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Clever compassion builds national well-being

By Jane Salmon

Last week a rough sleeper died out in the open of sheer cold. She was younger than me. She died in a blue ribbon Liberal voting electorate on the North Shore of Sydney, an area containing some of the wealthiest Aussies in the country. The value of Parliamentarian expenses (rorts) on that particular day would probably have kept her warm and fed for half a year at least.

When a WA homeless chap and his possessions are hosed in mid-winter, empathy says “That could have been me. How would it feel to go through that?”

Empathy also finds me asking:

“If you are an Aboriginal woman fleeing domestic violence and there is no alternative housing and no peaceful refuge, then how will the cycle of trauma damage ever stop?”

“If you are a refugee escaping death threats or war zone terror, and left incarcerated on an island under shocking conditions, for years on end, how will you cope with the erosion your youthful verve and hope?”

“If I am young person with a disability who has to live among the frail aged, how many conversations can I have about contemporary music?”

“If you have serious cancer (as is increasingly common on this polluted planet) and the appropriate chemo is unaffordable, how will you handle dying slowly in front of your helpless children?”

“Just what would it be like to be refused a free abortion when you have no cash for food?”

“If unemployed and trying to find casual paid jobs that fit around school drop-offs, how will it go to be forced to ‘work for the dole’ instead?”

I have mainly first world, educated white woman’s problems.

I have never voted LNP; although raised in the world of self-serving, self-absorbed, upper-middle class capitalists like rich squatters, share brokers and wannabe elitists on the diplomatic circuit.

That alone is not enough to ensure a person is healthy, unstressed and fully employed for life. It is rumoured that Riverview Old Boys have their own table in the Long Bay mess hall.

Despite fine parents, hard times are great teachers and I’ve had my share. I would not have made it through without a social safety net. Where Liberal Ministers shake their heads, count their money, say their hands are tied and watch you drown; Labor Government policy generally enables a few more people experiencing difficulties to remain in life’s game.

Deep in my post capitalist soul, I’m a Green. Have been since about 1976. But it is generally the ALP that delivers on community supports … with a lot of nudging from the broad Left and commonsense.

Stigmatising “welfare” doesn’t help anyone rise above it. Nor is the Leaner/Lifter analysis inspiring.

I remember hearing the Tea Party trickle down spiel while I was a restaurant dishwasher struggling on $7 an hour. Sure didn’t feel as though the diners’ bounteous surplus, their largesse, was splattering too fast in my direction. Top dogs tend not to share their bones, however well fed.

I’ve seen ghastly greed and low behaviour from tax avoiders and from low income battlers. No-one is perfect.

I’ve seen murderous fights between homeless people … and I’ve seen the rich devour their own young: Rinehart style. Very balanced, me: I’ve got a chip on both shoulders.

There are capitalists who actually overlook the reality that money is a human banking construct. They believe that there is actually a finite amount of it out there and that they must grab as much as possible or be fleeced. They believe that there is only so much to go around. They see sharing as undermining their well being. They call for surpluses and avoiding national debt as if managing a household budget.

Don’t max the credit card, keep paying off the mortgage and negatively gear your investment properties by all means: but don’t imagine that every nation slightly in the red goes under.

We all borrow at some point, after all.

These relatively wealthy competitive scarcity thinkers believe that their needs and fears should be recognised. If they are WASP Aussies, they also believe that a multicultural society is undermining their chances of getting more from the imaginary finite “trough”. I know some such people and have experienced their resentments. Some of them do indeed have rights which are not being recognised. They may be disability carers but they do not fully acknowledge the rights of their offspring or of other vulnerable groups. They are so busy rationalising their narrow selfish anger that they may actually alienate sympathisers.

These are often the same people who view austerity as a solution to government spending and the nanny state. They think that the survival of the fittest will get rid of all “leaners”. They might be heart surgeons who won’t give low income people who eat more meat pies than green smoothies a timely bypass. They might be private school board members who don’t care how many convict heritage westies fall under the literacy bus while they invest and gouge the community for another cricket pitch on prime land. They might be DINKS who resent paying for childcare.

They don’t see or care that if community sinks any further, then they too will end up paying (via insurance and tax) for the jails and murders, the theft and disorder that could ensue. The French aristocrats enjoyed a smooth economic ride until Revolution empowered the next cab off the economic rank, the French upper middle class. This level of upheaval cost many liberty, lives and some forms of wealth accumulation. Weren’t there some really nasty wars involving French soldiers soon after that? Disorder is a bad investment, people.

