05 August 2018

The "colonies" are not a threat to you. They're protection for us

Aw man, I was taking a break from blogging. See, I'm writing a memoir. I know I haven't done much, but "O.J. Simpson wrote a memoir, and the jury said he didn't do anything at all"1. Anyway, I have no delusions about getting it published; I'm just going to whack the thing online when it's done, and I'm not going to tie anyone up and force them to read it, and I could, cause I went to the gym a few months back, and even had a little go on one of the weight machines, and I think I'm still pretty pumped.

But I thought I'd post a little something about how Andrew Bolt is wrong. Of course we knew that already. But earlier this week Australia's most urbane and dashing far right bigot posted some racist tosh about how immigrants form colonies and refuse to assimilate, and I got to thinking about other colonies, and why people choose to live there to get away from the likes of Andrew Bolt. 

Yesterday, child in tow, I set off to pick out some paint colours for the bathroom (that beige is hideous). Ah, what could be more Australian than Bunnings on a Saturday! The crowds, the cupcake stall, the sausages. But what was perhaps a little less typical at this Bunnings, a Bunnings in Sydney's Inner West, possibly the most left-leaning area in Australia, was the number of same sex couples holding hands, exchanging kisses after finally agreeing on a light shade, and causing extended queues to look at paint colours (gay men take paint colours very seriosuly). They are able to do this because the inner west is largely a safe place to be openly gay, a place where gay people can live their lives without fear. And so there are lots of same sex attracted people and couples who choose to live here. I wonder if Andrew Bolt would call this a gay colony?

Columnists like Bolt, and here in Sydney scribes such as Miranda Devine and Piers Akerman, love to denigrate people who live in the inner city and inner west as luvvies, elites, out of touch, wanting to destroy Australian values of merit and hard work - which is a touch ironic, seeing as Piers Akerman, with all the charm of something a cane toad coughed up, has nonetheless managed to secure for both his daughters plum roles at News Ltd, while Devine, who is so anti elite she went to one of Australia's poshest girls' schools then an elite college at the University of Sydney, but is nonetheless not so much close to crazy as pulled up behind crazy yelling "back off arsehole, I saw this spot first!". No mind. When they're not fawning over Trump or whining about plastic bags, hating on the supposed inner city elite is rich, deep pasture for their small and shallow minds. 

Why do they think we live here? Why do queer and alternative people who've never quite fit in flock to the inner west? I mean sure it's the second hand bookshops and small bars and cafes with a choice of almond, hazelnut or tumeric milk. But it's also because we know there's other queer and alternative people here, and we can be safe. Some of us simply didn't feel safe where we came from - the regional areas and outer suburbs - and that's somewhat to blame on the hatred and at times violence stirred up by those who rail against the "rainbow agenda", the "extreme feminists", columnists like Akerman and Devine who pushed for the Marriage equality referendum regardless of the pain it would cause and who denied that pain when it inevitably happened. There's safety in numbers, so we come here where we can feel safe, and connected to others like us. 

When I walk down the street here, and see the rainbow flags hanging from windows and STOP ADANI stickers on cars, I know I am among my people. For many people, residing here means the right to live free of vilification and attack for being who they are. At a time when far right hatred is ratcheting up across the Western world, of course that's more important than ever. When we are under attack, of course we want to bunker down with others like us. But now the same bigots who helped create the conditions that made us feel unsafe in the first place are now furious that people are forming inner city elites and ethnic colonies. Andrew Bolt is furious:

Immigration is becoming colonisation, turning this country from a home into a hotel. We are clustering into tribes that live apart from each other and often do not even speak the same language in the street.

In Sydney’s Lakemba, nearly two-thirds of all residents are Muslim and nearly 70 per cent were born overseas. In Melbourne’s Springvale, one in four residents speaks Vietnamese at home. Another 10 per cent come from China or Cambodia. In Sydney’s Fairfield, one in four residents were born in Vietnam, Cambodia or China.

 In Sydney’s Five Dock, long after the heyday of immigration from Europe, one in seven residents still speaks Italian at home. In Melbourne’s North Caulfield, 41 per cent of residents are Jews, including hundreds who have lately fled South Africa. Dandenong now has an official Little Indian Cultural Precinct, with 33 Indian businesses.

Such colonising will increasingly be our future as we gain a critical mass of born-overseas migrants.

