I’ve been re-watching the West Wing. I don’t know how long it’s taken me: a year at least, I guess, on and off. I’m only half a season now from finishing it, and I’ve picked up the pace towards the end: the sixth and seventh seasons, unpopular though they are, are my favourites, with all their excitement of campaigning and bright hope and optimism. The West Wing always did optimism much better than the real world.
Usually when I watch it I’m sitting in bed, with the DVD in my laptop, and I’m trying not to fall asleep; and inevitably as the small night-time cycle of my house winds down I hear a bump and a shuffle and the soft tinkling of an old bell and before I know it my cat has pushed her way into my room and up onto my bed, into the crook of my arm. There she’ll lie, purring loudly, kneading her claws into the flesh of my arm if she’s feeling particularly affectionate, turning her enormous eyes up to me; more often than not blocking the screen.
I’ve had her for about five years now; she was eight or nine months old when I got her from a cat shelter in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. She was skinny then, grown but not yet filled out, and she was as shy as a mouse with everybody except me. When I first got her she used to hide behind the windowsill of my room and growl at people walking past on the street outside. If I had friends over she’d disappear under my bed and not come out for hours.
I got her only a few weeks after my previous cat died. I’d had him for a decade or more until he died of kidney failure – the fate of most cats. He’d once been bitten by a brown snake and perhaps that had hastened his death several years later. I was perhaps too hasty in getting another cat but I found that I needed the companionship: a pet’s affection is an uncomplicated thing, constant and easily interpreted. Having an animal curl up peacefully on your lap or at your side or at your feet grounds you, brings you into an ease with the world. There have been times when a head-bump from my cat has brought me out of a moment of introspection and into a more immediate, more restful kind of living. A pet is a balm.
Yet it’s a risk, too. A cat in particular is an animal liable to get into trouble: in addition to the snake bite, my previous cat was hit by a car; he became caught on a fence and was left dangling and immobilised for the best part of a day in midwinter Canberra; he was stung by a bee to such an extent that his face puffed up like a balloon; he went missing for two weeks and was found in somebody’s back garden, starving and hysterical and stinking of a kind of panic-musk that cats exude when they’re in dire straits. The day after he was bitten by the snake he returned home from the vet, dopey and enfeebled, and had a vertebra dislocated by our family’s new and energetic ten-week-old puppy. At a certain point it became apparent that my family was spending far more on the cat’s health than we were on our own.
My current cat hasn’t had any such calamities, fortunately; but I live in fear of such events. Of course, it would be disastrous for her if such misfortune should befall her; but I’d be lying if I said that a large reason for my concern was not also what impact such a calamity might have on me.
I don’t have a lot of money. I work full time in a white-collar job in a workplace I like but it doesn’t pay very much. I’ve lived in Melbourne for exactly ten years now and in that time I’ve gone through two periods of uncertain employment which have put me on the back foot financially; money trouble escalates exponentially such that a month of difficulty may take six months to recoup, and a difficult year may make its effects felt for many years to come. Australia is an expensive place to live, and it doesn’t take much to slip behind. One trip to the vet, one surgical procedure or overnight stay for my cat, could be catastrophic. I live on the edge, month to month, and there is absolutely nothing remarkable about my predicament – it’s so common as to be banal.
On Tuesday last week here in Australia the conservative government led by Tony Abbott presented its first budget since it was elected to office in September 2013. A budget, particularly a first one, is an opportunity for a government to put forth its vision both for and of the country: where it thinks we should be going; where it wants to take us; where it thinks we’ve gone wrong. Prior to the budget being delivered the government took the unusual step of creating a Commission of Audit to identify where and how Australia’s money could be saved. Australia has a AAA-rated economy; its handling of the Global Financial Crisis (under the previous Labor government) was widely hailed overseas as a model example of how to steer a country away from the rocks of economic disaster. We’ve been helped considerably by a resources boom that has seen China in particular buy huge quantities of Australian iron and coal. Anybody who has been to Europe or to America in the last few years will have a sharp appreciation for how lightly Australia was touched by the GFC.
Nonetheless, despite all evidence to the contrary the political narrative persists that Labor governments are bad at handling the economy. This narrative has in recent years been driven particularly strongly by the conservative Liberal party, now in government; it’s a narrative that persists to this day against any logic or common sense. It’s a narrative that was at the heart of last week’s budget.
The most common epithet used to describe the budget has been “brutal”. Health, education, the arts, and welfare have all been brutalised, their funding cut severely. Even as the government wrings its hands about Australia’s supposedly ruined economy it pledges to spend 58 billion dollars on fighter jets that are widely regarded as lemons. The government lies and its own actions put the lie to every pronouncement it makes; yet the government doesn’t care. More than any Australian government I can recall, this government transparently just doesn’t care. It doesn’t care about the sick; it doesn’t care about the elderly; most especially it doesn’t care about the young.
Under the Abbott government’s budget if you are under thirty, and become unemployed, you will be ineligible for welfare payments for the first six months of your unemployment. After that your unemployment benefits will come and go in a six-monthly cycle: six months on, and six months off. Six months on, and six months off. And what does the government expect you to do in those six months when you’re receiving no government assistance? In the words of the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, interviewed shortly after he gave the budget speech: “I would expect you’d be in a job.”
I’ve been in my current job for one-and-a-half years: I began it in August 2012. Prior to that I was working part time for a year: my previous job, a public service contract (and, incidentally, under the budget 16,500 federal public servants are to be sacked), was in mid-2011 reduced due to (Labor) government cutbacks from full time to only two days – fifteen hours – a week. I scraped and saved where I could; I borrowed heavily from my credit card so that I could pay rent every month; I took short-term or occasional work where I could find it. I worked as a scribe, taking minutes of meetings once every month or two. A friend’s mother gave me a few months data-entry and research work. An acquaintance of mine who owns a bar gave me work hosting beer tastings once a week, even though I’d never worked in hospitality before. I checked the job ads every day, put in more job applications than I can recall; I struggled to sleep and became short-tempered with my family. I depended on the kindness of friends just to have a night out. There are jobs in Australia but – particularly in Melbourne, a city whose population is booming – there are many, many more people seeking jobs. It’s an employer’s market and with so many people looking for work very, very few employers are willing to do on-the-job training: without experience you have almost no chance of finding work. The era of the foot-in-the-door is gone. Every job you apply for requires its own cover letter; many prospective employers require that you complete a lengthy questionnaire or address in writing numerous selection criteria; all this is time-consuming and if you manage to find a part-time job it leaves you with almost no time in which to adequately complete your application for a full-time role, the window for which is often vanishingly small.
In the second episode of the fourth season of the West Wing Toby Ziegler, the White House Director of Communications, is engaged at a bar by a man whose daughter is about to go to college. “I like that it’s hard, it should be hard”, the man says of the struggle to fund his daughter’s education, “but it should be a little easier”. Listening to this homespun wisdom Toby is inspired to craft the administration’s new education policy – but like everything else in the West Wing, this is a fantasy. High-level government staffers don’t create policy based on chance encounters with strangers in bars. Politicians in government don’t give any heed to their constituents more than once every election cycle. And politicians lie egregiously and shamelessly to get into power.
Image by the author.