Last week in affluent, well-educated, politely spoken, avowedly Labor and impeccably PC Canberra, someone wrote something in a small throwaway newspaper that Canberrans read rather thoughtfully.
It appeared in the ‘City News’, a weekly edited by former Canberra Times veteran Ian Meikle and the article was penned by former Labor chief minister Jon Stanhope, the only chief minister, he tells readers, to have a government with a majority in the ACT’s toy town Legislative Assembly.
Stanhope wrote of a March seminar that focused on poverty and disadvantage and how neo-liberalism not just entrenched poverty, but maintained and expanded inequality.
The speakers included John Falzon, CEO of Vinnies National Council, Toni Hassan from the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Bishop Emeritus Pat Power and Sarah Murdoch, CE at St. John’s Care and they discussed how, in the national capital, something like 40,000 people lived below or near the poverty line.
And they asked, Stanhope noted, was whether these people troubled Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s government or Canberra’s comfortable middle class. Almost 8000, Stanhope went on to say, were children under 14, with a disproportionate number of them being indigenous.
Julie Tong, the fiercely energetic CEO of the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service has repeatedly called on the ACT government to investigate, to institute an independent inquiry into poverty but was informed that the ACT government did not see a need for such an inquiry.
“One of the issues raised,” wrote Stanhope, “[is] the widening of the gap in wealth and privilege in Canberra [due to] the accelerating rate of the cost of housing, including for rental. This has occurred almost entirely as a consequence of a decision taken by Chief Minister Barr and the ACT Labor/Greens government to abandon the ACT Housing Affordability Action Plan.”
Canberra has always prided itself in maintaining a classless society. In the earliest days, ‘no front fences’ promoted neighbourly values and ‘ACT Housing’ (never, God forbid, ‘Housing Commission’) accommodation was deliberately scattered throughout all suburbs, not, as in heartless Sydney suburbs that, by their very names, indicated social levels.
Now vast blocks of prestige units rise, almost overnight, seemingly, where before, one or two much humbler ‘ex-guvvie’ homes stood.
“I have been forced to wonder,” wrote Stanhope “[if] the Chief Minister and his Labor and Green colleagues have chosen to channel ex-Liberal Treasurer’s infamous and classical neo-liberal advice to people who have been priced out of home ownership to “get a better job”.”
It has always been the spoken and unspoken rule in Labor that criticism of the party or its policies is verboten. For a former Labor leader to call out his predecessor is unheard of, at least in the ACT. But Stanhope pushed on, unwavering.
“The ACT government’s unapologetic disregard for the overwhelming demand of young Canberra families and first home buyers to either own or live in a detached house can reasonably be assumed to reflect a neo-liberal instinct within the ACT government … I have many classically middle-class home-owning friends who are understandably thrilled at the bonanza the runaway increase in house prices that have resulted from the ACT government’s policies will deliver when they sell their homes. They are grateful to the Labor Party for enriching them so generously and many will no doubt repay that generosity at the Ballot box. They now represent ACT Labor’s true base – white, white collar, middle-class homeowners and the wealthy. “
Stanhope admits he’ll be accused of being a spoilsport but persists, “where [will] the (say) extra half a million dollars or more … when they sell their house will come from,” And goes on to answer, “from their children and grandchildren and young families and people in the rental market … those with working-class backgrounds and lower-paid employment, people who would have once joined unions [like] United Voice and SDA, and whose families are less likely to be able to support them with a deposit or mortgage but who dream forlornly, of the opportunity of bringing up their children in a house with a yard, a garden and a sandpit. In other words, people from Labor’s traditional base.”
But no, he concludes – “Andrew [Barr], Shane [Greens Leader Rattenbury] … and the rest have ordained that it’s a south-facing, two bedroom flat on the tenth floor for them.”
ACT Labor is discreet and diplomatic in its dealing with dissenters.
But in ACT government offices, at weekend get-togethers, Canberrans are starting to talk.
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