Last night Joe Hockey announced the budget. You all know what happened. There were cuts to health, education, overseas aid, and welfare, and except in some cases it really seemed to be the most vulnerable who are being robbed to subsidise the rich. The winners were big business, medical research, the military, road infrastructure and subsidies for fossil fuels. There was no mention of renewable energy, climate change or innovative transport solutions like high speed rail. The offshore detention of refugees on Manus Island alone will cost $8.3 billion while there will be $7.9 billion cuts to overseas aid. I felt very sad.
Then another thing happened. This morning I went for a walk along the Cooks River. I feel better when I am near water. On the way I passed an elderly man. We nodded and smiled. On the way back, there he was again. I nodded again, and this time he wanted to connect. He called out to me after I had passed him by and asked me my name, and I'm ashamed to say that I paused, looked at him, then kept walking. I had panicked, and decided not to engage.
After a few paces I started to feel really bad. What if his wife had recently died and he just wanted to connect with another human being? Maybe he had something really important to tell me. Would it have cost me so much to stop on my day off and talk to somebody that I didn't already know? What was I really afraid of? That he would rape me in broad daylight? Or that he might ask me a favour? I started to weep with shame as I walked.
So, what's the connection between my non-interaction with this stranger on the path by the river and the budget from hell? I think the link is that we've lost touch with our common humanity. One friend was saying that anthropologically we can only accommodate a certain number of people into our immediate circle. And sometimes I think we are more able to empathise with those who are in our immediate circles.
I wonder how many of the socio-economic groups that will lose out in this budget Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have had meaningful interactions with? How many of their close friends are ex-soldiers who struggle daily with the psychological and emotional scars of fighting wars on our country's behalf and can't hold down a job of any kind? How many grew up in housing commission arrangements? How many have struggled throughout life due to disability or mental health issues? How many fled war and persecution, torture and rape and then lived in poverty stricken conditions in refugee camps before ending up on our shores? How many currently live in countries that have been aid partners for the past few decades, with limited opportunities for basic health services, free education or employment opportunities? I can honestly say that I count all these groups amongst my friends, and maybe that makes it easier for me to understand their circumstances and why we need a budget that is just as well as sustainable.
But it's not just me and my bleeding heart friends who think it's important to be compassionate as well as fiscally responsible. The United Nations has set out standards for countries to follow when it comes to refugees, Indigenous Peoples, development aid and action on climate change. Australia already falls embarrassingly short on all four accounts, yet the rhetoric that is believed by many Australians is that our finances are in a mess, there is no urgency on climate change, we already take too many refugees, Aboriginal people have been given too much already, and that our own backyard is more important than those of our neighbours. Yet, if the SBS program "Go back where you came from" tells us anything, it is that even the most poorly educated, hard-hearted, red-neck is capable of changing their mind when they come face to face with another human being who tells their story.
So, what do I think we should do? I think we should organise and we should start to engage. While the Government might not be changing its mind any time soon, I think we can educate those who voted for them, introduce them to the facts and the real people who might open their minds and give them a broader perspective. We can provide examples of other countries that have great high speed rail, renewable energy programs, and recognise their international human rights obligations while still managing a stable economy. We can encourage the other political parties to get their act together and provide real policy alternatives at the next election. We can encourage one another to speak up about what it is we don't like, so that we can move towards a country that we're all proud of.