Do privileged cabinet ministers have any idea how the poorer people live?

Mar 7, 2021

As a child in the 1950s, our family moved to Port Kembla, and we lived on Hill 60, just above the rocks where a lot of people have drowned recently.

I went to Port Kembla Infant’s School, which was overcrowded but interesting.  Half the kids there came from the migrant hostel in the old WW2 army camp where ‘displaced Persons’ (as WW2 refugee families were called) lived. These kids arrived in kindergarten without a word of English. This was taken as normal by the teachers, who just plugged on. The kids on the hostel bus were called ‘Hostels’, but it was a descriptor rather than a pejorative. By the time we got to 2nd class in our 4th year (Kindergarten, Transition, 1st Class, 2nd Class) there was no difference between Aussie borns and Hostels.  There were 46 in my 2nd class and girls filled the top 6 places. There was minimal racism in kids leaving this school.

There was no anti-discrimination legislation or bureaucracy in the 1950s but all the parents had jobs in the steelworks or associated industries and the Housing Commission was building suburbs full of affordable housing as fast as it could.  If you had a go, you got a go. ABC Radio had an awkward segment before the news called ‘Learn English with us’ where somewhat stilted practical speech exercises lasted about 2 minutes. I used to wonder how the new migrants all tuned in for this little segment if they could not understand the rest.  But the intention was there.

In 1966 there was a movement demanding ‘State Aid for Church Schools’ on the basis that they had paid their tax, and now they had left the state system they were paying twice. The government wanted to win the election, and this was seen as critical for the Catholic vote. The Democratic Labor Party, which had split from the ALP were the champions of this and still represented a significant threat to the ALP as they preferenced the Libs.  State Aid came in.

Sometime later there was a lot of emphasis on ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at TAFE, which were held during school hours. Their target was migrant women and their objective was to encourage English speaking to allow the women both to meet each other and to participate in society more easily. John Howard defunded the programme; ‘user pays’ was the new paradigm.

I now live in Sydney in a relatively central affluent suburb. Each morning 8 private school buses start near my door ferrying students to 8 private schools. No public transport needed – the school takes care of it all. Other students in private school uniforms catch subsidised public transport to the schools of their parents’ choice. But the cost of ‘choice’ is ‘residualisation’.  Schools, where there are a lot of ethnic students, suffer from ‘white flight’, and so have concentrated social disadvantage and a lack of native role models. One school I visited in Western Sydney had had a stabbing in the playground about 25 years ago.  The school photos in the foyer had no white face for the last 20 years. That was as far back as the photos went.

When we wonder if the Cabinet have any idea how the poorer folk live, my opinion is that they do not. These social dynamics have now been going for long enough that it is possible to be old enough to be in Cabinet and have no idea how the other half lives. Some think that people without jobs have ‘wasted their opportunities’ or have alcohol or gambling problems. Add a little self-righteous religion, ‘the poor are always with us’, a touch of arrogance and a peer group that thinks the same, and you have policies that are increasingly dismantling the fair go and equity that should be at the heart of our culture. It may be that you cannot make all people equal, but you can give all children equality of opportunity, and all adults enough to live on. We have to change direction and do just that.

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