The Letter I Wanted To Write To My Senators

My boyfriend came home crying on Budget Night. The nation of a Fair Go had just disappeared before his eyes. Joe Hockey’s speech took the Australia of opportunity, equality and shared prosperity and replaced it with an Australia that reserves the bounties of our nation for a privileged few. An Australia where your access to essential services like health and education is predicated on your ability to pay. An Australia that punishes people for their own disadvantage. A mean, selfish, ignorant Australia.

My boyfriend is 19 years old. He’s a second-year medical student, which means that he’s in class for up to 40 hours per week. He’s expected to put in another 20 hours of personal study each week to keep on top of the workload. In the minimal spare time he does have, he works for a taxi company, answering phones. They’ve recently cut staff and he now only works four hours per week, earning about $80. He gets Youth Allowance because he’s a full-time student and his parents aren’t in a position to financially support him. After rent is taken care of, the Youth Allowance amounts to just over $50 per week. He has tried to find another job and has been repeatedly knocked back – or flat-out ignored – by small businesses and by large employers, like Woolworths and Coles Group, alike.

I am 23 years old. I’m in the final year of my Arts-Law degree. I study hard to keep my academic results up, and I’ve been working hard in paid employment since I was 18, keeping a roof over my head, putting food on my table, and paying my taxes. My boyfriend and I live in a rented house near our Uni. Because I’m classed as independent, I get a greater rate of Youth Allowance than him. I also have the capacity to work more shifts, and thus also earn more that way. Without relying on my income, my boyfriend often has to dip into his modest savings into order to pay for day-to-day expenses. Our combined pre-tax income for this financial year will be just over $40,000, putting us in the lowest 20% of earnings in the country.

At the end of this year I will graduate from my degree and start looking for paid employment. Unfortunately the jobs market isn’t what it used to be. Two friends of mine, one with a PhD and one with an Honours degree, recently returned to study because they were unable to find work. Another friend, also with an Honours degree, works two days per week in a department store, because nobody will employ her to use the skills that she spent four years at University developing. Under Joe Hockey’s plan, if I am unable to find a job after graduation, both me and my partner will fall into poverty. With no government support I will not have an income, and there will be no money for food, no money for rent, no money for petrol, and certainly no money to pay for health care when GP visits cost $7 a pop.

Joe Hockey believes that this is my fault. He believes that if people who have spent their entire lives to date studying to gain qualifications can’t find a job, they just aren’t looking hard enough. The Government thinks that job-seekers’ standards are too high. The reality is that Minister Hockey’s standards are too high.

The reason that youth unemployment is as high as 25% in some parts of the country isn’t because young people are lazy, entitled, or afraid of getting their hands dirty. It’s because there are no jobs for them. People are actively looking for full-time work and they cannot find it. The Budget recognises that older Australians face age discrimination in the workplace and is offering a $10,000 incentive to employers to hire workers over the age of 55. Instead of recognising that young people face that exact same age discrimination, the government plans to blame young people for a job market and an economic system that actively disadvantages them.

Under this Budget, my partner will graduate from a medical degree with up to $100,000 of debt. Enormous reductions in hospital funding mean that he is less likely to be offered an internship placement. Without an internship position, he will never be a fully qualified doctor. If he is lucky enough to find a position and complete his training, he will be working in a hospital system that not only has less funding and fewer resources (including human resources like nurses) but that has to deal with increasingly sick patients. Look at any of the available evidence and you will see that out-of-pocket co-payments for GP visits, prescription medicines and medical services such as blood tests and X-rays actively discourage people from seeking medical treatment. The longer an illness is left untreated, the more expensive it is to deal with when help finally is sought.

I want the same things as other Australians. I want a secure place to live, I want a job that makes use of my skills and training, and I want a loving and healthy family. I do not mind paying taxes to support schools, to build hospitals, to maintain roads and to help those less fortunate than myself, but in order to pay taxes, I must first have a job. University used to be a ticket to a good job. Indeed, the HECS system is predicated on the idea that university graduates have a significantly higher lifetime earning potential. Initiatives such as Youth Allowance effectively ‘loan’ money to people in education and training on the understanding that this money will later be paid back to the government through income taxes. At the moment, however, the number of graduates is increasing while the number of jobs available to them is decreasing. Couple this with university fee deregulation and young people would be forgiven for wondering what the point of going to uni is, if at the end of your three, four or five years living in student poverty, you’ll have tens of thousands of dollars of debt and may still end up working an unskilled job in hospitality or manufacturing for not much more than minimum wage.

I have no doubt that this Budget, coupled with the very real possibility that I will not be able to find full-time work despite having tertiary qualifications, will not only negatively impact on my life but may actually directly lead to poverty. Australia has spent four decades implementing social safety net policies to protect and assist people who find themselves in unfair and unconscionable circumstances. The proposed changes to Newstart eligibility, the stricter conditions for Disability Support Pension recipients who are under 35, and the deregulation and uncapping of University fees are a direct assault on the young people of this country. We are supposed to be nurturing these people and encouraging them to fulfil their potential; instead the Government is trying to reserve power and privilege to a small number of citizens, people who already enjoy significant material wealth.

