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If you can’t deal with vulnerability you’ve no business being in government

Are the vulnerable in our society being cared for by those in government? The answer is a firm ‘no’ writes Jennifer Wilson.

If there’s one single characteristic that defines the Abbott government, and increasingly the ALP opposition, it’s their utter lack of care for people who are in some way vulnerable.

One might once have been tempted to use the phrase “lack of compassion” but it’s been rendered almost meaningless through overuse, and besides, in the current political discourse the word “compassion” carries negative value, being framed as a weakness unless directed towards victims of plane crashes, and hostages. Almost everyone else faced with difficult circumstances is implicitly blamed for finding themselves in them, denied care, and all too frequently punished.

The public attitude politicians seem most to represent is one expressed to me on Twitter yesterday, after I’d remarked that it was time to leave Craig Thomson alone as he looked like a man at the very end of his rope and enough is enough. He’s putting on an act, he’s putting it on, a couple of people responded. And you know this how? I felt like replying, but didn’t, thinking it pointless to attempt to challenge that level of ignorance in 140 characters. I’d be at it all day to no useful purpose.

He or she is “putting it on” is a phrase that has always been used by people with a particular mindset towards anyone who reveals vulnerability. It’s used repeatedly about asylum seekers who express their distress through the only means available to them, their bodies. It’s used about people who attempt or express the desire to attempt suicide. A variation of the phrase was used by the former headmaster of Knox Grammar Ian Paterson, about a boy who was being sexually abused on his watch, when he claimed the victim was a “drama boy.”

This lack of care has brought us to situations such as this one, in which a five-year-old child currently in Darwin with her family, has attempted suicide because she so fears being returned to detention on Nauru. I’m waiting to hear Peter Dutton declare she’s “putting it on.”

For mine, this attitude reveals a great deal more about the person expressing it than it does about the object of their derision. It tells me they are bereft of imagination, and incapable of thinking themselves into another person’s shoes, even momentarily. It tells me they are terrified of vulnerability and must attack anyone who confronts them with it, however distanced from that vulnerability they may be.

Consider the mental attitude of a person who is compelled to declare on social media that an individual unknown to them is “putting on an act” when he says publicly that he is close to suicide. It is this mental attitude that forms the Abbott government’s demographic, and to whom the government plays with callous contempt for any vulnerability it does not consider legitimate, that is, vulnerability experienced by anyone other than the group with which the government identifies.

The conservative mind dehumanises those it does not perceive as one of its tribe, because it does not consider the concerns of “outsiders” as valid as its own. The Abbott government exemplifies this in its attitude to tax reform for example. Consider this piece by Ross Gittins on Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget spin, skewed to benefit the tribe to which Hockey belongs, at the expense of those who are most financially vulnerable and thus, outsiders.

No matter where you look in government and many opposition policies, you will find they have in common lack of interest and care for the vulnerable, and overwhelming bias towards groups they consider their own. The Abbott government’s attempts to push through a budget almost universally regarded as unfair, and its attribution of that failure as a failure to properly “sell” unfairness, reveals everything you need to know about the conservative mind. They couldn’t sell unfairness, which is their ideology, so they need to work out how better to do that in the future.

There’s a building body of opinion that the conservative mind is incapable of compassion for any other than those it recognises as its own, and the attitudes and actions of this conservative government, and to an increasing degree our supposedly left-wing opposition, fit this conservative ideological profile.

This harsh and unyielding position, erroneously claimed as strength, extends itself beyond the immediately human to vital matters such as climate change, with Abbott’s reputation as the world’s worst climate villain perfectly expressing conservative contempt for the vulnerable situation of the very planet on which we must all exist.

We need politicians who can cope with vulnerability of all kinds. It isn’t so much compassion we need as intelligence, and particularly active emotional intelligence, of which compassion is a part. I doubt there has been a time in our living memory when Australian politicians have been further from this intelligence, or a time when it has been more dangerous for them to be so.

They’re “putting it on” is a particularly invidious perspective to take on the vulnerability and distress of others. It’s ignorant, it’s defensive, it’s dangerous. If you can’t deal with the sight of another’s vulnerability that’s your problem, not theirs. Vulnerability is not legitimised or delegitimised by the social class to which you belong. When a government can’t deal with vulnerability of all its citizens it is not a democratic government. It’s an ideological tyrant.

