When I received an email notifying me that my Australia Council grant application had been successful, I was relieved. I didn’t want to admit it, but I needed the validation. It hasn’t been an easy road.
At 22 I was married off and enjoyed a medicated, repressed existence. Nobody was to blame. Just like every other migrant, my parents arrived with a suitcase of unfulfilled dreams, clinging desperately to the ways of their country. I have made it my job as a writer and performer to communicate these stories.
But apparently, this isn’t enough for Centrelink.
After I declared my grant, the first thing they did was cut my parenting payment in half — even though the ArtStart grant I received can’t be spent on wages or living expenses. It must be used for the activities stipulated in my application to build my writing business. My two main projects are to create four film clips of my poems and to travel to Cyprus to work with the translator to translate and perform my poetry in Greek.
But income is income, they told me. After countless phone calls and going back into the office refusing to leave until I could speak to someone again, I was face-to-face with the same customer service officer who coded my grant but neglected to tell me my payment would be cut. I found out a few days later by mail.
I stood my ground with her about the terms of the grant and finally, after consulting another officer, it was decided I could submit a projected profit and loss statement to Centrelink showing how the grant would be expended.
But I wasn’t off the hook. Apparently the participation requirements for single parents have changed to when your oldest child turns six instead of when your oldest child turns seven. And when my child turns eight, I will be kicked off the payment onto Newstart and I’ll have to go back to work full-time. Under Gillard’s new parenting payments — implemented the week of her famous anti-misogyny speech — I was told I would have to go back to work part-time at 30 hours per fortnight at the minimum wage because my child just turned six. I explained that I work full-time on my writing business — and that I work these hours around my daughter.
"Why are you penalising me for my grant?," I asked.
The reply: "We’re not penalising you. Income is income and the aim is to get you off the payment, right?"
I nodded. I did want to get off the payment. Why would I want to stay on a payment that makes me feel like a criminal because I refuse to palm off my daughter to strangers while I work?
She set up my first Jobsearch appointment. I would need to apply for six jobs a fortnight. But surely I could pursue creative opportunities to push my art further with the aim of getting me off the payment? My business turned over its first small profit last financial year.
That’s what I told Jobsearch on the phone later that week. I told her my achievements to date: The grant; self-publishing my zine, Love and F**k Poems, only to have it repeatedly sell out in bookshops; building my publishing company and republishing my zine as a book and having it stocked in Readings and bookshops around Australia; a novel in progress, Misplaced; my trilogy, Good Greek Girls; my offer from Momentum Books to publish the ebook of Love and F**k Poems; the audio book I had only just recorded. Surely submitting a novel or an audio book to a publisher can be counted as looking for a job?
Apparently not. Only job openings where submission of a resume is involved are counted.
But I know what I am going to do. There is no way I am going to put my child into before and after school care. If I can’t find a job that doesn’t fit into her school hours then I won’t be returning to traditional work. I would rather live off the small amount of money I make from my art and from child support — and eat into my diminishing savings — than not be there for my child when I know she needs me. She has already seen her family break up, she doesn’t need to have her mother spending less time with her too.
Then I shudder at the thought: what if I didn’t have savings? What if I was a full-time single mother? What if I wasn’t getting child support? I also have a degree in computing. What if I had no qualifications and had to work at the minimum wage? And even when you go get a job, they still cut into your parenting payment. So getting the job won’t necessarily mean you are that much better off financially.
Many people have challenged my views on this issue and have point blank told me that single mothers should return to work. Why should we be allowed the luxury of popping out kids and raking in the below-the-poverty-line parenting payment? What these arguments fail to consider is that it isn’t about the mothers, it’s about the children.
My child exists, for whatever reason, and she needs to be taken care of. In order for a mother to take care of the child, she needs to be taken care of too. But here in this country we would rather spend up big elsewhere than take care of our mothers.
A gender imbalance already exists in the Australian literary landscape. The Stella Prize was created to combat this. I wonder how many writers like me are being forced out of the industry by these changes. I won’t be able to live off my savings for long and I may have to throw it all in to look after my child. And I am beginning to question my own art. How can I continue to create art encouraging women to be honest, speak up, be true to themselves and be empowered to escape repression when I know what is waiting for them on the other side?