24 May 2018

Andrew Hamilton, Eureka Street

Every society has ways of marking out, and sometimes marking, people who are considered a lesser breed.

The Greek word stigma originally referred to the branding of slaves and traitors. In other societies adultery, desertion, Jewish descent, imprisonment, ignorance and other crimes also earned branding or wearing distinctive clothing. The scold's bridle, the scarlet letter, the yellow star, the white feather and the striped uniform are just a few of the ways to exclude people from the benefits of society by marking them as outsiders.

In Australia such external forms of stigmatising are generally seen as a bit crude — though the recent withdrawal of medical benefits from people brought back from Manus Island for treatment shows that crudity and cruelty are alive and well. But the expectation that the state will ensure that the weakest and most disadvantaged in society can live with self-respect has caused problems for governments. They balk at making the wealthy fund their share of that care through higher taxes, but fear the electoral consequences of being seen as heartless.

The solution has been to allow the real value of Newstart and its equivalents to decline. Those whose life is diminished by this deprivation are then stigmatised. That has traditionally been done by straightforward blackguarding. People who are unemployed were called dole-bludgers and refugees called illegals, and accused of ripping off the community. People would then regard as justifiable the hardship imposed on the targeted groups.

The brutality and cynicism inherent in this frontal attack is now increasingly recognised as such. As a result, stigmatisation has had to become a little more subtle. Government measures to reduce the welfare budget are no longer presented as just punishment but as a way of addressing social evils. But they imply that the people in need of benefits compose the social groups infected by the evil.

For example, some tens of millions of dollars are being committed to programs addressing alcohol and drug dependence among unemployed Australians. Who could argue with the need for programs that address drug dependence? But the association of drug dependence with unemployment encourages the public to see addiction as the problem of the unemployed and a problem affecting all unemployed. They will then be seen to need therapy more than income support.

A more blatant example is the proposal that unemployed people receiving benefits should be tested for drugs. There is no evidence that this would be helpful in addressing addiction, any more than that compulsory breath testing would lower alcohol addiction among politicians. But it does suggest that unemployed people as a whole are affected by addiction, and humiliates those tested. Humiliation rarely contributes to the freedom people need to change their way of life.

‘The effect of this measure is to encourage the view that Indigenous communities are incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives, and that increased funds will only extend the evil.’

In this proposal, too, the effect of the stigmatisation will provide a pretext for depriving people in need, and so reducing the cost to government. These costs can be further reduced by imposing onerous conditions and fining people for non-compliance.

The added advantage to governments is that it draws attention away from the scarcity of jobs available to people who are unemployed, and makes unemployment seem their fault. The blame is shifted from the government for its management of the economy to people who suffer from the injustices of that management.

Another current example of stigmatisation is the cashless card, widely rejected and seen as demeaning by Indigenous communities. It was promoted as a response to the high rates of severe alcoholism, domestic violence, and absenteeism from school in Indigenous communities, and the alleged diversion of government funds from women and children to the support of addictive habits.

But the effect of this measure is to encourage the view that Indigenous communities are incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives, and that increased funds will only extend the evil. To address a problem that has its root in loss of self-respect, associated with widespread unemployment, the response was to humiliate and further reduce self-respect. The white cashless card was like the Dunce's cap emblazoned with a capital D.

Even a flawed government report produced no hard evident that it had done good — more respondents believed it had done harm. It certainly disadvantaged individuals and the life of communities by reducing the cash available for informal transactions within the community. The cost of the program would be better directed to increasing employment.

These initiatives are sideshows, grubby and voyeuristic. They mask the simple truth: that governments have the duty to respect people as human beings and not as ciphers, to provide benefits that help people to live with self-respect, to take responsibility for the disadvantage of Indigenous Australians and to involve them in its healing. And above all to see the support of people who are disadvantaged as a responsibility cheerfully to be accepted not slithered away from.

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