Abbott’s *Wink*

“I’m a 67-year-old pensioner with three chronic incurable medical conditions – two life-threatening. I just survive on around $400 a fortnight once I pay my rent and I work on an adult sex line to make ends meet. That’s the only way I can do it.”[1]

“Hey hey! *Wink*”

Last Wednesday’s wink between men, when a desperate, chronically ill retired woman tried to explain to her Prime minister why “co-payments” for medical appointments were a bad idea, is just the latest of numerous nails in the coffin of the Abbott government’s human decency. It’s only $7 they say; everyone can afford $7, they say. Sure, I can pay $7 and I’m a student. If I can, everyone can, because, after all, being myself, my situation is the universal calibrator of all human experience, and generalizable to every other human being on this planet. Everyone can afford $7.

Not according to a caller on Triple J’s Hack programme last week who told guest Tanya Plibersek that after all bills were paid, he and his partner were left with $9 a day to eat. Sure $9 is more than $7; if he or his partner were really sick they could just not eat for a day. Or if they were both sick, they could go without for a couple of days. And if either he or both of them (as is often the case in relationships) were so sick that he couldn’t go to his casual job with no sick leave, (his partner was unemployed; I’ll get to this in a minute) and he had no choice but to visit a doctor – for a medical certificate, even if we move health and well-being down into second priority – they would probably be ok without food for a week. The reality is that for some people $7 is a lot. For the retired, the unemployed, the sick and disabled; in short, for the poor.

Regardless of whether or not everyone can afford $7, that is not the point. The point is that these are the people who will suffer the most due to this as well as the innumerable other cuts recently announced in this barbaric budget. The poorest, weakest and most vulnerable members of society, as usual, will be hit the hardest. Imagine having to pay those $7 if you are unemployed and you are in your periodic 6 months of complete abandonment by your nation where you are entitled to no social welfare payments. Imagine that you have no income, nowhere to live, nobody to help; that you have a mental illness, a disability, a substance addiction. Let’s just wait until you require hospitalisation.

Already, there are reports of decreases in the number of people going to the doctor: people whose conditions are being kept in check by regular medical attention; people who are being kept out of the hospital system by regular medical attention; people who, on a more human and less number-crunching economics level, are being kept healthy by regular medical attention. These are not bludgers who are taking advantage of the system; they are human beings who have legitimate medical concerns and who shouldn’t have to think twice about seeing a doctor.

Obviously politicians with immense salaries and benefits packages, and ordinary Australians on ordinary wages aren’t going to burst an artery over $7. What’s the big deal? The wealthy already have expensive GPs and medical insurance policies. Many of us already pay hundreds of dollars a month on healthcare; what’s $7 more? We are all being pushed towards an American style private health insurance model where we all pay for our own healthcare and our own retirement, while we hack away at public health expenditure. This is all very well if we can all afford it and we don’t mind other people making millions in profits off the backs of our core necessities as human beings, but what happens when we can’t afford it? Do we simply let those amongst us who can’t afford it suffer and die? Most Americans seem to be fairly comfortable with this idea. I, for one, am not, and I had thought neither was Australia.

Such policies demonstrate the complete lack of empathy and the inability to identify with anyone who is in a different situation from themselves, which typifies the right. Homosexuality and abortion are abominations until it happens to your son or daughter. Ring a bell, anyone? Of course, everyone struggles with this; it is one of the great challenges of human life and barriers to true integration in our societies. Hell, I wrestle with an inability to see things from the perspective of other people, especially right-wingers. But I can’t even begin to imagine how pig-headedly ignorant and dogmatic they have to be to dismiss the suffering of the less fortunate as their own doing.

These cuts will lead to one thing: an increase in unnecessary poverty and avoidable homelessness. Where is the compassion and character which for so long defined Australia and Australians? When I was growing up in New Zealand, I won’t say that I looked up to Australia (because that wouldn’t be true), but whatever my childhood pals and I thought of Australia, one thing I will say is that no one thought of Australia as a submissive insecure kind of place. Australia was obnoxious, brash, and above all, Australian. It had fibre, character, self-confidence and a coarse sense of justice, fairness and egalitarianism (unless you were aboriginal, but that is a topic for another occasion, although they too will no doubt hurt as a result of these cuts). Australia was not a mini-America, based upon user-pays and survival of the fittest. When did this happen? When did Australia lose its sense of self?

