An article by the former New South Wales Liberal minister Pru Goward which portrayed lower socio-economic Australians as dysfunctional and lazy “proles” has been condemned as disturbing, abusive and inaccurate by anti-poverty advocates.
The opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review by the former NSW families minister argues there is an “underclass” of Australians who are “appalling” housekeepers and neglectful parents and “almost entirely lacking [in] discipline”.
“Government agencies view them with alarm as huge cost centres; 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,” Goward wrote in Wednesday’s AFR.
“The underclass is not always a happy place to be and bumping into the rest of the world mostly does not go well. People with chronic mental illness, cognitive disabilities and childhoods of trauma are mixed together in a sometimes brutal way, chaos and crisis never far from their door, living in a Wild Wood in their streets and public housing blocks or caravan parks.”
A former sex discrimination commissioner who began her career as a journalist, Goward is currently professor of social interventions and policy at the University of Western Sydney and has a fortnightly column in the AFR.
The chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service, Cassandra Goldie, said everyone at her organisation was “deeply disturbed by the contempt shown for people on low incomes in this piece”.
“It is equally disturbing that it was published by the AFR over and above the wealth of experts on these issues, particularly people living on very low incomes and the extraordinary people across Australia dedicated to ensuring everyone has enough to cover the basics, and live with dignity,” Goldie said.
“This is after all Anti-Poverty Week and numerous experts have sought media coverage on these issues, including from the AFR.
“Today, for example, we have seen a new report showing that more than a million children went hungry last year. Families from all different backgrounds have gone without food over the last 12 months, including ‘professional couples’.”
Kristin O’Connell of the Antipoverty Network, which represents unemployed Australians living below the poverty line, said there was no excuse for the AFR to have published the Goward article.
“Whether it’s opinion or not, it is abuse against some of the most vulnerable people in the community,” O’Connell said. “Our lives are tough enough as it is, and we don’t need this piled on top.
“There’s only one thing she got right in this article.
“And that is that you should not underestimate the power and capacity of people who are living in deep poverty and, forced to live that way by the government, to be resourceful; to get through and survive in the disgusting circumstances we’re forced into.”
Goward, the member for Goulburn between 2007 and 2019, wrote that the underclass had a high birthrate and could be “harnessed” as workers to prevent importing our workforce.
“Despite the billions of dollars governments invest in changing the lives of proles, their number increases,” she wrote. “Their birth rates far outstrip those of professional couples and they are now a significant potential contributor to our workforce.”
The NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said he saw first-hand how Goward, when she was minister for child protection, pushed through laws that made it easier to permanently remove children.
“I saw how those laws have disproportionately impacted on vulnerable families, especially Aboriginal families,” Shoebridge said.
“This is a rare insight into the inner sanctum of the Liberal party and how they see the world divided between those who rule and those who work for them.
“It is a disturbingly honest piece that shows the born-to-rule attitude of the Liberal party.”
Goward told Guardian Australia she was “deeply disappointed” that her column had been “so badly misunderstood”. But, she said, opinion pieces are “meant to provoke and I hope it’s helped the readers of the AFR think differently about those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder”.
“I have applied a Marxist analysis which some might say is old fashioned but which explains to me why people judge others as unworthy,” she said.
Goward said Shoebridge was ignoring “all the wonderful things we did for vulnerable children” when she was a minister.
The editor-in-chief of the AFR, Michael Stutchbury, has been approached for comment.