Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-3-5952 5780

+61-4-1349 7828

Feb 2008 # 4

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Back to Editorials 2008

The Great Council of the 1000

The Third World is alive and well in Australia and a gathering of the great council of 1000 of the chattering, ‘polite’ classes, gathered in the big house over a weekend, will not change a thing.

Almost unimaginable amounts of money are spent each year in trying to hide this Third World from the ‘polite’ classes or in attempts to distance the reality of this fact from those of us who choose to live here.

One of the most visible attempts to create a sense of distance between the polite classes and the reality of poverty and dispossession is the criminalisation of poverty. Think of any media report of the effects of poverty and dispossession and you will find that it is couched in the terms of criminality or delinquency. 

The vagrants who reside in parts of our cities and towns are very rarely described in terms of their suffering. Sure, there are the special features that focus on individuals who are forced to live on the streets. Their poverty is often presented as a battle against forces that hold them locked into a “lifestyle” that most of us can barely comprehend.

That these people are not us is the first impression that has to be created by the authors of these features. Certainly, they may have been like us once upon a time but now they are ‘victims’. Victims of disease – mental illness or chronic depression or alcoholism. Victims of circumstance – a broken home or the loss of their job or as a result of loss of capacity due to injury. Or perhaps the most obvious, victims of birth. That is their skin colour or race.

One class of victims is very rarely described. These are the ones who have lost hope and faith in the society they have come from but must remain part of but perhaps, all of the ‘victims’ described so far are, in reality, victims of the society they must remain in.

What is never described or touched on in these features is the ‘big picture’ effects of such things a neoliberal economics – we usually call this economic rationalism - or the way laws are made by those who believe they know best. But of course the law makers must know best as they are usually drawn from the ruling classes anyway. Therefore those who rule must know best.

When the ‘victim’ is fully established as not one of us, the usual thing for the feature maker to turn to is their immediate circumstance. In constructing this aspect of the story of the inhabitant of the Third World, they will present to the viewer, reader or listener the daily activities of their subject. We will be introduced to the ‘daily grind’ this person must endure. However, when most of their readers, listeners or viewers see this, they will immediately compare it to their own ‘struggle street’ experience. 

Comparisons will immediately turn to the viewer’s, listener’s or reader’s own private experience of having to pay the mortgage, put the kids through school, pay the bills and save for the holiday. Of course, that these concerns are the result of the pursuit of capital and come down to their own lifestyle choice and are, therefore, not really comparisons at all, is lost on most media consumers. 

However, this comparison between the comfort / discomfort of them and the Third World serves the purpose of reinforcing, in the mind of the media consumer, the sense of distance between them and the subject of the feature. 

However, the reality cannot be easily avoided in the daily life of the average punter. For the wealthy it is relatively easy to avoid simply because this group spend their lives ensuring they never come into inadvertent contact with the ‘great unwashed’. When they do encounter someone below their own status, it will be in a carefully controlled and stage managed fashion. One in which the benefit accrues to them and not those they are allowing into their company. 

For most of us encounters with the Third World here in Australia are more common. Most of us don’t display a callous disregard for the poor and dispossessed. Rather, when they do occupy the same physical space as us, we can choose to tune out and ignore them. On one level this is a healthy thing to do as we cannot stretch our own interpersonal resources beyond their limits. On another level, the fact that we can choose to ignore the reality of the ‘other’ is a reflection of our own comfort.

I wonder if the 1000 chattering and polite people who will be carefully selected and instructed, encounter the Third World so evident in their own cities. I know some of them have and know they know what I’m getting at. Some of them will have experienced the pain and entered into the lives of Third World residents and suffered alongside them. Most, however, have no idea or have only ever encountered the ‘other’ during a publicity shoot for some charity or other. 

For the most part this tax payer funded junket to the big house will achieve little other than present another networking opportunity for the already well connected and well healed and for them to ‘tut tut’ about how bad things are and how they need to be fixed. What will not be discussed is their complicity in perpetuating the very conditions they find so appalling. 

My prediction is that at the end of the talkfest they will release a news statement along the lines of ‘things are bad, but we have committed to making them better’. Other comments for media consumption may well include ‘we need to do more’ and ‘we want to work with government to raise the bar’. None of which means diddly-squat to those whose reality is shaped by forces very much beyond their control and who will not be able to see, read or view the news anyway. 

I guess you could say I’m rather sceptical of the purpose and outcomes of the great council of the 1000. That would be right. None of them are experts in the fields they will be discussing. Sure, they have ‘qualifications’ and write or comment on the issues but none of them have actually experienced the reality they will make grand statements on. The real experts, the inhabitants of the Third World, will be left exactly where they are now – in the streets, under the bridges and in the parks and gardens they call home. 

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the great council of the 1000 are doing good work to turn around the fortunes of the inhabitants of the Third World. Unfortunately for them though, the weight of history is working against them. Nonetheless, wouldn’t it be grand if this august gathering could point their collective finger at the real problem. But then again, if they did you and I would also have to shoulder our portion of the blame. Maybe we’re just not ready to accept that much responsibility yet.  

Besides, its not polite to point.

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