When racism in Australia seems to be getting more extreme and blatant - with no one in authority doing anything to stop it - of course migrants are going to want to be with others of their own race or faith. They can work and contribute to Australia whilst still enjoying the customs, traditions, foods and cultures they're familiar with - and there's the safety in numbers thing again. If men with payos or women in hijabs can feel a bit safer from attack walking down the street in their own communities, of course it's just human nature to want that.

These colonies will be our future, then, not because people don't want to be Australians, but because certain Australians don't want to accept a modern Australia in all of its fabulous diversity. There's no rainbow agenda in Newtown or Islamist plot in Lakemba aiming to take over the country. It's just people living their lives in the face of certain people who seek to make those lives harder.

1. P.J. O'Rourke, 2001 The CEO of the Sofa.

05 July 2018

Disability welfare reform must start at the top

Yet another terrible story of a seriously ill person being told by Centrelink that they don't qualify for the disability support pension.

Single father Robert Laughlin is battling stage 3 bowel cancer. He's currently in a Melbourne hospital, unable to speak or move much, and being fed via tube; obviously unable to work or look for work. Centrelink have denied his Disability Support Pension application, forcing him on to the lower rate Newstart unemployment payment, with its "mutual obligation" requirements to report to Centrelink offices and apply for 20 jobs a fortnight. His family are rightly and justifiably furious. 

Unfortunately Centrelink have come back with their standard response to these issues: “We recognise medical conditions can have a significant impact on people’s lives; however, we do not have any discretion to grant payments outside the very clear criteria set down in legislation.”

This problem comes up again and again. In order to qualify for the disability support pension, a person's condition must be treated, permanent, fully diagnosed and stabilised. And even that isn't enough; you still need to be assessed by Centrelink health assessors, who can override the recommendations of your own treating physicians if they do not believe that your condition is sufficiently grave to disqualify you from any kind of work.

So, there's probably not much point speaking to Centrelink themselves about this. If it's a problem with the legislation, we need to change the legislation. We need to be putting pressure on the government. Either the criteria for Disability Support Pension needs to change, or we need a new payment that covers people in situations where their illness may not be stable or permanent, but they are still unable to work.

And the assessment of ability to work must be realistic, not based on the wishful thinking of conservatives that anyone can get a job if they just try hard enough. (Someone on Twitter said - and I wish I could find it so I could give them credit - that telling an unemployed person "the best form of welfare is a job" is like telling a drowning person "the best solution for drowning is fresh air").

Getting the current government to make life a little bit easier for those facing difficulty with it, however, will be like teaching a cat to waterski by giving it written instructions. The current Minister for Human Services is Michael Keenan. No, I'd never heard of him either. But the top two stories on his ministerial website laud the praises of charging interest on welfare debt repayments and a crack down on welfare cheats in Mount Druitt, so I'm guessing the guy isn't operating off a basis of compassion, or for that matter evidence. Nevertheless, there's a contact form on his website, so I'll be firing off a message today. (I'm always cordial when I do this, FWIW). I'd also recommend contacting your MP. Let's make this an election issue. If Labor and the Greens supported this, the Liberals would probably have to as well to avoid looking like dickheads.

There's an argument heard against increasing the rate of Newstart allowance: it's only meant to be a temporary payment. It's meant to tide you over during gaps in employment; it doesn't need to be livable because it's not meant to be a payment you live on. But changes to the disability support pension mean that for many people it is an allowance they live on for extended periods; they have no reasonable prospect of work, but are not deemed ill enough - or their condition is deteriorating, and not therefore stable - to receive the disability payment. It's a ridiculous, heartbreaking and ultimately untenable situation. Ordinary people know this; now we need to get our politicians to know it as well.

25 June 2018

Pens down

Today is a day I thought would never come.

When I started my Bachelor of Social Science degree, my first, at the University of Newcastle back in 2013, I knew it wasn't going to be easy studying with a small child; but I was determined to make something of myself. I didn't want to work in call centres forever. I wanted to do some good in the world.

I had no idea what was to come. Since those first exciting lectures, I have moved from Newcastle to Sydney (switching to the University of Sydney) to the Central Coast and back to Sydney. My marriage ended and I've had a bunch of housing instability and other issues. And through (almost) all of it, I kept at my studies. There were times I was exhausted physically and emotionally from long commutes and passing up time with my child to get assignments done and poverty and just wanting to give up and go work in a shop, but I knew I had to keep going.