There is no budget emergency; our debt as a percentage of GDP is small on an international scale and this Budget will make literally no change to the amount of Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP over the next four years. I urge you to vote against the Budget in the Senate. Not only does it not save any money, it actively punishes people who are already disadvantaged. People who are chronically ill should not have to choose between buying essential medicines or buying food. Families of young people should not have to bear the burden of unemployment when that unemployment is the fault of the economy and not of the individual. Pursuing a medical degree should not be only possible if your parents are willing and able to support you through five years of full-time, intensive study. Opportunity should belong to everyone; the wealth of your family should not determine your access to healthcare or education, but that is the direction in which this Budget takes us. No child’s prospects in life should be determined by the identity or the financial means of their parents.

The reason I call this The Letter I ‘Wanted’ To Write is because this is far too long to put on one A4 page. Rest assured that I am, in fact, writing to all twelve Tasmanian senators to urge them to vote down the Budget Bill. You can find the contact details of Tasmanian senators here. If you’re from another state or territory, usually a Google search will provide you with sufficient details of how to reach your elected representatives. 

If you want more information about the actual facts and figures of the budget, there are good summaries here, here, here, and here, and also all over Twitter if you care to take a look.  

Trying to make sense of privilege and poverty

Recently a friend of mine went on a bit of a diatribe on Facebook about just how good we have it, here in Australia. This particular friend is currently in India; I’m not sure exactly what it is he is doing there but it may have something to do with teaching impoverished children how to read and write. It was sparked by a post he’d seen, directed at Prime Minister Gillard, where a young man complained that he was ineligible for Youth Allowance while studying at University, while “a person that lives their life on drugs and that has no intention of getting a job” is eligible for government assistance. My friend was absolutely scathing about Australians who complain about the ‘difficulties’ of life here or the exorbitant cost of living.

I want to defend those people. No, I don’t think it’s right to complain incessantly about what are, rather crudely, elsewhere called ‘first world problems’. I certainly do think that a large number of people need to pause, look around, and try to appreciate just how good they have it – not just compared with many other people in this world, but in and of itself. But these things aren’t simply caused by wilful ignorance and stupidity: they are actively encouraged by the society in which we live.

There are two kinds of poverty: absolute poverty (also known as extreme poverty), and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is a standard set by the World Bank; it approximately means that you live on a total of less than US$1.50 per day. Relative poverty is like, not being able to afford a computer while everyone else in your neighbourhood has a high-speed internet connection. In Australia, the poverty line has been set at 50% of the average median income.

When you’re more likely to compare yourself to Gina Rinehart than an anonymous Chinese sweat-shop worker, I can understand why you might feel like you’re being ripped off. If Ms Rinehart can become the richest person in the country by inheriting a financial empire – and then have the audacity to claim that ordinary Australians should be willing to work for poverty wages – why can’t I afford to buy a brand new car? The media have a vested interest in keeping us discontented. That is how advertising works: make people feel like they don’t have enough. To get people to buy things, you must keep them believing that they deserve a certain standard of living, and then get them to work towards that standard of living. Next step: profit! Not to mention the fact that the federal opposition continue to tell us about how difficult life is under the carbon tax and skyrocketing cost-of-living pressures. Never mind the fact that the cost of many of the essentials of life has either remained stable or actually decreased over the past decade (compared with the average wage): if the Opposition can convince us all that there is a widespread problem, then maybe they can win the next election by convincing us that they have a solution to that problem.

Yes, it is absolutely, shockingly ignorant to think that middle-class Australians are somehow having a hard time of it. But when our daily lives consist of news stories about super-wealthy people like Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, when politicians tell us that we’re having trouble heating our houses through (incredibly mild) winters, or even when we feel a bit jealous over our next-door-neighbours brand new Ford SUV, it can be hard to put this back in perspective. Most of us do not travel to developing countries or view news stories about wars, famines, and natural disasters that afflict the global poor. The problem is that telling people that they’re oh-so-privileged to live the life they lead just isn’t profitable.

There’s an argument that providing welfare breeds a culture of entitlement. I think it’s a valid argument to make, but I also think that even if it is true, providing some kind of welfare is worth it. The problem comes when middle-class recipients of welfare masquerading as tax breaks start to believe that they are more entitled to their Family Tax Benefit than the long-term unemployed are to the money that literally allows them to eat and keep a roof over their head. Claiming that you are entitled to government benefits by virtue of being a university student while simultaneously denying the right of impoverished Australians to try to build a better life makes my head spin. These kind of people seem blissfully unaware of the fact that if you are born into disadvantage, it can be very difficult to find a decent, permanent job or obtain appropriate long-term housing. It’s much easier to advocate for the doctrine of ‘personal responsibility’ when your parents have coddled you all the way to university.

Yes, we live in an incredibly privileged society and yes, we need to stop sometimes and look around and understand how good we have it. But none of us lives in a vacuum; the way that we interact with society influences the way we make sense of our lives and of the world around us. Having a go at someone for acting entitled is valid, but there are larger things to blame than just their own sheltered ignorance.

  • Things about me:

    My name is Mel, I'm a final year law student from Australia. I'm interested in politics, feminism, sociology and science, among other things. You can find my Twitter account below; I am more active there than here.

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