From the Island to the Mainland (And Back?)

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When I was five my mum and dad decided to leave the northern beaches of Sydney and move to Tasmania. These days we call it ‘tree-changing’ but they thought themselves ‘alternative lifestylers’. This all sounds terribly middle-class but in truth my parents were facing a series of personal and financial issues and, as my mother put it, ‘had to get out of the rat race’.

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This 2003 book is a fascinating and moving portrait of the people who are suffering in a more divided and less egalitarian Australian society. Based on the author's conversations with hundreds of people living in three areas commonly described as 'disadvantaged' - Inala in Queensland, Mount Druitt in New South Wales and Broadmeadows in Victoria - this is a book in which impoverished Australians, who are often absent from debates about poverty, tell their own stories. Some are funny, others are sad. There are stories about loss, despair and an uncertain future they can hardly bear to tell. But there are also stories about hope, and the capacity of poorer people to imagine and create a fairer world. Rather than focusing on abstractions such as the underclass, this book provides an intimate account of real people's fears, hopes and dilemmas in the face of growing inequality, entrenched unemployment, and fading opportunities for the young.
This paper uses case files to describe the class relationships and identities that were made - and sometimes undermined–in the everyday work of Melbourne’s Charity Organisation Society during the 1920s and 1930s. It emphasises the importance of such sources in the history of class identities and relationships, and highlights women’s crucial roles along the ‘borders of class’. In this period, case files often dramatised encounters between applicants and enquiry officers, shaping them into stories that described the nature of social superiority and inferiority and focusing on the detection of truth, lies and secrets. As the Depression of the 1930s took hold, however, a small but increasing number of case narratives began to explore different ideas about poverty’s origins and remedies, emphasising intractable problems and the real struggles of the poor. This article has been peer-reviewed.
In history ‘central truths’ that define the parameters of the stories being told are often augmented by ‘smaller truths’, variations on these stories which may appear to run counter to the larger truths but in the end add to, rather than undermine them. Australian historians face complex difficulties and responsibilities in addressing the truths, both large and small, of Aboriginal dispossession and the Stolen Generations.
In the early twentieth century the notion of state children as a "burden on the state", born of a liberal bourgeois philanthropic tradition, was gradually replaced in Tasmania by a modernising notion of intervention in the name of national efficiency. Eugenic principles can be shown to have influenced child welfare ideas and laws, notably the Tasmanian Mental Deficiency Act (1920). However, despite public debate and legislative changes, the bureaucrats in charge of state children maintained their liberal philanthropic practices. In many cases the Children of the State Department clashed with the Mental Deficiency Board. State direction of children was also frustrated by children's agency. Girls were the target of many eugenicist (and liberal evangelical) reforms, but they resisted attempts to control their sexuality and make them "useful". In Tasmania, the modernising impetus of progressive arguments was offset by bureaucratic stasis, and the agency of the subjects.
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