition. Stuart Ayres, the Liberal hero of Western Sydney, if he hasn’t already, should have a chat to Goward about how the ambition latent in the article can be channelled.

roy chen yee | 27 October 2021  

Well spoken Claire, and from the grassroots perspective which has zillions more street cred. than the opinion of an ex-politician with a Family( God help them) Services portfolio at arms length from the action.
It beggars belief that the said ex-politician now is a professor of Social Intervention. I would hope she never intervened on/with or for me.

Henri | 27 October 2021  

There is a great need in this country to put a stop to handing out mickey mouse professorships from mickey mouse institutions. The recipients always seem to think they have something of value to offer when often they haven't a clue!

john frawley | 27 October 2021  

Claire writes well and this article is pertinent but doesn't include details of Goward's own basis of the primary document. Goward declares the basis was a Marxist analysis and I find that accurate, even if a bit of a liberty to use a such broad condemning brush across the "proles". Goward tried to throw a blanket over anyone who identifies in the primary category which is unwise; when individuals reflect on their circumstances that put them in their predicament they may not see the same cause. I used the word "predicament" deliberately because in some cases Goward is right; the predicate is a logical extension of the class stereotype. Writers are less free to categorize individuals than Marx and Goward should have known better than to profile any group of unfortunates in any manner but let's not forget how readily we still accept stereotypes when it suits us. I believe Goward used rhetoric in her piece but am unsure of her persuasive purpose whereas Claire similarly uses eristic dialectic but with clear motives. A bit like demonstrated by the NDIS, governments don't work well with individual circumstances and needs; by splitting the class into individuals authorities avoid group criticism and class power.

ray | 27 October 2021  

There are a number of ex-politicians who write opinion pieces for newspapers: Amanda Vanstone, John Hewson and Pru Goward are regular contributors.
Ex-Prime Ministers write letters to the editor. Pru Goward has written her opinion which is not designed to be read as fact but as provocation for further discussion and/or reaction. This is a far cry from high quality journalism - opinion pieces have taken over from fact-based, rigorous interrogation. And everyone is diminished by this approach.

Pam | 28 October 2021  

The best way to get people out of poverty is to enable them to obtain assets. A government shared equity housing scheme is a very good way. These schemes can easily be modified to suit income, even welfare income. Repayments can be less than renting. The deposit can be as low as a rental bond. They cost the government nothing in the long run as housing increases in value.

Bruce | 28 October 2021  

Also a good example of old ideology i.e. eugenics, based upon old Anglo Calvinist seers including Calvin, Malthus, Galton and socio-Darwinism.

This is still manifest and now exemplified in the 'radical right libertarian' ideology of today, but through other proxies e.g. the subject of this article; reinforced constantly through media, then social narratives and shaping attitudes.

Andrew J. Smith | 30 October 2021  

There are certainly those, like Ms Goward, who seem to take a very 18th Century attitude to poverty, where, in England the options for the poor included the workhouse, a life of crime or begging. Transportation to Australia was, retrospectively, an excellent option for some. The Scandinavian countries have a much better approach to welfare, but it is proactive, there is no passive 'dole', nor housing stress/homelesness but good opportunities to retrain for a real job, not the often useless short courses forced upon the unemployed here. We need to emulate Scandinavia in their approach to poverty.

Edward Fido | 02 November 2021  

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