Dustbowl of entitlement



The Australian, 19 May 2015


IT’s not so much the poverty that haunts us in the SBS series Struggle Street as the hideous human cost of another failed utopia.

The planners didn’t mean Mount Druitt to turn out this way when they set out to build a little piece of paradise on the western fringe of Sydney half a century ago. It was the largest housing project undertaken by the state of NSW. Some 8000 homes were to be rented out at an affordable price to workers; there would be parks in which their children could play and schools in which they could rise to their full potential. For a while it seemed to work, according to Bob, a 47-year-old, drug-addled human shell whose story was told on last week’s episode.

“I wouldn’t change me childhood for anything, mate,” said Bob. “It was a good childhood growing up around here.” And today? : “F…ing housing commission area, mate. I don’t think anyone wants to f…ing really be here. They’re just stuck here and can’t afford to go anywhere else.”

If Struggle Street helps answer one question – why did the happy, healthy suburb of Bob’s remembered childhood turn into the tawdry welfare sinkhole it is today? – it will be $1 million of public broadcasting money well spent. The program’s fatalistic narration offers one theory: “Bob found himself getting caught up in dark forces that had crept into the neighbourhood.”

Bob, at least, is prepared to wear a little more of the blame. “Heroin had hit Mount Druitt mate, and I was virtually one of the first people on it mate, first one charged at Mount Druitt cop shop with it anyway. Nothing has gone my way mate. It could have. Just from me own choices. Wish I wasn’t like that mate… ruined me f…ing life.”

Neither answer, however, is entirely satisfactory. Why did “dark forces” pick on this neighbourhood and not, say, Castle Hill, less than half an hour’s drive away, an outer suburb that is largely home to energetic, functional people? The drug trade is pervasive but why did heroin hit Mount Druitt especially hard and why were its residents so ill-armed to confront it? Why did SBS single out Mount Druitt for attention? Couldn’t the producers have found a heavily pregnant woman with a vacant stare smoking a lazy afternoon bong in Roseville or Artarmon?

From the comfort of the ABC’s studios in modish Ultimo, Struggle Street’s critics on Q&A tried to condemn its characters as unrepresentative. “It was an incredibly lopsided show,” said the AFR’s Jennifer Hewett. “It was kind of condescending… it was just as if they went out and kind of looked for talent.” Just like Q&A in other words. While Tony Jones’ producers presumably comb the coffee shops of Alexandria and Balmain scouting for opinionated guests, the makers of Struggle Street scour Mount Druitt’s malls for broken people who are willing to parade their miserable lives in front of the cameras.

They would not have needed to look particularly hard. Here is just a little of the evidence to be gleaned about postcode 2770 from the last Census:

More than 12,000 homes belong to the Housing Commission, that’s one-in-five homes in the suburb. More than half the tenants are single parents who outnumber married couples almost three to one. In 2011, 45 per cent of Commission tenants survived on less than $300 a week. Six out of ten working-age adults do no work at all. In 26 per cent of families with children there is no adult holding down a job. A trawl through welfare and crime statistics would doubtless complete the picture; Mount Druitt is an experiment in social engineering that went badly wrong.

Early tenants had to pass what amounted to a character test, proving to the satisfaction of Housing Commission officials that they possessed the right degree of civic pride to become good neighbours. In the 1970s, however, the policy changed. Housing would be granted on the grounds of social need, which in effect gave priority to the most dysfunctional applicants. The idea of homes for diligent working folk was abandoned. Bill Randolph and Dominique Murray’s analysis of the 2001 census found that 98 per cent of NSW Housing Commission tenants received social security payments.

Mount Druitt’s problem, then, is neither the visitation of dark forces nor fly-on-the-wall documentary crews. It is the entrenchment of a welfare culture that saps people of their dignity, robs them of agency and sucks the meaning from their lives. Welfare entitlements, though far from generous, have the potential to turn substance abuse into a viable career choice, albeit a wretched one.

“If your kids have addictions or other disabilities, it’s never ending hard yakka,” says Struggle Street’s overbearing narrator. The documentary’s subjects invariably describe their lot in more realistic terms. They tend to speak of addiction as a vice. One parent confesses that he hopes his ice addict son will be sent to prison to give him a chance of breaking his habit.

The same addict’s 18-year-old sister Chloe, describes suicidal thoughts and a torrid home-life. “Yelling, screaming, running around this place … It’s like you’re living in hell but you’re not.”

The consensus on Q&A seemed to be that they would rather this kind of show not be screened and that a veil be respectfully drawn over this ugly corner of outer-suburban life. Presenter Tony Jones, for once, chose not to voice an opinion. He faced this particular show-and-tell dilemma once before when, as the presenter of Lateline in 2007, he was prepared to wear the opprobrium of the politically correct by screening reports of welfare-fueled dysfunction in remote Australia. Whether we have made much progress in fixing that particular problem is a moot point, but few would now claim that responding to Indigenous dysfunction with silence was the correct thing to do.

So it is with Struggle Street, flawed as the program may be. If offering a window on this dust bowl of entitlement gives the Abbott government courage for serious-minded welfare reform, the show will indeed have performed a useful service.