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A government's duty of care

By Harry Throssell - posted Monday, 27 August 2007

Life expectancy in both Australia and Britain today is about 80 years for women and 76 for men.

But Australia’s Indigenous women live more like 63 years and the men 56, remarkably close to Britain’s 60 years for women and 53 for men during its worst economic period of the 20th century, the 1930s. This was the Great Depression when the unemployment rate rose from 2.5 per cent in 1929 to 24 per cent in 1933 and was still 17 per cent in 1939 when World War II provided work.

A Hunger March chronicled by The Guardian of October 27, 1932 consisted of 2,000 “sturdy young men in the twenties … cotton operatives, engineers, miners, seamen, labourers” who walked some 500 kilometres from Lancashire towns to London. They ate and slept where they could, fed by local supporters, and along the way collected a million signatures of support.


Lack of cash was only one aspect of poverty. Another was living conditions, particularly in densely populated industrial towns. Flush toilets were a luxury, many householders used a metal can inside a wooden “thunder-box” located in a tiny outhouse without running water. Local council workers had the unenviable task of emptying these cans into a truck, and would only get chance to wash at the end of the shift, perhaps in a tub next to a coal fire.

But coal was also a health hazard, especially when its smoke, containing impurities, combined with fog to create the deadly London “smog”, until coal was banned by Clean Air Acts in the 1960s.

In a Lancashire town citizens used to fish in an ancient river, but in the 1930s factories lining its banks spewed waste into what had become a king-size open sewer.

Not surprisingly, infectious diseases were common and spread rapidly. Sick children missed school. Parents were hospitalised, their children placed with relatives.

Public health improved when by government order thunder-boxes were ripped out, water closets and bathrooms installed in new houses, smog was eradicated, waterways cleaned up. Infectious disease gradually disappeared and people lived longer. Government created a healthier physical infrastructure.

These changes were not a reward for good behaviour, getting off the grog, attending school, ceasing to scrump apples from orchards. They were government’s duty of care, to ease the burden on health services, enable workers to support their families and the economy.


Around the world today there are many communities without regular paid work, characterised by overcrowding, poor hygiene, sickness, no privacy, addictions, little education, unplanned pregnancies, aggression, sparse health services. Many victims use sex, violence and weapons to overcome poverty, crime and imprisonment are common, the cycle continues. Communities cannot change these economic infrastructures without government leadership and resources.

Indigenous Australia has found food and shelter, reproduced, and lived communally, not necessarily without friction, for some 60,000 years. But following colonial invasion this infrastructure has been undermined. Sometimes physically, by shooting and poisoning to take over traditional sources of food and water.

More recently with attempts to “disappear” the original race by stealing children with lighter skin colours from their families (“Stolen Children”) in the hope of achieving a White (skinned) Australia. This in the 20th century when child psychology authorities strongly emphasised the importance of the human child’s close relationship with mother, in particular, and the dangers of institutional care.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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