More Notes from The Suburban Underground

Two major changes happened in my life on Thursday, one pleasant the other not so. The pleasant change was the arrival of my Yamaha P35 Digital Piano in the house. The other change was the departure of RB, one of my fellow boarders here in my present sanctuary and sacred place.

RB’s departure was precipitated by a mental health crisis triggered, in part, by Centrelink’s rejection of his application for the Disability Support Pension (DSP). Thanks to Centrelink’s byzantine internal organisation, this decision was made by an assessor somewhere in Lower Woop Woop South, a few hundred miles away from here, safely shielded from any personal contact with the clients whose well-being is subject to his bureaucratic whim. Like RB.

To some extent – a very minor extent – RB’s crisis was self inflicted. He was looking forward, a little too optimistically, to the windfall of about $2,000 of backpaid DSP. He forgot this little rule of survival on Newstart: ‘[While] you are entitled to the money try not to see it as something you are guaranteed‘. So he was devastated when his application was rejected and the fact that he could appeal the decision was little consolation. Until the appeal was heard he would still have to get by on NewStart, shut out of the more comfortable circle of people like me who have been ‘parked’ on the DSPi.

Thanks to a few ticks and crosses, some scribbled notes and a scrawled signature on a Centrelink internal form his spirit was broken. He responded by taking to the drink in a viciously self-destructive way. He took the indifference of the bureaucracy – and the governments that have cultivated that indifference – too much to heart and responded with a self-loathing so extreme that he wanted the rest of us who live here to loath him as much as he loathed himself. Been there, done that, didn’t really like it.

As he had in response to previous crises, he drank himself into such a deep state of intoxication that an ambulance had to be called. He was hospitalised overnight and discharged the next day despite the objections of our landlady Jo, the friend who sat with me for six hours at the local hospital during my own recent crisis. She knew from experience – as did we all – what was coming next.

On his return from hospital, RB went straight to the kitchen and started work on cooking a Shepherd’s Pie for our household dinner; a fairly obvious act of atonement best accepted without comment. But, once the potatoes were peeled and simmering on the stove, alongside a pot of chopped carrots and beside the stove a plate of sliced onions he announced that he was going out for ten minutes. The potatoes would be cooked by the time he got back and then he’d get on with the next stage of the cooking.

Ten minutes drew out to half an hour – enough time to walk to the local bottle-o and back – then an hour with no sign of RB’s return. Jo and her husband John came home from work but there was still no sign of RB. He finally arrived home while Jo was completing the Shepherd’s Pie he had started and it was about to go in the oven.

While we were eating dinner it became very obvious that RB was, once again, intoxicated. We lifted him out of his chair at the dining table, carried him to his room and made him as comfortable as we could in the ‘coma position’. Jo called for an ambulance and the rest of the night played out much as things happened the last time RB was released from hospital prematurely.

The last time I saw RB was when he came back to the house to pick up some of his things. He went silently to his room. I left him alone, perhaps a little too wrapped up in playing with my shiny new digital piano but I also couldn’t think anything to say to him that would not have hurt. Even a simple ‘Good luck, take care of yourself’ would have been a cruelty.

We think he’s finally been admitted to rehab but today I’m not so sure he actually got there. I’d have a much more optimistic view if he’d come here accompanied and supported by a social worker instead of having been left to his own devices.

i From the Liberal Party’s policy manifesto:

We will adopt a smarter approach to the disability pension that distinguishes between disabilities that are likely to be permanent and those that are not, which will help to prevent older unemployed people being parked on welfare.

In plain English: older workers currently ‘parked’ on the DSP will be re-parked on NewStart which will be much cheaper for the government.

About Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)

Gummo Trotsky is the on-line persona of Paul Bamford. Paul recently placed his intellect at risk of finally becoming productive by enrolling in a Lemonade, Lime & Bitters degree via distance education. He also plays the piano but Keith Jarrett he ain't.
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8 years ago

“his decision was made by an assessor somewhere in Lower Woop Woop South, a few hundred miles away from here, safely shielded from any personal contact with the clients ”

And your so much better idea is? Of course the person is miles away using a pseudonym. It’s pretty clear that if you have to follow rules that turn other people’s lives into a misery, the least you can ask for is some decent protection from potentially dangerous clients. And this is just a simple solution.

As for the conclusion of the article, I don’t see why older workers should be a protected species in the welfare game, although I do think Newstart should be much higher. It’s so low now it’s probably counterproductive, especially if you consider the mental health damage that’s happening to many long term recipients.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago
Reply to  conrad

Re older workers , I was doing a bit of partime work in the area ( around 1990-4) it became obvious that discrimination against older workers was a very real problem . I remember one bloke of about 44 who had not had any luck at all for 1.5 years, despite having creditable qualifications in engineering, I suggested that he white lie/fudge his age to 39 and low and behold he got a interview and a job .

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
8 years ago

What’s my so much better idea?

Simple – first break up Centrelink, before it completely absorbs the rest of the bureaucracy and we end up with a Federal Cabinet consisting of a Minister for Centrelink (formerly known as the Prime Minister), a Treasurer and a lot of Parliamentary Secretaries assisting the Minister for Centrelink on this, that and the other.

Next, whatever agency replaces Centrelink should be re-organised so that the processing of claims for any kind of welfare are processed at a local level. At present, it’s either disempowered staff at a local Centrelink office who have to deal with the consequences of decisions made in Lower Woop Woop South (if memory serves, that office exists primarily to provide employment for regional Australians, a bit of blatant pork-barrelling by the Howard government however I haven’t been able to Google up confirmation yet) or the Centrelink Call Centre.

All either could offer RB was the standard advice that he can first apply to have his claim re-assessed (in Lower Woop-Woop South, of course) and if that proved useless, he could appeal the decision. Either way, the burden of dealing with the consequences of decisions made in Lower Woop Woop South fall elsewhere. Ask yourself – is this system fair to those other Centrelink employees?

The consequences of that decision in Lower Woop Woop South also fell on all of us living with RB, the Ambulance Service and the health workers who had to deal with his self-destructive behaviour and its effects. So you’ll perhaps understand that I don’t rate shielding the indifferent and callous bureaucrats of Lower Woop Woop South so that they can make difficult decisions ‘impartially’ without facing threat from ‘potentially dangerous’ clients a high priority. Why, incidentally, ‘potentially dangerous’? What did I write that in any way suggested that RB was a danger to anyone other than himself?

Yes, the low rate of NewStart payments is counterproductive and does create – or aggravate – mental health problems. Equally counterproductive is the system of ‘Mutual Obligation’ which treats people who have committed no crime as no better than parolees requiring constant supervision. Don’t forget to fill in your jobseeker diary, or you might be breached and lose your only income for two weeks. Don’t forget to go to appointments with your Job Services Australia provider. Don’t move to an area of where rents are lower but unemployment is higher. It’s hard to think of any way you could design a system more effective at instilling a sense of learned hopelessness in its ‘beneficiaries’. Well, I suppose you could always resurrect the Work House of the Victorian era.

Finally re older workers as a protected species – ah, stuff it. I’ve already written enough for today.

8 years ago

Former dole bludger signing in. There were plenty of dregs milling about at Centrelink when I was existing on them for income. Lots of hoops. Those job seeker diaries came in when I was doing my stint (long term) in the 90’s (bless Keating for his vision) and they sure disrupted my non-working life. I vaguely recall when I was first on, there was no mutual obligation. Just drop off the fortnightly. Stop off for an iced coffee (back when Pauls was dirt cheap) and do jack shit with my existence. I am grateful that I live in Australia. It’s too tough elsewhere.

I’m guessing your mate is claiming DSP as an alcoholic? Does he have to undergo counselling or rehab as part of receiving the DSP? I had got off Newstart – but I had to attend CRS (Commonwealth Rehab Service).