Starve, or freeze? Choose one, if you are unemployed

Sometimes it is hard to believe the “careful money-manager” spin put on Australian federal spending. Especially with all the rorting, and the pork barrelling. A proper look reveals callous negligence toward other Australians, or a really nasty attitude toward those citizens who lack the political muscle, or the platform, to question some very poor policies. These decisions can, and do, change lives.

When the Treasurer of Australia cut JobSeeker back to an effective “starve or freeze” rate, (meaning, if you are lucky enough to have a roof over your head, do you eat or do you use the heater) he certainly struck a blow for budgetary discipline. The main problem was that not only did he consign many of his fellow citizens to making that choice, but by necessity, their children and grandchildren.

You can take the boy out of Kooyong, but can you get the Kooyong out of the boy? Does Josh Frydenberg know anyone from outside his gilded circle? When he speaks of car-parks for commuters, has he ever travelled by train?

Compare his life with yours: – School at Bialik, and Mt Scopus, two elite schools, followed by a gap year playing tennis, and then his two degrees (Economics and Law) at Monash University.

Post grad at Oxford, followed by a stint at Harvard. When he actually started working, aged 28, he did so firstly as an advisor to Daryl Williams, Attorney General of Australia, and then to Alexander Downer, Foreign Minister. His next gig was with John Howard, the Prime Minister.

Such high ranking jobs, for someone who was barely out of school. Obviously he learnt a lot, because his next position was as Director of Global Banking with Deutsche Bank.

As they say, the rest is history. This young man is an admirer of Margaret Thatcher and also of Ronald Reagan. For their economic policies, no less. Did such privilege leave him any options? Does he even know what it is to struggle, even with a relatively good job? Did he labour late into the night thinking of the miserable outcomes he was mandating, for hundreds of thousands of Australians?

Does he believe that repeating “Jobs over welfare” means anything to someone who struggles with literacy, or someone who has no workplace skills, or that other bogey of the Australian right, the addict who cannot find treatment, or maybe doesn’t seek it? Do such Australians deserve a life of misery because some members of the elite see it as a lifestyle choice?

This is where the rubber hits the road. We are all Australians, and surely we believe that no Australian should be left to starve, or to wither on the social vine. Most of us want to pay taxes so that our fellow citizens can at least eat. But, for a certain class of Australian, the poor deserve nothing.

At the same time that Josh Frydenberg dropped the JobSeeker rate, he also dropped JobKeeper. Many large and profitable companies actually profited from the programme, which was designed to keep staff on during the pandemic.

When asked about this apparent profiteering, Frydenberg’s close friend, and leader, Scott Morrison told us “I’m not into the politics of envy.” Mr Morrison dismissed concerns about companies accepting millions of dollars from taxpayers under the JobKeeper scheme, and using some of it to pay executive bonuses and dividends.

“If there are some companies that feel that they want to hand that [money] back, great. Good for them. But let’s not lose sight, in some sort of envy narrative, that that program did not change the course of the nation.” This from the man who presided over the Robodebt scandal, where the Government pursued welfare recipients for unverified, dodgy debts, which were at best doubtful, and proved to be unlawful.

The first place to look for relief, or some ‘common-wealth’ type thinking, ought to be the press gallery. But, with very few notable exceptions, it is really just another collection of educated, mid to upper-middle class careerists, all seemingly hell-bent on a professorship somewhere. So the notion of hard-nosed professionals, calling out inhumane policies, institutionalised theft and misappropriation of funds, not to mention naked cronyism, is the stuff of fairy tales.

Perhaps we could use the Opposition as a brake on the opportunism and the dishonesty; sadly that appears to be a dead-end street. The Labor Party is concentrating on being a small target, so it has ‘lost’ its principles. Past history shows similar day to day malfeasance, although with leaders in the past who seemingly did believe in some form of ‘common good’ purpose. This meant, in practical terms, less obvious contempt for “government for the people”.

Who to turn to? The people, sadly, have taken on some of the beliefs of the ruling party. If you are poor, or disabled, or simply disadvantaged, you deserve to be poor. If you are obscenely rich, God loves you, and you are getting what you deserve.

The only solution would be to start with a National Integrity Commission. Make it hard, and dangerous, for these people to mess with the national wealth. Secondly, perhaps a week spent in one of our provincial towns. A visit to the local food-bank, the supermarket the day before dole day, and lastly, have a look at the local Salvos store.

