Letter to Liao Yiwu from a Member of Australia’s Underclass

Dear Liao,

I went to the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival and spent much of the time waiting in lines hoping to get a seat at one of the free lectures. I am unwaged and subsist on government welfare. Along with up to 30% of my fellow citizens I belong to Australia’s underclass as I am denied the right to work in this country. It is not because we have been critical of the government but because we were born without the right class connections. Our country is not a meritocracy and is riven by inequality. Here it is not what you know but who you know that determines your fate in life.

Anyway after waiting so long for a free seat at the Sydney Writers Festival and just missing out so many times I thought my luck had finally turned when someone offered me a free ticket to the Liao Yiwu lecture: “ The dangers of what we think we know”. Well Liao, I guess I wasn’t so lucky after all because when I arrived a columnist from the Murdoch press, Miriam Cosic of the Australian newspaper, was there to tell us that the Chinese government wouldn’t let you come to the Festival. Cosic explained to the audience that there had been another crackdown on artists and writers in China. She read your letter thanking would-be sponsors. It went on to say how cruelly your government has treated you and how free Australia must be for inviting you. Nodding knowingly to her middle-class audience (many of whom were clutching fistfuls of lecture tickets at $20 and $30 each – enough to feed a welfare family for a week) she pontificated: “We here in Australia have no idea what it must be like to live under constant government crackdowns as they do in China”.

Funny that, because only the previous week the Federal budget announced yet another government crackdown on welfare recipients starting with teenage mums and disabled youth. Teen mums are to be separated from their babies at six months old to do compulsory job training or Work for the Dole programs. Young disabled citizens will not only need specialist medical reports to support their claim for an allowance but letters from at least three employers saying they are unable to employ them because of their disability. The crackdown will put these Australians on the same degrading treadmill of harassment, pernicious activity tests and surveillance as the unemployed who daily run the risk of being breached for even minor infractions. Every waking hour is to be spent justifying their existence to a parasitic bureaucracy and job service goons. Then when they suffer mental breakdown, a bunch of Canberra public servants (in the guise of Get Up!) only dealing with the symptoms not the causes, call for more psychiatrists. This is medicalising the social problems of inequality, lack of meaningful work, economic exclusion and institutional bastardisation of Australia’s underclass.

Many people with secure, well paid jobs are fond of saying that there is no poverty in our country but in reality a third world exists within a first world here. It is a hangover from Victorian England that the have-nots of our country are judged as either deserving or undeserving poor according to warped, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant values dominant since the industrial revolution. The well off mainly empathise with the hardship and injustices suffered by citizens from other parts of the world yet deny the basic human rights violations happening in their own backyard. Despite Australia being a signatory to the United Nations Human Rights Charter guaranteeing every citizen the right to work, job seekers are locked out of our economy.

With all the mineral wealth that lies beneath Australian soil there is never any thought that lower class families should share in this wealth even though as part of our Commonwealth it belongs to all of us. Yet as the mining boom rages, the contrast between high and low income earners has never been greater while money generated from our country creates bloated executive salaries and is siphoned off to other parts of the world. When you look at maps of the world showing each nation’s endowment of natural resources, you find that generally those that have the most minerals and energy per capita also have the largest contrast between rich and poor and Australia is heading the same way.

Australia had almost full employment from the Second World War until the mid-70s when in response to OECD pressure policy makers deliberately created a permanent underclass of unemployed citizens (further research is available from the Centre For Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle). This underemployment was to discipline the workforce and force us to accept lower wages and conditions using the coercion of job insecurity. The government figured that having a workforce terrified of unemployment would make us docile and we would censor ourselves without the need for a heavy-handed secret police. The added advantage was that the steady growth in living standards and workers’ wages occurring after World War II could be diverted into the pockets of company executives, foreign corporations and the ruling elite.

Using the OPEC oil shock as the cover story the government set about shrinking the public sector which had been a traditional employer of workers who couldn’t be absorbed into the private sector. The government printery, shipyards and rail workshops all started closing as jobs were subcontracted offshore. There was further hollowing-out of employment opportunities as essential services became privatised. Factories started closing and the manufacturing sector contracted as import tariffs were steadily removed. While politicians were claiming that it would make Australia more efficient we started hearing new terms bandied about like downsizing, slim-lineing, deregulation and restructuring. Almost overnight jobs became scarcer and our national wealth became redistributed towards the big end of town. For the first time in 1981 when state teacher trainees graduated as high school art teachers virtually none obtained full-time teaching positions with the NSW Education Department and most ended up on 30 year waiting-lists. Rather than employ these Australian graduates the government, driven by ideology, preferred to import teachers from Canada.

To ensure there is never much sympathy for those without work the government and media barons peddle the Orwellian lie that Australia has full employment and simply cook the books. The unemployed and underemployed are labelled as dole bludgers, job snobs, cruisers and losers. They have only their own character flaws to blame for their misfortune so the story goes. Many with university qualifications have tried over 300 times to get a job but are still unemployed so how can that be full employment? Perhaps they lack skills the economy needs and should have trained in something more practical. Maybe if they retrained as Latin graduates, like the CEO of Westpac, they could get a job earning $9.5 million a year.

But the problem really isn’t that there is insufficient employment but only that there is insufficient funding of employment. The Local Government Association alone has identified enough unfunded jobs needing to be done to employ every jobless Australian. If only we could use some of the super mining profits being dug out of the ground to fund these needed jobs with a resource tax. Everyone would have a place in society instead of holding unemployed and casual workers hostage to the job service merry-go-round. All this money from the mining boom employs only 1% of Australians yet miners import trained workers from overseas rather than train the job-seekers that are already here.

In China Liao you got four years gaol for writing a poem about Tiananmen Square. In Australia Lance Sharkey got three years for saying Australian workers would welcome the Soviet army if they arrived here. Four years sentence for a poem, three years gaol for a sentence – what’s the difference? Well Lance certainly wasn’t lionised by the Australian media or showered with glittering prizes and book deals which is a significant difference. And he wasn’t complicit in unwittingly or otherwise airbrushing the plight of the oppressed underclass of one country, supposedly to help publicise the oppression of another. Do you think Australian representatives are discussing China’s human rights at the London Metals Exchange?

There is economic apartheid in Australia today and the situation is akin to the era of racial apartheid in South Africa when local human rights activists called upon other countries for trade boycotts and travel embargoes. Perhaps if Australia’s left wasn’t permanently out to lunch then something would be done along these lines but for now you need to be aware that Australia isn’t free and oppression doesn’t begin or end at national borders. Ever since the eighties when we spiralled into a Dickensian nightmare of extreme capitalism and hidden unemployment Australia has had the highest rate of youth suicide in the Western world.

So next time you send a letter to be read at a writers festival, you could spare a thought for the oppressed of your host country rather than playing into the hands of Australia’s oligarchy. That way, you’d have a credible claim to be advancing the cause of universal human rights rather than providing grist to the mill of Cold War warriors in the Murdoch press et al. Thanks for reading this Liao, hope I haven’t hurt your feelings but I thought it was about time you took a walk in our shoes. Since you can’t come in person to Australia I’m giving you a virtual tour but if you ever get a visa then look me up and I’ll show you the real Australia you don’t see in tourist brochures.

Yours Sincerely,
Bernadette Smith

Bernadette Smith is a writer in Australia. Read other articles by Bernadette, or visit Bernadette's website.