And along the way the familiar sandstone - and hideous 1960s buildings - of the University of Sydney became a second home to me. Sometimes, even a first home. It was my anchor, my refuge. Who cares what else is going on? Come here, and study. I adored my classes.

I think I might miss it.

Because today is a day I could barely imagine during all the years I had to screw my courage to the sippy cup, and keep going. I took my last exam. That's it - I'm done. I've completed all the requirements of my degree.

It may not be the degree I initially wanted, but it's still a degree from the University of Sydney, something that seemed the stuff of fairy tales when I was a teenager doing miserably average at a run down comprehensive high school in regional NSW. If it was achieved in hellish circumstances, well then I can appreciate it more.

I recently found a box of old diaries. An entry I made just before I turned 30 set out my goals for the next decade. Life didn't turn out how I planned then, but I can tick one item off the list: get a degree by age 40. Now I have done it. (Next - a PhD by 50). Pens down. Or as I prefer, from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyáma: Tamam Shud. It is finished.

And now I need to get a job. 

19 June 2018

ABC bias and other urban legends

The Coalition government would like to privatise the ABC. Of course they would, because they can't see the value in anything you can't turn a profit from, especially not one that allows the unwashed masses access to better investigative journalism, local news, drama, comedy, arts and music than they can enjoy on any of the free commercial networks. Selling the ABC has been on their wet dream list for years, as was confirmed on the weekend, when the Liberal party federal council meeting voted overwhelmingly in favour of the sale. I mean, they'd hand the public broadcaster over to Rupert Murdoch in exchange for keeping what copper wire they could rip out of ABC HQ at Ultimo, if they thought they could get away with it.

But they know selling the ABC would be up there with dismantling Medicare as something they yearn to do but would be too deeply publicly unpopular to contemplate, prompting Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to sanctimoniously declare:

Which might be a little more plausible if there weren't scores of instances of government ministers and advisers stating publicly that the ABC should be privatised, including from Senator Fifield himself. Although it was fun for the rest of the day to see the LNP hacks rushing to defend the Senator by declaring that the Coalition will never, ever sell the beloved public institution that is the stinking pile of biased crap at the ABC.

Ah, that old clanger. ABC bias. The running commentary from those who want to sell off the ABC that it is a complete lefty/Labor/Greens love in, which successive LNP governments are powerless to rectify. I mean, I can see their point. I was watching Gardening Australia last week, and the segment was supposedly about winter garden maintenance but Costa wouldn't shut up about raising corporate tax rates. Those opposed to the ABC are convinced there's a left wing bias, but they seem uncertain just what that bias is.

I asked on Twitter for specific examples of bias, but no one mentioned any. In all the commentary on the privatisation vote, I saw many mentions of ABC bias, but never any specific examples other than allusions to the ABC accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. Which is something, huh? If the ABC was biased, you'd think they'd be able, heck eager, to provide evidence of this. Lefty types on Twitter frequently raise allegations that 7.30 host Leigh Sales is harder on Bill Shorten in interviews than when she speaks to Malcolm Turnbull, which, whether or not you agree with it, is at least a specific example of bias. But online commenters wanting to sell the ABC couldn't name any bias at all. Some of them, in fact, were so completely convinced of ABC bias they haven't been able to bring themselves to watch in many, many years, judging from one outraged non viewer convinced Tony Jones is both biased and blond.

But they've got nothing in the way of proof. It doesn't faze them, though. No matter how many IPA members appear running the neocon line on The Drum, no matter how many Liberal politicians and supporters are featured on Q and A, no matter if interviews with government figures are soft balled, no matter even that quantitative studies show the ABC has, if anything, a slight right wing slant; the side that proclaims itself to be on the side of cool headed facts over emotions, of "reals before feels", are relying on what they just know deep down to tell themselves the ABC is biased, in the place of any actual evidence. ABC bias is like the story you saw on Facebook about the friend of a friend of a friend's child who was kidnapped at a shopping centre, taken into the toilets to have their head shaved, and was about to be bundled into a getaway car when police swooped, warning no one to speak of this for fear of causing a panic (can you believe, in this day and age with all the resources we have at our disposal, people still fall for this shit). It's a myth, and urban legend, tale spread by those who don't know any better and pushed by those who profit from the lie.

Although Andrew Bolt did propose a test of ABC bias: see if any of its presenters believe it should be sold off. That none will say so, apparently, is proof the ABC if biased. And if the ABC drowns, we'll know it wasn't a witch.

