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    There’s a film out called “I, Daniel Blake,” about the abuse of a person seeking help in England through their equivalent of Centrelink. “Racist by any Other Name,” written in 2015 for Toorak Times, points out how we tolerate aggression towards our most vulnerable population, while accusing them of being the aggressors. Unfortunately it’s getting worse. Here’s a replay. Brenda.

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    The recent Age editorial said it all. Residents of Baltimore have had enough. Police bashing and brutality of its poorest citizens have reached a desperate, out of control stage. The United States, a world superpower, which many look up to as a global leader showing a fine example of democracy at work, cannot control its rampant and murderous discrimination against its poor and black citizens.

    So much for ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ They are great words, part of a poem by Emma Lazarus, which is written on the Statue of Liberty. Shame they don’t follow through with it.

    Thankfully Australia is not like that – or is it? Well not if you don’t count the treatment of the Indigenous community that we tried to wipe out so that we could prove they didn’t really exist, or the Muslims, who are the current ‘low man on the totem pole,’ and which everyone knows are all terrorists. Luckily it’s just the non-thinkers in our community who have those beliefs, not us nice articulate ones.

    But hang on a minute. Kristofferson sang,

    Everyone needs someone to look down on,
    Someone doing something dirty decent folks can frown on.

    And he was right.

    Since it has become unfashionable for us decent folks to look down on various races, particularly ones we are not likely to mix with, we have had to invent a group that it is ok to put down. One that is not overtly based on race. Us nice articulate Australians even invented a name for these people. Let’s call them Bogans. We’re even proud when we learnt that the Oxford dictionary had accepted this new Australian word. Clever us. The word described Australians of lower-socio - economic status. We even made films and television shows about them. Oh, how we laughed. Well, you can take a joke can’t you?

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    To prove that we weren’t just picking on the poor, we then invented the ‘Middle-class and Upper middle Class Bogan.’ For this, just substitute Poor people who came into money, or people who haven’t got manners like us. Presumably they don’t use the right fork when they eat soup and the males don’t take their weight on their elbows when they have sex like a proper person does. And don’t mention their grammar. Now that’s funny.

    Often examples of this group can be found in places called Centrelink.

    If you want a real laugh, try assisting a young inarticulate person who might be applying for unemployment benefits, or a slightly articulate person applying for Austudy, or even a reasonably articulate person applying for sickness benefit or the pension. Clients also include people with mental health issues and people, mostly women, fleeing domestic violence situations.

    Perhaps the person has lodged their application and has been told that because it is Centrelink’s busy period, they will have to wait a month to be assessed. When no assessment arrives, you might then ring up to see what the problem is. You will find enjoyment in being told that this is their busy period – it’s always their busy period - and the expected wait on the phone to speak to someone will be in excess of 60 minutes. While you hang onto a phone for over an hour, you will be repeatedly told that it would be better if you did it, whatever ‘it’ is, on line – in between being regularly reminded that it is their busy period.

    When you finally get someone to talk to, they will tell you how busy they are and that they are regularly working overtime to deal with the backlog. Are they boasting or what? Just imagine the pay packet they are getting while your person doesn’t have a cent to his or her name.

    This scenario gets repeated a month later and another month later. One young lady gave up her studies when six months went by with explanations about how hard working the Centrelink worker was. Last I heard she was on ice and starting to deal it.

    Then if you need some more laughs, actually go into a Centrelink office. Sit down as directed, and wait - and wait. While you are waiting, you can read the numerous signs that say

    We do not tolerate aggressive behaviour from clients.’

    This is interspersed, again, with suggestions that whatever you want, why don’t you go on line - and presumably stop bothering us with your petty problems. I watched some people trying this option unsuccessfully on the few computers available in the office. Assistance to work the online system was sparse. Most gave up. Remember, not everyone is computer literate, or has access to a phone.

    Then I met a young man who went to a Centrelink office and was told it was the wrong one. He had to go to one in a suburb about 10 miles away. He had no money, so he had to walk. It was a cold wet day and he was shivering and exhausted when he arrived. He wasn’t even offered a glass of water. This skinny little man was still sitting there in his wet clothes when I left an hour later.

    Again I looked at the signs warning people not to be aggressive. I was surprised that there were not a few outbursts or even more than a few. Here were the poorest and tiredest of our huddled masses who were being exposed to extreme passive-aggressive behaviour, and they are the group that have the least resources to deal with this behaviour.

    If you think it’s not passive-aggressive to deal with despairing, needy people by stalling them, finding excuses not to help them, turning them away time after time, keeping them waiting literally hours on the phone to be told the operator is worked off his or her feet and can’t help you at the moment, I suggest you try being on the receiving end of this behaviour.

    Never mind the ‘don’t be aggressive signs.’ We should all be yelling our heads off. Centrelink is one of the most aggressive systems for dealing with people that I have ever witnessed.

    Aggression covers up sadness and fear. If staff don’t know how to deal with these issues, they need training so that they don’t exacerbate the problem, as occurs at the moment. On a number of occasions I was about to get aggressive myself.

    Sadly, it’s also the frog in the pond situation. As more people get access, and/or feel at home with the internet, the workers boasting of being ‘overworked’ will be out of work. Then they will be standing in the shoes of the needy.

    But there are things that we can do. For starters, let’s change the name of our disadvantaged citizens. Let’s call them ‘The Battlers.’

    Yes there will be the odd person who rorts the system. All groups in all societies have a few of those – even in the nice articulate and extremely wealthy groups. But the majority of Battlers are good honest Australians, trying to exist in a difficult and changing world.

    We could start a Centrelink Supporters Group. Install a coffee machine in every office and keep it supplied with the necessities - turn up regularly with some muffins - listen to people’s stories – provide some magazines. You can think of some more.

    And we could put up a few signs saying that ‘We the people’ will not put up with the passive-aggressive behaviour of the system towards our friends.

    We could also make it illegal to use Centrelink clients for amusement, as in the recent news program on Channel 9 that showed a client shouting with frustration.

    We can do better. Centrelink needs more than a shake-up.

    Brenda Richards

    Cartoons by John Graham
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