This article was originally published on Jennifer’s blog, No Place For Sheep.


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  1. philgorman2014

    A neo-liberal corpocracy now dominates this country’s politics. The return of laissez-faire capitalism and 19th Century social conditions is to be expected. The mass of Australia’s population has already been persuaded to vote against its own interests, and the habitability of our small planet.

  2. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Beautifully stated, Jennifer Wilson.

  3. Andreas Wagner

    Thank you, Jennifer Wilson, for this incisive and compassionate appraisal. Yes, here we are, and the immediate future with these dangerous clowns in charge doesn’t look attractive. In the absence of a functioning opposition, all we are left with is to continue suffering these incorrigible fools and the daily manifestations of their incompetence until the next ballot. Sad, really… A great country once, coming to this?

  4. eli nes

    bernie, windsor, xenophon and anyone who reads the opinions expressed in these posts, knows that abbutt cannot help his belief in his truth. This bully is opus dei and, as such, all religious catholics must accept his vocation to sainthood. God will not let him be wrong even if today his decisions damage the poor tomorrow will see the wisdom of his decisions. The top male politicians in labor and the coalition are jesuit schooled and the next level are also catholic with a tiny % trained at state school.
    Historically labor and the dlp when added to pig iron bob’s lies make good reading for abbutt? now labor is the dlp and that is good news for the coalition?
    So god will look after the poor via the rich and ‘don’t you worry about that’!

  5. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    “opus dei”. Is that why Rabid always looks so smug? Is that why Morrisscum also looks so smug? And Andrews etc, etc …

    Boy, are they in for big shocks at the pearly gates!

    Prepare yourselves Rabid and Morrisscum et al for damnation.

  6. Maddison

    Many believe that poor people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy. As Speaker John Boehner has said, the poor have a notion that “I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around.”

    In reality, a large and growing share of the nation’s poor work full time — yet still don’t earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

    It’s also commonly believed, especially among Conservatives, that the rich deserve their wealth because they work harder than others.

    In reality, a large and growing portion of the super-rich have never broken a sweat. Their wealth has been handed to them.

    The rise of these two groups — the working poor and non-working rich — is relatively new. Both are challenging the core Australian assumptions that people are paid what they’re worth, and work is justly rewarded.

  7. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Maddison @8.29pm,

    I too am enraged about both your two identified groups.

    I care and thoroughly support the working poor and advocate for their rights to better working conditions so their labour counts.

    On the other hand, I am disgusted by the non-working rich. Although those whom stay quiet are wise for their undeserved wealth and position because they would be easily denigrated, the outspoken rich like Murdoch, Reinhardt and Forrest have no right to express their criticisms of other less economically empowered people.

    When one starts with extreme economic comfort (except in exceptional circumstances), one has a major advantage to make every dollar multiply by 2, 3 or 10. Yes, you need some brains Rupe, Gina and Andrew to become super-rich from rich but that counts for nothing really since you had all the bases plus money covered in the first place. You are all somewhat phoney. Sorry (not) for the cold hard truth.

  8. mark

    an experiment in people of the world living in one country was built on humanity.We failed. mark

  9. Sir ScotchMistery

    Can I point out that as a lebbo migrant, Hockey is not now and never will be a member of the group to which he has aspirations of membership.

    No self respecting moneyed Australian would ever have Hickey over for dinner, with or without his mother, because as a lebbo migrant, you would need to check the silverware after use and before Hickey left to check for stains and theft.

    Entitlement anyone?

  10. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    My decent self says yes unfortunately that is the case for Hockey. Non-white therefore not acceptable.

    My cynical self says serves him right for being a sycophant to the rich to whom his family aspired, although they were rejected.

    My cognisant self says he must have cut the mustard somehow coz he met his clever and self-made rich wife, who has opened a lot more rich opportunities to him on top of what his parents provided in the first place.

  11. stephentardrew

    Excellent article Jennifer.

    You cannot have intelligence without emotional maturity and sophistication. You cannot have emotional maturity and sophistication without a sound foundation in rational thinking, scientific methodology, critical analysis and propositional logic. Intelligence requires a battery of skills from IQ to aptitude to emotional sophistication including a handle on the causal contributors to vulnerability, inequality, poverty and mental health issues.