We have been sold these cuts, the “end of the age of entitlement” and the dismantling of social security as necessary sacrifices when faced with a so-called “budget emergency.” At this stage, anyone with a brain and an interest in the truth already knows this is, to put it bluntly, complete and utter rubbish. So many independent economists, analysts and political commentators have said so that it’s not even worth labouring the point. What they haven’t spent so much time on, but is worth labouring over is the fact that this is all really just a badly disguised ideological battle.

And at the heart of this ideology is a tea-party mentality of small government and individual freedom, which assumes that we are all in the same boat, and if we don’t succeed it’s because we didn’t try hard enough. I’m doing alright, so why aren’t you? Not only is such a perspective tyrannically selfish, self-gratifying and callous, it is also massively naïve and out of touch with the reality of the world we live in. The gross inequalities which divide and define our society in virtually all parts of the world mean that we never begin with a level-playing field. Indeed while some of us begin our path on lush manicured fairways (and in this group, I include myself), others start life in the deepest rough, dankest bunkers or completely out of bounds, and never quite manage to get back onto the fairway at all. For those who don’t understand the golf analogy: some of us simply never have a chance to excel.

There is a perception amongst conservatives and proponents of the right that if you are poor, it is because you are lazy. This can be seen in the recent cuts to welfare. It is the youngest and most vulnerable – kids who are just out of school – who will have to spend 6 months at a time with no income support if they are unemployed. But then they never voted for you anyway, did they Mr Abbott?

Let’s imagine a not so imaginary situation. You are from a poor family – let’s call them the Bunkers. You have just finished school and you can’t find a job. You haven’t studied what you’re passionate about, or what you’re best at, because “in the current economic climate”, you were advised not to. In the meantime, the industry incentives and training programmes designed to help people in your situation have also been cut. You must spend six months working for the dole (all the while, you are supposed to look for a job), followed by 6 months with no money at all, during which time you work for free as part of an internship. You are forced to move back in with your single mother, which is both humiliating for you and a burden on her. Your self-esteem which, let’s be honest, was never that high, plummets. At the end of the six month internship, you don’t get the job, or are hired as a casual, on a reduced minimum wage, because let’s not forget that we are all earning too much (except for the rich of course). But, then again, you are lazy.

Now imagine you are from a wealthy Sydney family – let’s call them the Fairways. Your father’s a lawyer and your mother is a surgeon. You are well off, so you are certainly not lazy. You’ve just started a degree in Law at the University of Sydney, because you earned it. You are fortunate because you deserve to be. You are special. You worked hard in private school and you have contacts because you are especially charming. When you graduate, you walk straight into a job in your father’s firm and within 2 years you are on 100K. You really are fantastic, and all because of you. Go you! And what’s more you pay a fortune in taxes to support bludgers like John Bunker who, if they would just pull their finger out, could do the same. He is poor, so he must be lazy. You are wealthy, because you aren’t. Simple as that.

Except not. Life is not black and white. The above is a caricature; of course it is. It is as absurd as assuming that the poor are all lazy and deserve to be poor. But both stereotypes exist, and it is not the Sydney lawyers who feel the strain when they go to the doctor, when welfare payments are cut, student fees increased or when the Liberals eventually increase and expand the GST. But then, those of us who are on the receiving end already knew that. And those who didn’t, one question: what the hell did you think was going to happen?

And to top it off, as we sit and tremble with rage and depression, trying to forget, we have Joe Hockey’s derisive sneer and Christopher Pyne’s smug little smirk to remind us as they dance their little victory dance. Lest we forget. Remember this in 3 years’ time and remember that Australia really could be a place where everyone gets a fair go and no one gets left behind.

And, of course, Tony Abbott’s wink:

“Grrrr! You saucy minx. Good on ya. I like it when you talk dirty.”

He actually thinks this stuff is funny. It is no joke that one of our senior citizens is forced to descend to such a level to get by, and that you, Mr Abbott, are going to make her life more difficult. It could be his, or your, or my own mother or grandmother. I’m half-tempted to make a ‘your mother’ joke, but on second thoughts, I see absolutely nothing at all to laugh about.



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