THE world’s second richest man, Warren Buffett, Other ways to live, has announced that he will donate $50 billion to the strongly funded aid facility established by the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, who is retiring from his day-to-day role with Microsoft to concentrate on addressing the awesome problems of the undeveloped world, especially Africa.

The response of any right-thinking person to this initiative will surely be one of unqualified applause. For most of us it is impossible to comprehend fully what $50 billion is, what it looks and feels like whether as notes, ingots or Red Indian tomahawks. There have been other philanthropists on a grand and global scale but surely nothing like this.  Hopefully it will be a signal to other billionaires around the world to make similar gestures, along with everyone else able and willing to contribute, however modest the contribution may be.

Bill Gates is already active in the developing world in seeking to address the crippling and compounding problems of poverty and associated challenges in relation to health, education and sundry other socio-economic problems. The health area has been a particular target of Bill Gates’s activity in the recent past, especially the widespread inoculation against certain diseases. Other critically important sources of support include sovereign governments, independent non-governmental institutions such as the Red Cross, the United Nations and the raft of specialised agencies under the UN umbrella. For some time now Africa has been the principal focus of this activity. Parts of Asia also have problems but they pale into insignificance when set against the tragedy that is Africa and, when compared with Africa, Asia’s situation is greatly tempered by its generally more stable political environments and rapidly increasing economic strength.

In this latter context it should be noted that Australia’s foreign aid is heavily oriented towards South East Asia, doubtless for obvious strategic reasons. However, it also needs to be said that, when measured against other donor nations, our contribution to the international aid effort errs on the modest rather than generous side.. Given our relatively high prosperity within the community of nations my response to this parsimony is one of disappointment, the more so that we have simultaneously failed to address widening flaws in our own social fabric. I refer to the deficient response to the problems of aboriginal communities and to what I would describe as the seemingly increasing underclass in metropolitan Australia as well as in parts of “the bush”.

Dithering with the aboriginal issue

Australian governments both state and federal have been dithering with the aboriginal issue since it began to attract more widespread attention in the 1970s but, whether in remote areas or in metropolitan ghettoes, the progress seems to have been one step forward for every two backwards. Such is the cynicism of the contemporary political ethic that the only reason I can offer for this unsatisfactory progress is that of political priorities. Put simply, in the grand political scheme of things there are no votes in the aboriginal issue. Much as they would protest otherwise, the hard men of Liberal and Labor politics are obsessed with the acquisition and maintenance of office and it is apparent that they do not see the aboriginal issue as commanding priority status in that regard.

By my crude reckoning a smart move would be for John Howard and the state premiers to invite Noel Pearson to have a chat with them at the next Premiers Conference. Pearson is a very shrewd observer of the plight of his people. They should listen carefully to what he says and then establish a small committee — not based on political, commonwealth/state or other such constipatory considerations but intellectual grunt and strategic nouse — and give them a year to present a draft strategy to the next Premiers Conference. They may well strike pay dirt. Besides, nothing else has worked.

In an essay last year in these columns, entitled, The Great Divide I expressed my view “…that we face pressing social problems in the years and decades to come and that our leaders of the past couple of generations will be cursed for their lack of imagination, judgement and sensitivity to the plight of millions of compatriots. We are no longer a cohesive society. The rich-poor divide has become more entrenched and, with nearly 40% of Tasmanian families receiving some form of welfare payment every week, we shall be in an even more parlous state unless some new policy levers are pulled very hard very soon. Even if the socalled mainland states have “only” 30% of their families receiving some form of welfare, it still means the entire nation is in a mess.”

That is what I had in mind when I referred above to the notion of an expanding underclass. It is apparent everywhere we look if we are sufficiently observant. Does anyone seriously believe that the youths who participated in the relatively recent Cronulla riots will all turn away from larrikinism and criminal behaviour of one kind or another and be impeccable citizens with qualifications, steady employment, a nice house in suburbia and a wife, two fine children, a dog, a cat, a budgie and a holiday every year? What about those hoons who were found skidding your stolen car in a bush retreat on the fringe of the city of Hobart last month — all boozed to the eyebrows, sucking on a different kind of cigarette and unloading their lust against the nearest gum tree? You reckon most of that lot will be mechanics or farm hands, with one or two even being doctors or nuclear scientists? What about the group who tripped your son up on the Post Office steps or the rough type who grabbed your daughter’s breasts on the Lenah Valley bus? There are a lot of young people like these in our society and, while some of them may indeed overcome the impediments of minimal education, deficient parenting and grotty company and achieve genuine respect for their initiative and achievements the likelihood is that the majority of them will be left behind.

Continual fear and danger of violent death

That is a very sad scenario but I believe it to be real and I believe further that we should not as a society regard it as a “given”, as a kind of irretrievable demi-monde where those who don’t come up to scratch eke out a life on the fringe of the community — a bit of dole money there, some petty crime here, unwanted children with deserted mothers and long gone fathers. I am reminded of the observation by Hobbes in his Leviathan: “No arts; no letter; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Those observations could have been made by Dickens except that they were made a couple of centuries earlier and they are as relevant now as they were then, some three hundred and fifty years ago.

And so, while we debate the merits and demerits of propositions like ELs, while we wonder what in the hell the Tasmanian Compliance Corporation is and what it does, while we are goggle-eyed at the splendid new facilities at a race track, while we marvel at the magic aroma of coffee grinding, while we undertake all these lofty tasks we are losing successive generations of young people who have been marginalised — partly by themselves, partly by “the system”.  It should not be so. I do not have any ready answers but I know that it should not be as it is. Who should be addressing this? The welfare system? The education system? The police? All of the above and more? What models are available elsewhere in the world for dealing with such situations? 

I believe that the dole should always be seen as a last port of call with people being required to earn any payment from the taxpayers by working on productive community projects or, as identified, being supported in undertaking study leading to employment compatible with their aspirations and capacities. I believe that the present system accommodates these approaches but perhaps rather less rigorously than I would have in mind. Any able-bodied person — that is, people who are neither physically nor intellectually handicapped — should be required to earn the dole by working for it. If jobs are not available in the private or public sectors then they should be found by desirable and necessary public projects being developed for the purpose.

Ordinary citizens should not be asked, through the taxation system, to pay the dole to people who are sitting around doing nothing. That is how the under-class evolved in the first place. They should be making a contribution to the community by earning the dole. I believe that such systems have worked in earlier generations and in other countries.

Why not here and now?

Nick Evers

In this latter context it should be noted that Australia’s foreign aid is heavily oriented towards South East Asia, doubtless for obvious strategic reasons. However, it also needs to be said that, when measured against other donor nations, our contribution to the international aid effort errs on the modest rather than generous side.. Given our relatively high prosperity within the community of nations my response to this parsimony is one of disappointment, the more so that we have simultaneously failed to address widening flaws in our own social fabric. I refer to the deficient response to the problems of aboriginal communities and to what I would describe as the seemingly increasing underclass in metropolitan Australia as well as in parts of “the bush”.

By my crude reckoning a smart move would be for John Howard and the state premiers to invite Noel Pearson to have a chat with them at the next Premiers Conference. Pearson is a very shrewd observer of the plight of his people. They should listen carefully to what he says and then establish a small committee — not based on political, commonwealth/state or other such constipatory considerations but intellectual grunt and strategic nouse — and give them a year to present a draft strategy to the next Premiers Conference. They may well strike pay dirt. Besides, nothing else has worked.