The political year has kicked off with a silly contest between the Minister for Community Services Jenny Macklin and Greens MP Adam Bandt in relation to being able to live on unemployment benefits. It’s a very sad state of affairs.
As someone who has experienced and recovered from the extremely depressing and debilitating effects of long term unemployment, what strikes me is how petty and trivial this issue is treated by the political class.
If you’re a politician and you want to deal with the issue of unemployment, you don’t go around saying you could live on welfare benefits and then get your back room people to bury what you said by using the word “inaudible” on the transcript in order to avoid the question reappearing in future dealings with the media.
Nor do you take what appears to be the “pro-poverty” stance of the Greens by demonstrating your ability to “suffer” by living like someone receiving unemployment benefits in the interests of cynical political purposes and attacking the ALP from the left.
What you do as an elected representative of the community is paint a picture of an optimistic and inspirational future. Something to strive for and something that can make the clouds of despondency begin to dissipate.
As someone who has been in the situation where your life breaks down, your health deteriorates and your social relationships fall to pieces, the thing that holds all of it in place is the view that your circumstances are fixed. The view that you are and always will be an unemployed person. There is no other identity for you but that one. You have no choice.
This fixed, self referentially processed identity tells you over and over again that you will always be a stupid, pathetic, depressing, lazy, worthless, guilty, struggling, lonely, dependent, despondent, unhealthy, unemployed person who will always be on the hamster wheel of despair and anxiety, always rejected by people (this is before you get to thinking about potential employers) regardless of how much effort you give and worst of all: you will never have a future!
Then comes the self blame and the shame for thinking these thoughts, the mental imagery such as the scrapheap of humanity or the adult still at primary school and on it goes. What’s really awful is when an opportunity opens up right in front of you but you fail to seize it because you’re stuck in this constant stream of thinking and when you think about what happened, the emotions intensify.
I know that it can get to the place where you wonder whether it’s worth it. Fortunately for me, I never got to that place but I certainly feared it.
In short, this is an extremely dark, depressing and disheartening state of affairs we’re dealing with here and it’s not going to be solved with a simple $50 increase to the unemployment benefit by itself. The actual issue needs to be psychologically and emotionally wrestled to the ground.
As a politician, you aren’t communicating a sense of optimism, inspiration or empathy to people when you say you’re going to live like them for a week. You’re actually making things much worse.
The way to get people out of this situation is through radical vision and an understanding of both this crippling world view and how to eradicate it from people’s brains.
Here’s what Paul Keating said during his 1993 election night victory speech in relation to dealing with unemployment:
“The people of Australia have taken us on trust and we’ll return that trust and we’ll care about those people out there, particularly the unemployed – we want to get them back to work.
If we can’t get them back to work immediately, as sure as hell we are going to look after them. We are not going to leave them in the lurch. We are not going to leave them in the lurch and we are going to put our hand out and we are going to pull them up behind us.
And we are going to move along. This country is going to move along together. We have such enormous opportunity. This world recession is now starting to dissipate; we’ve made the break out of it. America’s started to turn – it won’t be that long before the Japanese economy starts to turn, and hopefully we’ll be away and running in the nineties in a low inflationary period of prosperity”
Whether or not this resonated with people at the time is irrelevant now. In this day and age, you won’t see many politicians talk this way. This sort of talk requires big thinking, a process of illustration and a level of emotional resonance that simply can’t be acquired through thoughtless media management and cynical publicity stunts. Compare the indented passage above to the last couple of days of silliness and you’ll see why people have disengaged from the national conversation.