October 2003 #3

International Week of Poverty

Can you guess what “International Week of …” it is?

It’s Anti Poverty Week, which will conclude with the “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty” on the 17th October. So far this week I’ve heard only one news story on this event. I’m hoping there may be a few more on the 17th. However, the week started with politics and I guess as George the Lessors’ visit gets closer we’ll have more of the same.

In last Sunday’s Age newspaper Michelle Gratton did a very good piece on the “Nationals” (formerly known as the National Party). A focus of her article was the makeover the Nats were getting as they called in the ‘image makers’ in an attempt to ‘re-brand’ them as a viable political option.

Gratton describes how the ‘Nationals’ called in a professional image-maker, Grant Foster, to build a new image based on ‘values’. Gratton quotes Foster. “It’s not about political issues or election campaigns. We use values as a filter through which you determine your behaviour, policies [and] approach to current issues and selection of candidates”. All this talk of values as opposed to virtues.

As I understand it a virtue is something that is fixed. A part of our make up. A virtue is something that has the ‘power’ to motivate action. Virtues are universal, for example mateship, goodness, kindness, justice etc. However, values are shaped by their ‘utility’. Or to put it an other way, while virtues are fixed and agreed upon, our values change over time. We value ‘things’. Our virtues guide our human interactions.

To say our values change over time is to state the bleeding obvious. The values I held 10 years ago are not the same as the values I hold today. Why? For a whole range or reasons. Economic circumstance, social circumstance, educational experiences, job changes and a whole raft of other influences have meant that my values have remained flexible and adaptable. On the other hand, the virtues I pursue, goodness, faithfulness, honesty and a sense of justice, remain firm. How I pursue these is, to a great extent, shaped by the values I adopt to address them.

As I understand the history of the ‘Nationals’, part of the reason they formed was to make sure that farmers would be heard in the halls of power. That the needs of rural people would be represented by those who lived in the same circumstances as their constraints. At least that was the rhetoric. The fact that it was the rich farmers who were more interested in protecting their markets than looking after their constituents can be put aside for the moment – but not forgotten.

The founders of the Australian Country Party in the early part of last century were espousing the virtues of justice (for rural Australians), hope (to create a better deal) and fairness (by being able to represent their constituents). The virtues they espoused allowed them to capture the imagination of rural voters thus giving them the basis on which to build a set of party values based on access to markets, trade protection, services and, of course, those subsidies. 

But notice how even back then there was a disconnect between the espoused virtues and the values the party adopted. It is fair to say that the Country Party (which became the Australian National Party which became the National Party which is now just the Nationals) like all political parties espouses those virtues which we all aspire to (mateship, loyalty, justice etc) but is forced to adopt those values which offer it the most utility. In other words, when push comes to shove, the Nationals like all its political stable mates will favour those values that it believes will get it’s members re-elected.

What does this have to do with poverty? Quite a bit actually.

I’ve been poor, but I’ve never lived in poverty. There have been times when I had to forgo one necessity in order to provide another. Selling highly regarded personal items for far less than their intrinsic value to me was not easy but it did allow another bill to be paid. That’s being poor. The fact that I had something to sell and a reason to sell it delineates my situation from those who live in poverty. So while the focus in the news this week continues to be on the power of politics, lets have a brief look at what the other half are living like.

The richest 20 percent of Australians receive more than half of household total income, while the poorest 20 percent receive only 10 percent of the total income. The top 10 percent of households hold over 50 percent of all household wealth while the bottom 50 percent hold only three percent of all household wealth. The greatest concentration of poverty is in Indigenous and non-English speaking households. One in six Australian children will wake up today to poverty. About 40% of Indigenous Australians of employable age are unemployed and rely on government benefits for survival.

Twenty-eight years ago Ronald Henderson developed the first comprehensive poverty measurement survey. His inquiry found that, at that time, about 20% of Australian families lived in poverty. That figure is now somewhere about 30% and rising.

The authors of the 1998 update of the Henderson Report “Australian Poverty, Then and Now” state that

"If poverty is seen as a result of structural inequality within society, any serious attempt to eliminate poverty must seek to change those conditions which produce it. Although individual members of society are reluctant to accept responsibility for the existence of poverty, its continuance is a judgment on the society which condones the conditions causing poverty."

So how do the Nationals respond to such a call to live up to the virtues they so freely espouse? By calling in an image maker to advise them on how to best identify a range of values they can cobble together to allow them to come up with the National’s ‘brand’ of policies. As Gratton reports, “The pitch contains all the marketing jargon. A ‘new brand charter” is to be implemented, and ‘brand presence’ is to be promoted by “disciplined processes to ensure a strong and consistent look and feel”. In other words the what the party says rules OK! So much for politicians representing anyone or anything outside the party ‘values’.

In the mid 1970’s media commentators and politicians declared that to allow poverty to remain so high was scandalous (remember Bob Hawke’s crocodile tears in the 80’s as he declared “no Australian child will live in poverty!”). Now our media, if they do report on poverty, do so as if it’s inevitable and the images they usually show are those that are constructed to remind us that poverty is ‘out there’ some where, far removed from our comfortable lounge room chairs and full bellies.

At the National’s conference John Anderson declared that rural Australia is changing and his deputy, Mark Vaile, reminded the party faithful that not all of their constituents drove BMW’s or could afford designer ‘casual wear’. But I guess as both of them looked out over the sea of party faithful members they saw, predominantly, BMW (or equivalent) drivers in designer clothing who would retire after the meeting to sip Lattes and enjoy glasses of premium Chardonnay.

Poverty, in my experience is not the inability to pay bills or to feel hungry for a day. The people in poverty that I have talked to describe it as what I would call a feeling of immobility. There is no way out as they see it. So in their circumstance they see no point in trying and so they adapt.  I’ve met people who live in poverty who are ‘happy’ as they have worked out the best means of survival (although they are not joyous in their circumstance) and I have met others for whom each day is filled with a series of hurdles to overcome.

Our papers remain full of headlines declaring the latest political power play or economic crisis. If space is given to reporting on the effects of poverty its about personal stories. There is no reporting that, as the authors of the 1998 report declare, poverty is a result of the structural conditions that we allow to remain unchallenged. Part of that process is the political process of “issues management” which grew out of public relations practice. Its also about protecting class interests and occluding or shutting out those issues that are real, material barriers that prevent a huge number of “our fellow Australians” from reaching their potential.

The question facing us as party members (as we are by default as we keep electing them) is what are we going to do to return our political leaders to the virtues that they so readily espouse, but ignore in the face of values that they mould to shape their political advantage at the expense of human dignity and honour?

It seems to me that our political leaders want to ‘issue manage’ poverty in such a way as to ensure that the vast army of people who currently feel immobilised and obstructed remain in their current circumstance. The ruling classes too, live in fear. They know that if those at the bottom of the social heap were to find out that real political power lay with them, not their so called ‘representatives’, that the shear weight of numbers would bring revolution to the streets.

In this week of remembering those who live in poverty, the main concern of the political power brokers is ensuring that they can ‘manage the issues’ and define a series of ‘branded values’. Their concerns remain, as they always have done, in keeping the poor penniless and those in poverty immobilised. Surely the role of all ‘good’ Australians, who hold true to the virtues of mateship, justice, honesty, hope and charity, is to lead the revolution that will liberate the poor and overcome the obstacles of poverty. To object to joining in that struggle, I would argue, is to adopt the flexible values of political expediency and to deny the very virtues we so easily say are our own true motivation.