And stop paying yourselves to go to work. $290 a night to go to work is a disgrace, and it’s not even taxable. No wonder we don’t trust them. And Frydenburg should move seats in Parliament – watching him smirk when Morrison cavorts about does neither of them a favour.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood-the book reviewed

Margaret Atwood
ISBN 978-0-099-51166-3

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, written by Margaret Attwood, and published in 1985. It is presented as a first person narrative, by an unnamed woman. She is now known only by her new name, Offred, given to her since the new regime took power. It denotes that she is “owned” by Fred, a Commander in the regime. Other handmaids are named using the same format.

The novel describes a totalitarian state, bent on eradicating all aspects of life which do not accord with a strict, literalist reading of the Bible. It is a theocratic dictatorship, where all power resides with men, and women of all levels of status are strictly controlled.

The government seeks to reverse the political and social advances women made in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has removed women’s right to control their own sexuality, and their reproductive choices. It emerges that matters as commonplace as reading and writing are forbidden to all women, and left in the hands of men. The right to vote has also been removed.

The production of babies was very high on the regime’s agenda. Women with viable ovaries were rounded up, and then placed into suitable homes, in order to breed. The biblical story of Jacob and his wife Rachel, is clearly the inspiration for the practices imposed on the handmaids.

Unable to produce children, Rachel offers her handmaid, Bilhah, as a child-bearing vessel for Jacob, so that his line will be assured. Bilhah will have no future claim on any children produced, and her consent to the sexual contact is not required.

The setting is Boston, Massachusetts. The book is set in the “late twentieth century”. It relies entirely on the handmaid’s recollections, which have been sourced from a collection of audio tapes, found a century or so later, and here the subject of a scholarly dissertation.

The Epilogue as exposition.

This expository device, called “Historical Notes”, appears at the rear of the novel, and purports to be an appendix. It is an essential element of the novel as a whole, if we are to understand the world that Attwood has created. It allows us access to Offred’s innermost thoughts, fears and hopes, and explains why the dictatorship was installed, and some of the doubtless many mechanisms involved in exerting, and maintaining social control.

It explains some of the concerns within the leadership of the regime; the collapse of human fertility, environmental degradation, the failings of established religions, and a corruption of moral and social norms. Women are seen as the weakness in the fabric, and their suppression is the solution.

It treats the action of the book as being solidly from the past, historical. The lecture resists the temptation of triumphalism, or post-facto moralising, but it does treat the events described as quaint, and consisting of several ‘periods’. The observations presented in the book are treated as primary source material, and not overtly judged by the person giving the lecture. The ‘normal’ of this future is different to ours, but in a suggestive and uncertain way.

Is the book successful in its creation of a dystopian world?

Margaret Attwood has commented, in response to winning a science fiction award for this book, that none of her material belongs in the realm of science fiction. She went on to explain that all the privations and punishments, used here mainly against women, have been practised, somewhere on earth, in the past.

Men are also strictly controlled, but in less intrusive, de-personalising ways. And men can rise to power. Women cannot. The depiction of a repressive system of government is heightened by its setting in parts of Harvard, and other familiar landmarks around the city.

There is a long history of dystopian writing, but the two books with which this novel is mostly compared, are Brave New World, and 1984. The reason this novel may create more of a lasting impact than either of them, is that her world is made from real, everyday examples which we can relate to personally. Even now, the U.S. Supreme Court is examining Roe v Wade again. So this is not science fiction, because, even though it was written last century, we can recognise, if not the totality of the book’s repressions, aspects of the thinking, the fear of women’s empowerment, the wish to put the genie of freedom back in the bottle.

Attwood wrote this novel in 1985, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Thatcher (elected in 1979) and Reagan (elected in 1980) were forerunners to a reactionary assault on civil liberties in the English speaking world. The Handmaid’s Tale foretells where the neo-conservatives were heading. Margaret Attwood is a politically aware writer, and she was no doubt conscious of this shift in the wind of the the late seventies and the eighties.

She also part-wrote the novel in West Berlin. The East German state was known to engage in continuous surveillance of its people, just a stone’s throw away, and the East Germans cast a long shadow over West Berlin. This awareness of repressive measures was obviously in her mind as she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. She has admitted as much.