More to the point, the Leaner/Lifter framework or Bludger/Contributor analysis is cruel. There are well paid folk “of calibre” swanning around entirely Commonwealth-taxpayer-funded facilities in Canberra. These folk thrive entirely on the sweat of factory workers toiling under foul conditions (destined to rapidly destroy their health for a less than comfortable wage). Yet they look down on these people, even as they triple dip with expenses and enrich their lives with the extra learning experiences, artisan products, health spa breaks, beach houses, further education, plastic surgery, luxury vehicles, retail sprees, overseas tourism and eco-holidays, share dividends or other treats to which they feel entitled.

The poor have souls too.

There are “lifestyle choices” and then there are the severely limited and frustrating options faced by people who are underemployed or labouring under major difficulty. The latters’ “options” usually include choosing between food, rent or transport.

The poor show often each other great empathy. They share. They are less afraid of each other than the rich are of those around them.

These folk may even find empathy for those suffering third world poverty. Some also manage to extend their imaginations towards a global framework where they see that suffering overseas begets misery everywhere.

Corporate capitalists of the austerity-loving Right also need to learn that once you squeeze people out of the retail economy, you may never get them back. Why pay for food when you can grown your own, dumpster dive or create a co-op? Why spend on department store stock with 100% markups when you can op shop or sew and upcycle old jumpers?

Some aspects of classic hippy or hipster culture are a response to deprivation.

If and when folk finally break away from the poverty trap, they are still scarred by the experience.

A percentage go under and stay there. If they’re clever, a few may even embrace the criminal mastermind option.

Remember that generation who struggled so much during World War One, the Great Depression and then World War Two that they became hoarders of every rubber band, every scrap of cardboard and plastic bag? They didn’t recycle, they repurposed and repaired and then reused again. Saving for the rainy day was ingrained to the point where they never again wasted money on a bus ticket if they could still walk. As if changes in the natural world do not produce challenge enough, economic trauma was repeated during other oil shortages, wars, droughts, recessions or GFCs, the Greek debt crisis and more right around the world. And it shrinks the economy right back down. It’s ecologically a great and sustainable thing, but not so great if you are a manufacturer or wholesaler or retailer.

(“Nyah, nyah!” from every hipster eco nut with no shares and a veggie patch who actually cares a lot less than investors do).

What of tax deductible charity donations, I hear you say? Have you ever looked at a Foundations register and seen the petty priorities of donors? First, there is the vanity stuff like having a gift or building named after you. Second there is the narrow criteria for giving. Thirdly there is a competitive and almost fetishistic process of qualifying for the “gift”. Helps if you know ’em first, right?

We create a bludger class if we insist that once they have public housing or a pension they never let their income climb above a certain figure before we crush them back down with cancelled concession cards, extra taxes, higher rent and reporting obligations. At the very least, there should be 5 year contracts that enable people to get on with overcoming crisis or trauma, improving their situation and climbing out of poverty traps.

We need to stop capping welfare and use it as a guaranteed minimum income as they aim to do in Utrecht. It sounds very Soviet, but the clear goal is to ensure that no-one slips below a certain level. What they do with any opportunities over and above that remains up to them. Same with free Medicare and free education.

In the US, gross inequity, societal imbalance and searing hardship is common.

I’m pretty clear that if I lived in the US, my kids would be even more neglected, dysfunctional and uneducated, while I would be dead. It’s that simple.

I had a 3b cancer while I was the separated. I was mother of a 9 year old and a 6 year old. I could not afford much insurance. The kids had learning needs that their father could not have recognised or met solo, being on the autism spectrum himself. I had hundreds of thousands worth of magic chemo medicines. I am currently alive and able to continue parenting, continuing to pay for their learning therapies and semi-educational interests and activities. Foster care, charity support workers and government agencies do not have to carry the full burden of 24/7 childcare with all the attendant risks that go with strangers raising vulnerable, bereaved children with additional needs. If my children were without a mother, they would be more likely to just crash and burn right out via institutional and criminal dysfunction. Rellies are unlikely to step in and carry the whole load.

No charity can carry a whole family 24/7 based on random voluntary donations. The WA Police Commissioner who opined in July that charities were not dealing well enough with homelessness fails to understand that where there is big need, there can be no triage or feel-good tokenism. There must be systematic, early help. The truism is that it remains cheaper overall to give homeless people houses than to leave them to struggle.

“Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” only works if you have both boots AND straps. Looxury!

We have to face the fact that for all their many many faults, the ALP can look at the redistribution of wealth more clearly than the LNP or IPA. This only works while we reward them with our votes.

So … much as we love to hate them, we need to build a broad left Green/Labor Left coalition and vote for it. Who is our Corbyn or Sanders?

