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Thursday, 10 November 1983
Page: 2647


Mr MILDREN(10.21) —In rising to address the House in the grievance debate I wish to express my concern for those who not only suffer the frustrations, the hardships and the indignities of poverty and unemployment in this otherwise affluent society but also are blamed for being poor. We know that there is a common tendency in all communities and groups to stereotype other groups and to arrange them into in-groups and out-groups. Sadly, the out-groups have attributed to the characteristics that denigrate them.

We are all aware of the appalling bias against different ethnic groups. These biases are based upon prejudice and ignorance. Alleged anti-social or demeaning characteristics impair the pursuit of justice and equality of opportunity of the members of these groups. Aborigines, ethnic groups, women, pensioners, the poor and the unemployed have all suffered from the affects of group stereotyping.

Often the attitude of the in-group is overtly hostile and results in the formation of ghettos of the disadvantaged. However, sometimes it is not an attitude of hostility that is expressed towards out-groups; it can be quite sympathetic in intention. It is a twist on this aspect of stereotyping that concerns me tonight, Mr Deputy Speaker. I refer to the tendency even among avowedly sympathetic groups to blame the victim. This occurs in a number of ways and is referred to in William Ryan's book titled Blaming the Victim. He says:

I have now come to believe that the ideology of blaming the victim so distorts and disorients the thinking of the average concerned citizen that it becomes a primary barrier to effective social change.

He continues:

And, further, I believe that the injustices and inequalities in American life can be understood (and, therefore, can never be eliminated) until that ideology is exposed and destroyed.

I believe that what he said about America might well be just as easily applied to Australia. What does blaming the victim mean, Mr Deputy Speaker? How is it manifested and what are some of the implications in Australia? What particular role should government play in ridding society of this unjust, divisive and cruel ideology? To a marked degree it refers to groups that are poor, unemployed and to some degree seen to be deserving of your sympathy.

Becoming the victim means that the generalised responsibility for the fate these people suffer is levelled at the disadvantaged people themselves. This means that we suggest the disadvantaged are the problem and are the ones with the problem. If they are poor, it is because they lack initiative or their parents did not give them adequate opportunities.

Some months ago I came across a classic example in my electorate of Ballarat. Unemployment is very high and youth unemployment is higher still. One of the local service clubs decided to help the unemployed by providing a careers night. The motives of the organisation were impeccable. I believe its members had a genuine concern for those whom they perceived to have a problem. They perceived no problem in themselves; only the unemployed had the problem. What transpired was that the unemployed young people stayed away in their droves. The organisation's well-intentioned work proved to be a futile effort.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not know how the service club members reacted to the young people's apparent lack of appreciation of its efforts, but one letter was written to the local newspaper. This letter truly represented a classic case of victim blaming of the conservative model. It had to be the fault of the young unemployed. They were not interested in improving themselves and lacked any sense of appreciation of the efforts of those who were trying to help them overcome their deficiencies. They were seen to have the problem. They were the ones who were deficient. Quite obviously, the best way to help them was to get tough with them, to make them earn their dole and to make them feel as though they were blameworthy.

This is an example of blaming the victim. To be sure, it does not represent most people's position. I am sure that it would not represent the position of the great majority of those people who organised that careers night. Most people who blame the victims do so very unintentionally. It is a state of mind. Apart from those who are overtly prepared to blame them for their faults and to treat them as hopelessly inferior, there are those who still see them as having the faults caused by social and/or environmental factors.

The solution is to provide them with various remedial assistance schemes to help them to overcome their problems. Again both of these groups who set out to assist the poor, et cetera, are ideologically conservative. Ryan states:

Blaming the victim is an ideological process, which is to say that it is a set of ideas and concepts deriving from systematically motivated, but unintended, distortions of reality.

These ideas must be aimed at preserving the interests of the dominant group. This requires the maintenance of the status quo. By and large, there is little conscience element in this position. Often the ideology lacks articulation but the characteristics of the ideology are readily discernable. Whether the victims be Aborigines, the poor, the unemployed, the children of migrant groups whose primary language is other than English, the gist of the problem is the same. The problem lies in the victims. It is they who must undergo the change. It is their values, their language, their behaviour that must be changed. Those who, with compassion and concern, devote themselves to improving the individual member of the out-group, the victims, are often social workers, members of charitable groups, service clubs and other well intentioned people. The victims, nevertheless, are still seen to be at fault. They have the faults which must be remedied. Little reflection upon the causes of the differences between the in- group and the out-group is undertaken.

One wonders how receptive are the well-intentioned helpers to the notion that they represent the problem. While the social environment is the primary cause of poverty and disadvantaged, all the well-intentioned work of the helpers will do little to change the situation. Some might be helped but the majority will not be. It will require a different set of beliefs together with a more resolute will from courageous people to make the change that will relieve the suffering of the poor and the disadvantaged.

When the cause is seen to be the inequitable distribution of justice, of permanent decision-making about the wealth of the nation and of the inadequate provision of education and its bias, only then will the problem be able to be tackled. This, I believe, is the radical approach that is needed to change the system.

My concern, my grievance, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that too few understand the problem and too few are willing to make the shift in their own values and aspirations to commit themselves to the radical action necessary to develop a social environment in which the victims will no longer be blamed. I raise this issue tonight because I believe that government must play its part in raising the consciousness of this nation to the injustice of blaming the victim and to the impossibility of eradicating the practice and the tendency without changing the social conditions that create the victims.

There is no likelihood of a simple solution, nor will the goal be achieved in a short time. Like so many other defects that abound in our society, the unwillingness of the haves to divest themselves of advantage, of power, of wealth and of discriminatory privilege will be a major obstacle to the achievement of a just society. However, be this as it may, the effort to achieve the desired social change must be unrelenting. But it must also be accomplished peacefully, otherwise one out-group will be replaced by another, and in the long term nothing of substance will have altered.

In the parry and thrust of parliamentary proceedings there is much huffing and puffing about the effects of governmental action upon this group or that. Barely in all this resounding rhetoric do we hear honourable members call for a thorough examination of those factors within this society that promote social division, that act like some process of social Darwinism and cause poverty and injustice. There is little dignity in being poor, especially if one becomes an object of charity or of social manipulation. Therefore, whenever the victims rather than the system are blamed and when all the efforts to bring about change are directed at the Victim rather than the social system, we as politicians must make every effort to ensure that we do not perpetuate the problem.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! It being 10.30 p.m., in accordance with the provisions of standing order 106, as amended for this session, the debate is interrupted.

Question resolved in the affirmative.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The House stands adjourned until Tuesday next at 2 p.m.

House adjourned at 10.30 p.m.