There is little doubt that watching SBS's Struggle Street documentary on Sydney's Mount Druitt - especially when you are a champion for Sydney's West - made for difficult viewing. In my own case, I was torn between a long-standing loyalty to the region and the inconvenient truth that, for too many, the program portrayed life quite accurately.
What a pity then that such an important debate on poverty in the region started so badly. At times the so called debate felt like a greatest hits flashback of the 70's and 80's with a lot of Western Sydney leaders strutting and posturing with confected complaints about victimisation by SBS and the inaccurate representation of Sydney's West. For all the media time it generated, this tactic served little more than to excuse failure and to hide what actually lurked in Sydney's own backyard.
It is pretty immaterial whether SBS erred in its marketing material on the program. And really, are the problems of poverty in the outer suburbs fixed by merely relocating SBS to the West as important as that may be? Is this the best anyone can say? Surely, the question we should be asking ourselves is whether SBS and the Struggle Street producers have done us all a favour by exposing poverty and dysfunction in our own very white outer suburban Australia.
We all need to be honest with our response to the program. In places such as Struggle Street, largely public housing communities, civil society as the bulk of Australians believe it to be, has all but collapsed. In these communities, life is toxic. Dismal housing; miserable amenity; schools with low and mediocre expectations; drug and alcohol and drug abuse; sole parents and footloose fathers; children having children. This desperateness seems to compound and just goes on for generations.
And yet for all this poverty, these are also places where the bulk of life and existence is purely State provided. From income assistance to housing to health and other support, all the basic resource provision is government supplied. The market, when engaged, is invariably only for the most basic of transactions or worse still, left for those in the black economy. It may hard to conclude, but this fact needs facing up to - Struggle Street (and similar public housing estates) are soviet style enclaves. Government funded, government run and government supported enclaves. And yet, despite the vast amounts of public resources devoted to these communities, no one bells the cat that they are abject government failures. Few MP's have the temerity to defend the state run Housing Departments, but fewer still ever suggest the State Housing Departments be abolished altogether for community or private sector solutions.
To combat entrenched poverty, the region needs to move on from its culture of complain play book. The test of maturity for Western Sydney is how do its leaders genuinely tackle the Struggle Street revelations. Simply attacking SBS for reporting the problem can sure make one feel good. And it sure makes for good copy and media. But it ultimately resolves nothing. As for the rest of the country, if this sort of dysfunction were occurring in remote Australia, there would be national outrage and a call to arms. The West's rage should be directed to the fact that tucked away in an outer pocket of Sydney, and in a predominately white Anglo community, the nation has allowed this dysfunction to escape national attention. Western Sydney needs less media stars and more Noel Pearson types.
Let there be some lasting good to come from Struggle Street and let that be a region with its mind open to some dangerous ideas in welfare and public housing. Let the region take the Pearson lead and ask, should we just close down these public housing estates altogether and disburse the populations to avoid concentrated disadvantage? How about abolishing the Department of Housing and handing responsibility for public housing to local councils or community organizations, who are actually closer to service provision? What changes to the justice system can be introduced to protect children from the corrosion of parental drug and alcohol abuse? How do we liberate the sclerotic education system with flexible entitlements that allow families and children to escape poor performing schools with their low expectations of performance? And how do we rebuild sanctity and sacrifice in fathering and parenting including responsibility to your family first? If Noel Pearson can get these debates going in indigenous communities, then surely Western Sydney can do it in their own backyard.
One thing is for sure though. Pointless strutting or a culture of complaint will be a dead end for managing poverty in Sydney's West. We need to set aside the old 1970's and 1980's playbook. Far better to be mature, take Struggle Street as a catalyst for change and make a project out of tackling poverty and dysfunction in the region.
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