The recent resurgence of interest in the novel is arguably directly associated with Donald Trump’s election, in 2016. The rise of the religious right, the assault on women’s rights, the rise of the #metoo movement all speak to the relevance of the book, but also to the need for such a book, now.

Recent legislation in several U.S. states, as well as in Poland seeks to criminalise abortion. This appears to be heading toward another round of theocratic lawmaking, and pressure on women’s lives. So the book, although written over thirty years ago, still delivers a timely warning. Stay alert. Your freedom is a valuable, but fragile, thing.

This book is written to reflect the world view of a late twentieth century, educated woman, making her way in a repressive and dangerous world. Margaret Attwood’s writing is above all else immensely intelligent, and accomplished. I believe that every word is meant, as is, and that the book is enough.

The movies and television shows will never deliver the punch that this seemingly slight book will. This is a harrowing story, but it fulfils its purpose. It makes us take the ongoing threats to our freedom seriously.

The rise and fall of a caring Australia

If we use Western history as a sort of roadmap to ending human misery, we see that there is a basic, minimum set of pre-conditions which might contribute to a full, non-miserable life. We can easily guess what they are, even if we have never really suffered.

We have seen them gradually introduced, over centuries. They generally have an element of serving the public good, which ends up serving us all. Think of the introduction of sewerage systems, and where our lives would be without them. Or famine – feeding the hungry when food runs out. Even the Romans did that.

They would include these basic human rights, which we in Australia are supposedly guaranteed: they are freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement. These freedoms are fine, but they are somewhat peripheral to the aim of escaping misery.

The list of desirable conditions for a reasonably livable life could presumably also cater to the body, and to the spirit. Our five existing rights are nice, but they are sort of like truffles on a turnip; ‘a little bit fancy’, but marginal to the ‘main game’; they deal more with intellectual and political freedom than the essentials of life. Food, shelter, meaningful work, freedom from fear, freedom from persecution, freedom from arbitrary laws are some that I think are essential.

Jimmy Carter said it very well, “We have already found a high degree of personal liberty, and we are now struggling to enhance equality of opportunity. Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our natural beauty preserved; the powerful must not persecute the weak, and human dignity must be enhanced.” Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1977.

When we look at the current government, and that of Abbott and Turnbull, there is a discernible retreat from the goal of removing misery from Australians’ lives, and those unlucky enough to be second class in our ‘egalitarian paradise’.

In 2020, research by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) found of the three million people living in poverty in Australia, 731,000 are children and a total of 1.2 million are under the age of 24.

Without wishing to draw too much attention to our politicians and their waist-lines, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg look like they have never missed a feed in their entire, cossetted lives. Is that why they have so casually pushed a further 155,000 people into poverty – including 20,000 children, with their recent cuts to Jobseeker? Those figures are from the Australia Institute. I cannot understand how the Morrison Government can live with itself, when it consciously causes so much misery, in plain sight.

Homelessness is another curse in this wealthy country. On any given night 116,000 individuals will be without a bed to call their own. Of course the main reason for this curse is poverty. The Federal Minister for Housing, Michael Sukkar, has a spectacularly anti-social voting record in Parliament. He has consistently voted against any form of social improvement measures; he wants to increase subsidised medicine costs, remove penalty rates, increase cashless welfare cards, limit access to welfare, and he even voted against increasing housing affordability. He is the proud owner of a home in Melbourne, and one extra, in Canberra.

As Jimmy Carter said, “the powerful must not persecute the weak”. He (Sukkar) gets paid $291 extra, for every night he spends at work (in Canberra), and we wonder why these people are so out of touch. In his maiden speech, he said, “I want to help make Australia strong, prosperous and generous.” Show us how, Michael. And when it comes to equality of opportunity, research proves, time and time again, that hungry and stressed children fall behind their peers in learning.

When we have Government Ministers with such narrow, elitist, socially regressive attitudes we are travelling in the wrong direction. See here for more on homelessness Homeless? – No help from this Government

It is a truism that people get the government they deserve. The Morrison Government is run on PR principles, colour and movement, lots of empty announcements, scare up a war with China if all else fails, but remember that they are attempting to take us back to a class-riven society, of haves and have-nots, of preferential treatment for the wealthy, and a return to misery for the masses. I must say I never expected an Australian government to remind me of the bad old days, so much as this one does.