For richer and poorer, the battle goes on

Illustration: Simon Bosch.The chief executive officer of ANZ bank, Mike Smith, whose annual salary converts to about $27,400 a day, thinks people on unemployment benefits of $34 a day get too much.
Nanjing Night Net

His prescription for prodding the jobless to move to the salt mines of Western Australia is to cut the fat from a stipend so stingy that paying the rent and eating are mutually exclusive. It’s too sad.

As I write my last column for the Herald – a gig I started as a freelance journalist in 1988, six years before I joined the staff – I am moved to wonder: has anything changed?

I began trying to make sense of the world in these columns in the decade when Greed was Good, when Alan Bond and Christopher Skase were household names, and when inequality, after a long period of quiescence, was taking off like a race hound.

In the time since then, the ratio of CEO pay to the pay of an average worker has quadrupled.

We are a harder, more individualistic, self-reliant and overall richer society. Some things have changed for the better. But some problems are depressingly familiar from a quarter of a century ago.

Public understanding about people stuck at the bottom is still mired in the old stereotypes of ”dole bludger”, ”beach bum” and welfare cheat.

Smith’s remedy might make more sense if the Newstart Allowance were generous, and thus a disincentive to taking a job, instead of a below-poverty-level payment.

If the unemployed comprised only fit young men, starving them into mobility might be worth it. But the unemployed include young and older women, people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities, and physically worn-out older men, all unlikely to move to the mines no matter how low Newstart goes.

Harsh and simplistic solutions to complex social problems are still trotted out by the rich and powerful whose encounters with the lives of the poor are usually non-existent.

It is the same story in the schools debate. Twenty-four years ago I wrote, ”If state schools are to avoid their fate as repositories of the poor, and thus electorally dispensable, the middle class must be wooed back.” They weren’t.

The Gonski report presents a compelling economic and social argument for equalising opportunities for children in public schools. No subject is more important than improving the life chances of poor children through the best education possible.

But the debate appears lost, as the Prime Minister, once dedicated to the cause, panders to a middle-class with kids in private schools who consider themselves hard-up. She promises to give extra funds she doesn’t have to wealthy schools while the Opposition Leader claims rich schools are the true victims of funding injustice. Plus c¸a change.

Mandatory detention of refugees began in 1992 under then prime minister Paul Keating. A lot of us overlooked the development in far-away Port Hedland at the time. All these years later, harsh treatment of refugees of a kind we know is bound to cause mental illness and suicides remains our only response, and the ”regional solution” is no closer.

Journalism students doing assignments have sometimes called to ask me if I thought my work made a difference. ”I don’t know,” I tell them. ”Maybe it’s like drops of water on rock.” Some issues and problems are perennials and solutions elusive as ever.

Yet I don’t write about the ”mummy wars” any more. Mothers, sooner rather than later, make their way into the paid workforce, and not even Tony Abbott will stop that tide or reignite the old ideological divide. Young girls are outsmarting boys; young men are kinder, more dedicated fathers, and more conflicted about the long-hours culture.

But the work/life balance still favours men. Workplaces have not changed fast enough to accommodate the needs of children. Women’s talents and ambitions are sacrificed for the family, and men’s relationships are sacrificed for the business, just as they were when I began writing. The feminist dream of men and women sharing equally the pleasures and responsibilities of the traditional gender spheres is still a long way off.

In this column, I have banged on about gender and economic inequality but I have also shared the birth of my sons, now adults, my breast cancer, my mother-in-law’s dementia, my father-in-law’s falling in love at 83, and my mother’s living will.

I have been paid for my opinions, a privileged way to earn a living now that opinion is free on the blogosphere, and everyone is a commentator. I have been allowed to write about the unemployed, single parents or the price of bananas when everyone knows the way to get hits online and prove your popularity is to mention oral sex. (There, I’ve mentioned it.)

Recently I have found myself writing more about death and ageing than childbirth or childcare. I was of the generation that helped transform the culture and change attitudes to women’s rights, gay rights and sex. Now my generation is starting to redefine ageing and retirement. We’re learning how to shape a useful and pleasurable life after we have left behind the office, the full-time job, and the deadlines.

So this is my last column. I leave the Herald with thanks to my loyal readers and my astute critics. I’m letting go in the nicest sense of the word; not to spend the day in a dressing gown but to think, write, participate, and to engage with my generation in a different way. Thanks for sharing the ride.

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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.