A Modest Proposal


If you took him seriously, Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough would seem a dangerous radical. In proposing that some parents be forced to direct debit part of their income to pay for basic necessities, he has admitted that children have rights that should take priority over parents’ rights.


But he wasn’t shot full of nails by the Australian Family Association or by Alan Jones because he meant ‘bad’ parents certain welfare recipients whose domestic violence, boozing or drugs, gambling and crime were known to school principals, welfare workers, police and/or the courts.

If Brough’s proposal comes to fruition, those parents not us nice ones would be forced to accept that 30 per cent of their financial benefits be directed ‘specifically to the benefit of their children’ for basic food, clothing, health, education and housing.

What’s wrong with that? Well, as frontline workers with these poor, homeless, ill and isolated parents will tell you: they’ll find a way round it.

We’ve got to do more. Much more.

Australia ‘s taxing and spending priorities have bugger all to do with the rights of children to the best that society can give them. We still leave parents to sink or swim, and some of our kids end up overboard. Our greatest and most urgent moral obligation is to those who are vulnerable and voiceless. Yet the latest Federal Budget provided tax cuts for parents earning over $150,000 a year, and Sweet FA for those well-known pockets of misery and violence in real struggle-towns.

Brough performed a successful Sanders of the River intervention in a gang skirmish he interrupted at Wadeye in the Northern Territory, but I see they’re back into it again. Local commentator, Tracker Tilmouth, said the Wadeye riot was caused by ‘total hopelessness and frustration by this community that should be enjoying the standard of living, services that we all take for granted.’

‘Give me Soweto in its heyday,’ he added.

Politicians don’t talk about children’s rights, but warmly, of ‘families.’ And they play dog-whistle politics with the term. Just think of the way John Howard responded to the ALP’s proposals for means-testing Family Assistance. He cleverly implied that Labor was proposing to deprive ‘mainstream’ mums and dads and give ‘their share’ to undeserving junkies, pisspots and no-hopers. Very sneaky. Good parents versus bad parents, instead of good government supporting all children.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

He was helped by the ALP’s incapacity to articulate its policy in response.

We should confront the recent past. We have left our most vulnerable people on ‘islands’ geographic or cultural: Arnhem Land or Perth; Christmas Island or Nauru and have not supported them properly. None of this is new any social worker working 20 or more years ago could tell you about child poverty and neglect, and how they felt they could do nothing about it. We didn’t want to know. We looked away.

Instead of being shocked when women and children are raped, drowned and burned, what about asking why we allow communities to fester. Communities where children’s basic rights to life, and a decent quality of it are utterly undermined by the collapse of the rule of law.

In 1994 Rosemary Neill claimed in a feature in for The Weekend Australian:

Judy Atkinson, a Queensland-based Aborigine who has worked in the family violence field for several years, recalls how in 1987, concerned about the effects of family violence on children, she told a Queensland Government Minister there were 12 children in Cairns Base Hospital from one small Aboriginal community who had been physically or sexually assaulted. One of these patients had four different sexually transmitted diseases of the anus and vagina. She was seven years-old. According to Atkinson, the Minister replied: ‘Oh Judy, don’t talk about that. People will think that self-management is not working.’

One characteristic of a working democracy that we seem to have lost is the acceptance of public failure, and the honest virtue of shame. It’s always someone else’s fault. We, as members of the community, ought to accept responsibility for children who have not learned to think, aspire or empathise. We should accept responsibility for the children of Aboriginal parents in violent communities just as much as we do for the children of middle-class parents who choose to dispose of their financial and personal resources on fags, wine, cable TV and 4WDs.

Let’s not blame those communities, then, but ourselves. Bullies and thugs and standover men and thieves have gotten away with murder. The remedies offered are grossly insufficient involving coercion and force, but with no plan for what happens next.

And Mal Brough’s proposed summit to address violence in Aboriginal communities? Oh, please! What nonsense. We know what to do. We just can’t agree on who’s going to do it.

Every child has the right to the best that society has to offer, not just to be protected from abuse and exploitation and inhumane treatment.

Every child has a right to participate in the cultural life of their community and this does not include an imported gang culture bred in impoverished soil and fed by hopelessness.

Every child is entitled to live in a family, neighbourhood and community that has rules and standards of behaviour, and whose members are accountable for deviance from those standards.

And every child is entitled to a voice in their community for its leaders make decisions that affect them deeply. Only when they have a voice do we see children as human beings: the dependent ‘other’ for whom we must put our adult preferences second.

There is no need for any Australian child to go to bed cold, hungry, or afraid tonight. If only we took children’s rights seriously enough to devise a program for their wellbeing across all the demarcation lines of government and adults’ interests.

I called this column, unoriginally, ‘A Modest Proposal’ which is what Jonathan Swift called his 200-year-old pamphlet proposing a tongue-in-cheek (so to speak) final solution to poverty in Ireland.

Can’t we do better than cannibalise our children?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.