    No one rationally or volitionally chooses to suffer hardship and pain while judgment, blame and retribution are used as a rationale for those who really do not care. Find a target and turn the victim into a perpetrator and you are on the way to absolving yourself from moral responsibility and this is a trait of both left and right though the right are simply more obvious and blatant about their inhumanity.

    A few cases of so called welfare rip offs are used to disparage everyone who is unemployed regardless of circumstances. The outliers becomes the norm and the culture then vilifies those who suffer through no fault of their own.

    Governments are complicit with banks as the finance sector reduces regulations protecting the corptocracy while turning the blame machine upon ordinary people who are expected to bail out these utterly corrupt institutions. So stuff it lets just blame the poor and marginalised for our greed and corruption.

    Meanwhile the shock jocks influence the naive and easily manipulated to believe that a minority of poor and vulnerable people are destroying democracy or should we say, in all honesty, corporate oligarchy.

    The facts are indisputable and the evidence damning.

  12. Sir ScotchMistery

    Seriously Tardrew if you don’t appear at the next 5th Estate lunch I will be enormously cut.

    You will also need to use 7 words of over 8 letters during your introduction to the rest of us.

    More news shortly.

  13. Roswell

    Keep us posted.

  14. stephentardrew

    I’ll be there Mr Scotty Bear.

    Too many bloody words.

  15. John Fraser


    Read how Warren Entsch, a 16 year Liberal veteran of Federal parliament treated a vulnerable woman in Queensland.


    Mr Entsch :

    ""And then during the course of that, she then raised with me other issues in relation to domestic violence and criminality."

    Whoa ! … at this point Police start reaching for their Tasers and guns

    At no time did Mr Entsch advise the woman to go to the Queensland Police with her complaint of domestic violence and criminality.,…. no , good old boy Mr Entsch decides once again to get into the middle of what looks like a marital dispute spinning out of control and asks for proof from the woman.

    Now I know that once I heard that I would be picking up the phone and telling her that I can't do anything its now a criminal matter, and the woman has to speak to the Police.

    Here's the real zinger "

    "He said a package from the woman containing documents and photographs was later delivered to his office, and on March 13 he received the email which detailed the allegations and was also sent to the Premier and Senator Jan McLucas.

    Mr Entsch said he assumed the Premier "would have acted immediately".

    "I would have thought that the Premier of Queensland, and the fact that it went to her and Senator McLucas…both are women, both are women and it highlighted domestic violence, I assumed that was the best place for it to go to have the matter dealt with and I assumed it would be," he said"

    Get that ? …………. woman look after woman in the world of Mr Entsch.

    Now Mr Entsch …. remember a 16 year Federal political veteran ….. "assuming" the Premier of Queensland had the email brought to her attention …. she hadn't because the email had been sent to an internal address and as anyone who has had dealings with government knows there can be quite a wait before even getting an acknowledgement of your email, so if Mr Entsch had concerns for this woman why didn't he phone the Premiers Office ?

    This is the LNP in Queensland throwing shit at a fan they are standing in front of.

  16. stephentardrew

    For da comrades.

  17. gangey1959

    Thank you, Jennifer Wilson. Both enlightening and frightening together.
    Sir Scotchy. As well as JoJo being refused admission, it must be aware to all and sundry,(and the great hairy un-employed too) that if the aforementioned club-meeting was held at a certain establishment in Queensland, the richest XX chromosome being in the galaxy (I dont want to insult our lady readers) would not be able to play either, even if she bought the entire club and surrounding land-mass. Sucks to be Gina R huh.
    Talking about Ms Reinhardt, I watched that bullshit show about her and her family on telly a little while ago.
    I thought the speech she made about mortal people whining about not being born as squillionaires was an interesting one.
    It’s not her fault her dad was who and what he was. She was just lucky really.

  18. paul walter

    Our politicians are only an outward manifestation of us?

    If the proposition is true, it is fair to say WE dont do vulneability very well.

    Is it civil society gone psychotic? The underlying tendencies are human, too human. When the veneer i stripped away, we remain hairless Chimps, likely to react violently when under attack. There seems to be a constant replication of a state of fear at this stage in evolution because we actually don’t do civilised society very well- seems to get in the way of establishment of pecking orders..

    If our ham fisted, reactiver and oafish primal poiticians are representational of us, we can ask, what has provoke the fear and anger that comes of a situation somehow similar to what occurs when a troop of apes is attacked by a predator? Who is attacking us and what is creating fear and uncertainty and why is it happening? What creates the Ralph Nicklebys and Nurse Ratcheds of our epoch?