15 June 2018

This is what happens when you reach out and get help

With the recent, much publicised suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, social media was flooded with messages urging anyone suffering depression or thoughts of self harm to reach out...get help. I know people mean well. But what help is there?

I've been hesitant to write this post, but what the hell, let's go all in. This is what happens when you reach out. If you call a suicide hotline - always promoted as the best option despite dubious proof of efficacy - or tell any sort of health or counselling professional that you are having thoughts of self harm, they are legally required to report it. Me, I was too tired to hide from my psychiatrist my utter despair. So they call 000, or the relevant emergency number. Ambulance officers arrive, and under the Mental Health Act 2007 here in NSW, are legally authorised to detain you if they believe you are mentally ill or mentally disturbed ("no, I'm not mentally disturbed, I'm having a completely justified reaction to the shit heap my life has become").

The ambulance officers will then take you to hospital. If you're "lucky", you might go straight to the mental health unit. Me? It was a weekday, mid morning, and the newly opened mental health unit did not have beds available. So. Usually, you'll have to go sit in emergency. I hadn't taken anything, physically I was fine, I just felt like an utter wreck. And there you have to sit, with an ambo to babysit you, surrounded by suspected heart attacks and falls and babies with suspected meningococcal. At some stage it was decided it was easier to knock me out, so they put me in a bed and put benzodiazepines in me, which I willingly took - believe me, I'm much happier unconscious. So that was a blurry six hours. A psychiatrist came to talk to me. I saw her report when I left hospital. She wrote in the notes that I look older than my stated age. Well thanks, that just made me feel fucking fantastic. Do they do that for heart attack victims?

After a prolonged time, and still semi sedated, I was moved to the mental health unit. They confiscate and catalogue all your possessions. Again, do they do this with heart attack victims? Go through their bags and take their squeez bacon? Mental health patients can't be trusted with their stuff, apparently. I mean, I can kind of understand; they told me phones are taken because people will call 000 and report they've been kidnapped. But all my books were on my phone. They told me I could read the books belonging to the unit. Jodi Picoult. I shudder. I asked for a bible. The didn't have any but the chaplain visits once a week. That's very helpful. I wasn't allowed to leave that day.

Look, apart from the comment about my age, which I'll let slide, the staff were all very nice. But it was still pretty gross and dehumanising. Some of the other patients were glad of the opportunity to connect with social workers and support, but I was tired and wanted to go home.

Then the next morning, I saw the psych team. I put on my cheerful face. Yes I'm feeling much better. Actually, I wasn't feeling any better, and miserable from being in hospital. But I put on the happy face and was able to go home.

That's all there is to offer. If you reach out, and tell someone you're contemplating self harm or ending your life, this is what will happen to you.

So, imagine feeling like you want to end your life, then being put through the demeaning, dehumanising process of a psychiatric hold. I want to be very clear on this: it is not working. It is not working. When you reach out and get help, the help system there is is broken. It might psychically stop a person from committing suicide whilst they are in the psych unit, but it is such an awful experience that person will lie, say they are fine, to get out as fast as they can. The NSW Coroner's website alone lists scores of inquiries into people who were recently discharged from psych units then took their own lives. The way we "help"  doing is making things worse.

There's a lot of misunderstanding about suicide, a lot of emphasis on the individual rather than a sick and broken society. The suicides of the rich and well connected prove it can happen to anyone. And this is true, but suicide is more likely to happen to the disadvantaged, the poor, the abused, the unemployed, LGTBI people. We don't hear about it as much, that's all. The photogenic girl from a caring family who commits suicide seemingly from nowhere gets the media attention, but it's the young person without the loving family and support network that is more at risk. 

For some people, mental illness and suicide ideation comes out of the blue, for no reason. But for many others, it's a reaction to abuse, chronic pain, isolation, poverty, unemployment. These suicides on the fringes of society are not the ones we know and mourn, but their lives matter.

We need to move away from a mindset that removes depression from its societal context and puts the emphasis on the individual to get help. We need to look at the problems in society that are causing all this pain - and the relentless push to be happy that further isolates those who are suffering; this is a great post about the toxic culture of happiness. A bit of research into the use of psychotropic drugs would be good, too. Because as things stand, if my mind gets filled with the black sludge of misery again, I won't be reaching out for help. There isn't any.