In the meantime we have to work on our own compassion, our own kindness, our own concept of balancing privilege with sufficiency. Australians, overall, have more than enough. Some are kinder than they are self-absorbed. They look out gor others around them or donate to great causes and help with local and overseas relief programs.

If we were Norway, we would nationalise mining and use profits sparingly to create “common wealth” and “common good”. We would add value at each step instead of offshoring the work. We would invest in our local workforce. And we would spread the bounty through regional development aid that creates secure friends, not competitors. If we were Norway, we would even educate foreigners for free. Yep, that cold country has a warm heart. But what of ours? Did we bake it away?



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  1. Blinkyewok

    Abbott govt and the IPA are doing their best to kill off our caring spirit.

  2. brickbob

    Thank you for a great well written piece,and so hard to find these days,if only articles of this calibre were printed in the main stream press as well. I have often said that some form of Coalition between a Labor \ Green\ Progressive Government is needed in this country,and if they could manage to get over their differences and not tear each other apart while in Government it would indeed be a marvellous thing.

  3. pudden'head

    Our beloved leader is doing his best to get us into another scrap in a country where we don’t belong. If funds seemingly available for conflict were spent on welfare and infrastructure for his own people our homeless might find shelter and the jobless, work. Is that too much to ask of the AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister or will he go on as usual, brain-dead and careless of the well-being of the Australian public? If he opts for a Thatcher of the Falklands moment in Syria he will invite the wrath of the Middle Eastern world onto our heads and many of his people will remain homeless and unemployed. .

  4. Wally

    Great article.

    “In the US, gross inequity, societal imbalance and searing hardship is common.”

    We are forced to follow America far too much despite the mistakes they make being so bloody obvious.

  5. keerti

    So far as I have ever been able to gather, most australians adher to the concept of, “f++k jack I’m alright!” Until such time as we honestly look at ourselves and not our lovely ideals, nothing will change. We will go on electing self serving polititians (be they labour or liberal….because we are too scared to jump ship entirely and vote green.).

  6. Julianne

    Thank you for this article. It contains thoughts I hold myself. My background is similar, my parents were very strong in the DLP, a close friend of the family was (now deceased) John Carrick – Liberal Senator – the comment about Riverview and their Long Bay table strikes a chord. I have recently begun researching my limited way through Modern Monetary Theory which has been an eye opener to me.
    I will now only vote for the party that has the strongest social platform. The Libs may say they do when foraging for votes, but they have drifted away from the origins of their party.
    It seems so basic – enable the poorer people to be able to buy what they need, and the economy grows – the rich buy imports. The poor buy local. The poorer the poor, the worse the economy – who is there to be able to buy anything? A deficit is very good, as long as the Govt is spending on infrastructure which grows employment – not things like Coal, which further degenerates the environment. All those mining workers who defended their employers, only to be dumped as soon as the winds of fate changed.
    Give a tax deduction to the underemployed – a pittance, to a rich man, more than 10 poor men’s wages. WHERE is our empathy, our morals (Sunday Christians), our ethics?

  7. Julianne

    WHERE is that young, enthusiastic, empathic, intelligent charismatic leader out there who could pick us up as a Nation, and demonstrate that honesty IS the best policy, and fairness is a virtue we can all demonstrate.
    Thank you again for saying this.
    This quote hurts, but I think it is true.
    “There are three groups who think the Liberal Party aren’t corrupt. Those who will always vote Liberal regardless, those who are too naïve or lazy to find out the truth, and those who are profiting from the corruption.” Chris Hartcher

    Some of my best friends are corrupt

  8. Keitha Granville

    Your piece made me weep for an Australia that I think we used to have slightly – the Australia after the first WW. Maybe I was a rose coloured glasses child, who happened to have a family of caring loving people, a large extended family. But they always helped others. My mum and dad didn’t have a lot, knew how to make a little go a very long way. We didn’t have fancy clothes or toys or holidays. But we had love, and I learned to share and be compassionate.
    We keep on trying here in Tas to get our Green/Labor coalitions going and KEEP them together, but their entrenched enmities just continually resurface and they each WANT the bigger piece of their own pie. No-one wants to look further than the next election any more, no-one wants to plan for the common good of the whole any more. What happened to representing the people ?
    We can only keep trying, we have to keep trying. There is no other choice.
    Where we are now is on the eve of destruction (thanks to Country Joe)

  9. Candace Wirth

    Ripper of an article, well written and spot on

  10. win jeavons

    A moving and wise comment. YES to compassion for all and deeply felt empathy wherever there is injustice. The English speaking world has sold its soul for comfort and cheap ephemera.

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