    Is it asylum seekers or Indigenous people? You suspect not. They, too,are only us in a form we dont quite recognise yet, and are scapegoats.
    The fear and loathing derives of an information and reassurance vacuum symptomatic of the imperfect processes of globalisation hijacked by financialised capitalist promitives.

    The politicians lash out because they, too, are dislocated from reality and not at all in control as they delude themselves into thinkng they are.

    So, it is Heart of Darkness full of lies, cruelty and self deception and a situation not tobe remedied any time quick, you suspect.

  19. CMMC

    Shanty town closed down by Council Rangers in Newcastle foreshore area.

  20. Pingback: If you can’t deal with vulnerability you’ve no business being in government | 61chrissterry

  21. Loz

    If Hockey, Abbott and the rest of them spent time at the charitable organisation that I do, they would know what being poor and vulnerable means. Their lack of empathy and positive action for these people is rephrehensible.

  22. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Very true Loz. My thoughts exactly.

    John Fraser, I agree with your analysis of Entsch’s irresponsible passing the buck of the woman subjected to domestic violence. You’re right about how he failed to do his duty by assuming the information got to the minister. Any sane person knows one should follow up emails with confirmation phone calls to explain.

  23. stephentardrew

    Entsch wanders through the fields of moral turpitude.

  24. Ricardo29

    Thank you for a perceptive and well written article. Libs are pretty much beyond hope so must be discounted. Indeed I worry when commentators (of all types) offer reasonable courses they could take to get themselves out of their dire situation because they just might do it and thus improve their electoral prospects which we don’t want. As for Labor, their attitude towards the ‘people’ is summed up in their support for data retention. Of course they look like they care, witness letter from my fed. Labor, member about Abbot’s proposed cuts to pensions etc. “When in govt. we did this.. and this… ” but no mention of dropping many thousands from DSP to Newstart. I wonder if, in the deep hidden recesses of the minds of the wealthy there doesn’t lurk some fear of a French-style revolution hence their need to ensure the really vulnerable are kept in a kind of subjugation. They need to know it’s not going to work for much longer.

  25. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Interesting comment, Ricardo29. Both (modern) Labor and the LNP Degenerates are not up to the job of proper governance. Revolution is an interesting consideration.

    Another interesting and immediately attainable prospect is for community advocates and activists to advocate the vast and lasting benefits of a functioning multi-party system (which it is) that thrives on the diversity of policy platforms and politics by close bonding with their respective communities.

    This then calls for effective negotiation between parties for implementation of policies and procedures that represent what grassroots people in their communities want and need.

    First cab off the rank to consider for your vote at your next election is https://www.australianprogressives.org.au/

  26. Möbius Ecko

    stephentardrew. Entcsh is a genius compared to Truss.

    Truss in a TV doorstop talking about the government’s requirement to have two people in the cockpit in light of the Germanwings incident.

    Paraphrased: “What our mandatory two people in cockpit at all times regulation means is that there will have to be two people in the cockpit at all times”.

  27. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    CMMC, thanks for the link. I had a look and was immediately appalled that Jones saw fit to prioritise the saga of drugs in sport above all else. Sure, drugs in sport need effective controls, and weak management and penalties would not provide good examples to young people in the wider community. But I’m fed up with male-dominated sport forced down my throat everywhere I turn. There, I got that off my chest!

    Also, his concerns about Hokey’s intention to tax people’s deposits is somewhat reasonable, but I would expect Jones to produce good alternative suggestions such as taxing the rich mining companies with a Mining Tax, and re-introducing the Carbon Price on polluting industries like the coal industry (instead of bashing Rudd and Gillard for their political roles).

    Alan Jones needs to get his priorities right.

  28. M-R

    I LOATHE Twitter, but I agree with you about Craig Thomson. And I wait and wait and WAIT for that ‘whistleblowing’ woman to get the same treatment …

  29. CMMC

    BTW if you are planning on getting a new gadget, get busy. Prices are going up to reflect the falling $A. And I just heard an ABC finance reporter say a future value of 50¢ is not out of the question.

  30. stephentardrew

    Could not resist a dose of Maddow just for Big Bonehead Jones.

