centrelink

POLI-DEBT

SECTION 44 of the Constitution of Australia states that a person holding or entitled to hold citizenship of a foreign power may not sit as a senator or member of the House of Representatives. Sheesh. It’s pretty clear that you need to address that if you want the big politician bucks and perks BEFORE you run for office.  I explained that to my 12 year old and he gets it!

With this citizenship-gate all over the place, from the front of my newspaper to pinging out from every social media feed, I can’t help but draw an uncomfortable parallel to the whole robo-debt Centrelink fiasco. What happens when it transpires that a Centrelink recipient is found to have been paid money they were not technically eligible to receive? Come on? It’s a no-brainer. They have to start paying it back immediately and they have no say in the matter, it just gets quickly and painfully siphoned from their payments. Gone. Before any pending counter-investigation is even launched.

There’s no thumb-twiddling, with payments remaining unchanged and paid, while we wait for a High Court decision about whether or not ‘being ignorant’ is a valid excuse for thinking you were entitled to payments when you weren’t. Average Jane can’t muster the money for any legal defense or for that matter, bread and milk, because the funds are being deducted from her Centrelink payments and/or her working wage almost as soon as the ink has dried on the debt recovery notice. The system runs like a high-speed train hurtling through a dim tunnel. And everyday Australians are hurting from it. These despicable welfare cheats are hammered financially and moaned about in the halls of parliament as being a drain on the public purse.

I’m sorry? Excuse me?

I’m a writer and because I am woefully poor, I enter writing contests a lot. And when I do, there are always these things called TERMS AND CONDITIONS. I can’t go in the Australian Vogel Award because I’m over 35. Not eligible. Others rule me out as I have had three books published. So, it’s not rocket science to know that you have to read the small print to see if you are eligible and if you are, you tick that box and enter the competition and cross your fingers.

This is pretty standard procedure for just about every application process. Getting enrolled in university, applying for jobs, bringing pets into a country (you see what I did there). My point is that life is structured around the rules; i.e terms and conditions. At every bloody turn. And they are about as easy to navigate as boiling an egg. Perhaps easier.

Just because you didn’t read the small print before clicking the box doesn’t make you exempt from the rules. That’s not how it works. Anywhere. In any universe. Using any excuse at all just doesn’t cut it. You will be disqualified.

Politicians, by the very nature of their jobs, deal with legislation. Every day. That’s what we pay them for. We naturally assume that they read the terms and conditions of the job before applying, because that is expected of …human beings applying for jobs. It’s really basic. It’s so basic that the very idea that there could be any excuse for not doing so, beggars belief.

The argument that citizenship of various countries can be tricky and complicated is nonsense. I was born in Australia. My parents and all my grandparents were born in Australia. I’m fairly certain there’s no sneaky Italian citizenship lurking in the shadows but if I was going to claim hundreds and hundreds of thousands from the public purse, I would be checking out the great-grandparents just to be certain. It’s not hard to check!

If you or one of your parents was born overseas, it would be brain-numbingly obvious that there was a possibility of dual citizenship. If you claimed ignorance of that fact, as an educated grown up, you would be admitting that you were outrageously NAIVE. And naiveté is not a defense. Not when filling in a competition entry form and not when putting your hand up for a job in our Australian Government as a representative of the people and not in the High Court of this country.

If the Deputy Prime Minister of my country thinks that because he didn’t go online and check in three or four easy finger-clicks whether there was a possibility that he was a kiwi as well as a kangaroo, then he isn’t entitled to the job. Frankly, I wouldn’t employ him to boil an egg.

So if the High Court rules that ignorance and naiveté or just plain disinterest in reading the terms and conditions of the Constitution, is a good enough excuse to allow hundreds of thousands of dollars from the public purse to be paid to politicians who are technically and constitutionally ineligible for the job, then it must also be accepted as an excuse for those Centrelink debtors who misunderstood their own eligibility for money from the same source. Everyone pays back the debts or no-one. Because we live in a land that promotes equality, don’t we? Oh….that’s right.

POVERTY IS NOT A CRIME

I am heading to Melbourne soon to speak at the launch of the CEO Sleepout organised by Vinnies to help shine awareness on the plight of those living rough. I was really honoured to be asked to do this, as this is an issue close to my heart. I know what it is like to be dirt poor and the flashbacks of the deep sense of shame and humiliation still swamp me and wake me from sleep in a cold sweat, even all these years later.

