Me Too or Me (and Mine) Only?


Last week, the Sydney Theatre Company sent me a flier promoting their production of Tales from the Vienna Woods. Set in Europe in 1931, with a dark political force rising, it reads: ‘Von Horvath’s classic play is a bitter-sweet story of ordinary people too busy living to see the future’.

Somehow I don’t feel the need to go to the theatre to experience this. I may be able to afford the occasional theatre or concert ticket, but in my capacity of a sometime financial counsellor I am aware that for many of my fellow Australians, a trip to the theatre is no more feasible than a trip to the moon. How do we reconcile our much-vaunted prosperity with increasingly urgent appeals from charities to support struggling families and the homeless in our midst?

What is it that today’s ‘ordinary people too busy living’ are unable to see in our society right now, never mind the future?

The widening gap between rich and poor? Housing repossessions at record levels? Thirty thousand people homeless any night in New South Wales alone? Our personal debt at 150 per cent of GDP? The living conditions and life expectancy rates of Indigenous communities?

To explore some of these questions, I took myself to NCOSS’s (NSW Council of Social Service) recent conference, Perspectives on Poverty, which confirmed that things are as depressing as I suspected. By ACOSS’s (the Australian Council of Social Service) definition of the poverty line (50 per cent of average disposable income), 2 million Australians — one in 10 of us — are living in poverty. Many of these households include people who have jobs.

John Howard has set himself the goal of lowering the unemployment rate to 3 per cent, but what does this supposedly low unemployment mask? Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that between 1992 and 2005 the proportion of part-time employees increased from 19.3 per cent to 23.4 per cent.

In 2004 — and things have not improved since then — ABS measurements of financial stress on working people revealed that: 59,000 people went without meals; 95,000 were forced to sell or pawn something when they needed cash; 36,000 were unable to heat their homes; 537,000 were unable to pay their energy or phone bills on time; 810,000 working families experienced cash flow problems; 89,000 sought help from charities and welfare associations. Oh, and maybe there’s some problem with people not being able to afford dental care.

Front line welfare workers are battling to bridge the shortfall, but there is no union for the impoverished and organisations fighting to speak on their behalf are competing in a very crowded arena for limited media attention and resources.

Clients that I meet across my financial counselling desk did not choose to put themselves in situations of financial difficulty. Invariably, they are there because of some twist of fate — an accident, a debilitating illness or injury, a relationship breakdown, retrenchment, a child’s funeral expenses, having to care for a schizophrenic son, or perhaps a family member’s addiction, either to substances or gambling. Things that could happen to any of us, yet as Mark Peel argues in The Lowest Rung: Voices from Australian Poverty: ‘Poor people have never quite become part of our common humanity.’

Not that humanity is encouraged by our fixation on individualism, concerned only with what directly impacts us or our families. Collective responsibility has shifted to individual risk, and when individuals are too concerned with providing for their own basic needs, they are not going to give a damn about, much less engage with, issues that don’t directly affect them; issues like children living in detention centres or in third world conditions in remote Aboriginal communities.

It is ironic that those under the most financial stress, sitting on credit card debts they will never pay off, using the plastic safety net to pay for their basic living expenses, might reward this Government with votes, for fear of what might happen to interest rates under Labor. Yet where is the sound economic management when, as Dr Steve Keen demonstrates in his report Deeper in Debt: Australia’s Addiction to Borrowed Money: ‘Our economy currently relies on increased borrowing, rather than on actual income, for a sixth of its total activity?’

Still, the message that we have never had it so good is pumped out. In last weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald CommSec economist Martin Arnold said: ‘We are seeing unprecedented levels of wealth, the stockmarket has hit record highs and, at the top end of the salary range, wages are still very solid. Despite the interest rate rises, most people feel better off now than they did five years ago and, at the high end, people really like to spend.’

No reference to the low end who can’t afford to go out for a single cup of coffee. It just doesn’t stack up.

This age of prosperity, we are assured by both Parties, will continue through the ever-increasing export of minerals, clean coal and, where the drought permits, perhaps some primary produce. No one is going to sully this tawdry election with any acknowledgement that the resource bubble will have to burst at some stage.

No contingency is in place. No massive investment in research and development to take us to the leading edge of niche technologies and become regional leaders. Where is the Clever Country now? The Prime Minister asks who’s got the best plan to develop the skills of the nation, but skills development — be it of doctors, nurses, carpenters or plumbers — has largely been ignored for the past 11 years. It is only mentioned now that many areas are in crisis.

The spectacle of Peter Garrett — who once stood for something — dancing to the tune of the ALP strategists, has been amongst the most unedifying of the campaign. Of course, if Labor is elected, all this me-tooism will go out of the window. I can’t recall IR reforms being mentioned at all in the run up to the last election. We are past expecting any integrity in the electioneering process. Most of the electorate views election promises as bribes or sweeteners that may or may not prove to be ‘core’.

We are also now conditioned to believe that Ministers are Teflon-coated. Nothing they do sticks to them. Taking responsibility for what happens in their departments has become a quaint idea that has been relegated to the past; ‘I can’t recall’ or ‘I wasn’t told’ covering the range from Children Overboard to the AWB scandal. Power, or at the least blame, seems to have been delegated to unelected (and unaccountable) advisers.

If we can’t expect principles or vision from those who are or want to be in power, the only place it can come from is the grass roots. Here, the media is setting a very mediocre agenda.

We still have cause for disquiet. We may ‘never have had it so good,’ but Australia today is far from socially just. And those suffering most are those least able to articulate and agitate.

We deserve better than this cynical campaign, but we will not get it from our present crop of power-hungry politicians. It is up to us to control our future. At the very least, we must take to the streets in our thousands on Sunday for the Walk Against Warming, to demonstrate that the electorate is capable of being more than self-centred. Climate change is the core election issue that affects each and every one of us, and we must demand better than the half-baked, Australia-centric solutions currently on offer.

The whole world is in this mess, and Blind Freddy can see that tax cuts for the population of Australia won’t fix it. Our leadership is failing us in so many respects.

There are, sadly, none so blind as those who will not see.

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