  31. cartoonmick

    To me, they’ve displayed a very nasty streak since they came to power. The bottom feeders in our community are the ones who stand to suffer the most from the attitudes behind many of their policies.

    Very much a “let them eat cake” attitude has been displayed by many of the front bench. A disgusting and despicable way to run a country.
    A country which should be governed for everyone, not just the elite few at the top of the pond.

    This cartoon says it all . . . . .

    Editorial / Political


  32. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    I wish Mick, you had put 2015, as their pictorial death knell. It might pre-empt their actual downfall!

  33. cartoonmick

    We should be so lucky, Jennifer, if only !!!

  34. stephentardrew

    And from supply sider’s and Tea Party hero Adam Smith.

    He was a moral philosopher you know.

    Now my conservative friends try reading “On Moral Sentiments” you might get a surprise.

  35. abbienoiraude

    Thank you Jennifer Wilson for writing what I have been thinking and feeling since the last election.

    Re Craig Thomson: When I watched his speech in Parliament I was gobsmacked by his bravery. When I saw him recently exiting court alone I was gobsmacked by his demise. It scares the shit out of me that we can piss peoples lives away so cavalierly. I am scared for him, his mental health and for what his family are going through. Where will he get another job? How will he pull his life back together. It is awful to contemplate.

    The lack of emotional intelligence of the Conservative side of politics is so blatant, so overt with spin, so cruel and so manipulative that it reminds me of the rise and rise of Domestic Violence in Australia where 2 women a week are being killed by partners. When a couple of young men died from King hits the MSM and commentators jumped up and down and laws were changed pretty darn quickly.
    When it is women’s lives it seems that the powers that be just shrug and say ‘she’s putting it on’ or in other words; “Why doesn’t she just leave”? The first three weeks of leaving is the most dangerous. This attitude toward abused women who have the safety of their children in mind, is gross and disgusting and proof that we have indeed become a less than caring society.

    When it comes to the other side of politics the ‘looking around for a scape-place’ to send vulnerable people after Rudd Mk 1 brave attempt at change, was the beginning of the end for our asylum seeker’s hope. To look to Malaysia or Timor or Nauru or Manus shows a distinct lack of courage, compassion, kindness and heart and to slough off our responsibility like that so blatantly shames me so deeply I am still in shock.

    Emotional Intelligence is not as common as we might think.
    It certainly is not in the DNA of Conservative leaderships, their followers nor their minions.

    I can’t believe what a selfish narcissistic greedy thoughtless and heartless nation we have become. Even the flag shames me.

  36. Sir ScotchMistery

    @ Abbie – I have to point out that pointing to the self-servatives and saying “there go the criminals” is quite wrong.

    In fact both sides of politics at all levels of government are only a tie colour away from each other.

    Shorten voted down our right to privacy, George Brandis used that as a wedge and now Anastacia in Queensland is pulling out stops to illegally force a member from parliament.

    Sorry “naughty conservatives” doesn’t fly at all. They are both grubs.

  37. Richard Lee

    Tony Abbott, Hockey & Co. aren’t coservatives. They are Vogons. Their Vogon agenda for Oz is to Trash OUR Economy, OUR Environment and OUR way of life, starting with the most vulnerable .. to give OUR money to their Polluting Foreign Billionaire mates. No other explanation is plausible or even possible.

  38. corvus boreus

    Sir Scotch,
    I have to agree.
    Many times in the last few years, calls for transparent, independent investigation of patently suspect conduct(political and business) have been met with “bipartisan” obfuscation and denial by the lib/lab/nat cartel(eg; federal ICAC).
    One of the first acts of premier Palaszczuk was to reaffirm commitment to the Galilea basin project, despite serious concerns having been raised (and dismissed federally by lib/lab/nat without any real address or explanation) regarding both the proven record of legal non-compliance/illegality and the accuracy of records tendered by the Adani group.

  39. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Yes @SirScotch and @corvus,

    despite the exhilaration in ridding Qld of the Newman LNP Degenerates, Paluszczuk’s immediate deference to Adani and its extreme environmental threats to OUR Great Barrier Reef, is reprehensible.

    What the hell, Labor? What are you doing to us, Australians? Do you care about us or our environment? I don’t believe so.

    Time for alternative political representation. I will not spoil this message by obvious adverts but consider progressive parties and independents like the Australian Progressives.

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