I woke up today and looked in my refrigerator and like many mornings, it brought a tear to my eye. Not a sad tear like in those dark, lonely, terrifying days as a single mum with three little boys, when I would look desperately into our fridge (that sounded like an emphysemic wildebeest) to find it was bare. Once I had to feed the kids plain ice-ream cones because that was all that was left in the pantry apart from salt and a can of corn. Handout food parcels from the welfare agencies always contained lots of cans of corn. They were big in the donation barrels….for good reason. I got good at dressing them up into dishes, but on their own, I had trouble selling them as little ‘lollies’ to the kids. This morning, I could offer my youngest son and daughter, yogurt and berries, rye bread and grilled cheese and a freshly squeezed pineapple juice each for breakfast. Today’s tear was one of gratitude for making it out of the darkness. I walked the kids to school and reminded them again of just how lucky they are. Most kids take a decent breakfast for granted.

But some don’t.

There are kids everywhere, next door to you, not just in the trailer parks but in the rental houses in your suburb, who are hungry, who walk a certain way to distract from the gaping hole in their school shoe. There’s a look in their eyes. I’ve seen it. I saw it at the bus-stop this morning. And it broke my heart.

Having been there, I know how hard it is to ask for help. The first few times I asked for help from the back office of a church or for credit from the local supermarket for milk and bread,  I was met with that churled lip and raised eye-brow and a quick up and down assessment. Was I a druggie? Mad? Or just a loser? The judgmental attitude that many people adopt when faced with poverty and disadvantage is, I think, a safety shield. They want to pretend that those poor people are ‘different’ from them because if they were the same then the same plight could befall anyone through circumstance. There but for the grace of god go I and all that.  So it’s easier to believe that they choose to live that way, either deliberately or indirectly. That keeps everyone else safe. But the truth is that so many people live week to week, hand to mouth and exist only one disaster away from abject poverty and possible homelessness.

Our Western Society is built on rewarding the rich and demonising the poor. That’s the basic premise of capitalism. If you are an able-bodied, well-educated, mentally fit and finely tuned individual who managed to escape childhood without any form of abuse, neglect, poverty consciousness, physical or emotional set-backs and you have an appearance within the parameters that are judged acceptable by society, you might get yourself a job, have healthy relationships and start building the foundation for a successful life. But if death, divorce, illness, accident or cracks in your family relationships, sexual abuse, depression or sudden job-loss strike unannounced, you can be derailed quickly like a runaway train and then you find yourself hurtling to that tent in the park, begging strangers for loose change to eke out a few crumbs to exist on.

It is haughty and foolish to think that it could never happen to you. And when you do fall that low, it is very, very difficult to pull yourself up out of that deep, deep quagmire. Without help.

I reached out to welfare agencies like St Vincent de Paul in my bleakest days and never once did the volunteers, giving their time and hearts to the cause, ever make me feel like a ‘loser’. The food parcels, the assistance with electricity and phone bills, the friendly conversation and cups of tea, helped me gradually back on my feet.

I’ve written a new book about my years of struggle and hope to publish it in the near future. Hopefully it will serve as inspiration to those still struggling and raise awareness for the need to work as a village to help those less fortunate. We are all in this thing called life together! I am fortunate to be in a position as a writer with something of a platform, to be able to draw people’s attention to this issue. I have come a long way from living in a tent and eating ice-cream cones for breakfast and doling out kernels of corn as treats for the kids. And it was thanks to those who did choose to care and not judge.

When you donate your old toys, clothes and furniture to welfare agencies, you have no idea how much that can mean to someone who finds themselves without decent enough shoes to go to a job interview. And when your kids come home from school with a note around Christmas time asking for donations of cans of food or packets of pasta and whatnot….or toys for disadvantaged kids. Please donate.

When I read about those struggling with Centrelink debts and the stricter measures coming in to make welfare payments more difficult to access, it makes me cry. To see funding being cut from women’s shelters, to see pensioners losing some of their benefits, to see health care becoming more expensive, it all looks wrong. Really wrong. There were times when I couldn’t afford medicine for my children, even with a health care card and for politicians to dismiss the cost of medication as a cup of coffee from a cafe shows just how out of touch they really are. For those in dire need, that amount of money equates to a loaf of bread, a litre of milk, a packet of four bricks of noodles and a cheap packet of water crackers and a few days of eating…..not a strong latte!

No-one chooses to be dirt poor. Sure, bad choices can lead to some dark places but if you agree that it is morally right to sympathise with people dying or suffering from lifestyle diseases, then you must also find sympathy for those who made wrong turns along the way. No one is perfect. When you are in a maze of starvation, illness, terror, particularly if you have children, you can barely see any light ahead, the tunnels are everywhere. It is literally like being in a maze. If you are high above looking down at the maze, it’s easy to see which turns to make to get out, but in the maze, it’s much harder and you inevitably make wrong turns, sometimes many, before you escape. Having someone beside you, holding your hand and shining a torch for you can really help.

Go and donate to Vinnies, the Salvos, Red Cross, Lifeline or any reputable charity. Give warm clothes, sturdy shoes, books, pots and pans, blankets and food (just go easy on the cans of corn, eh?)

Nik x