Eras Journal – Ayer, K. Abstract

Abstract of Ayer, K., “Poor Choices”: Cicero, Tony Abbott and the Agency of Poverty

In an ABC television documentary broadcast in 2001, the then Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Abbott made the following comment:

But we can’t abolish poverty because poverty in part is a function of individual behaviour. We can’t stop people drinking. We can’t stop people gambling. We can’t stop people having substance problems. We can’t stop people from making mistakes that cause them to be less well-off than they might otherwise be.

(‘Going Backwards’, Four Corners, ABC TV , Broadcast: 09/07/2001)

Abbott here partially attributes the responsibility of poverty to the ‘poor’. This attitude is particularly striking to a contemporary historian of the ancient world as it evokes a discursive strategy that also proved to be useful in an earlier period. Cicero, an important public figure in the Roman Republican Era, also represents poverty within a moral framework. In Ciceronian texts, poverty is often constructed as both a result and a reflection of its performer’s actions and personal characteristics. Abbott’s and Cicero’s discourses of poverty are indicative of a similar metanarrative of marginality. This paper examines how particular notions of ‘poverty’ are created discursively in the Late Roman Republic. Poverty’s negative associations were drawn upon as a mechanism of marginalisation by the Roman elite; Abbott’s remarks alert us to similar interpellations in today’s vastly different social context.