By Nicholas Stewart – Updated April 11 2022

Plenty of Australians won’t be winners this election campaign

Despite record-low unemployment, community workers say food insecurity is getting worse. Picture: Shutterstock

Sometimes, to see the big picture, you need to focus on the little things. Hundreds of thousands of words will be spilt over the next month to help us decide which party should govern the country and taking us forward over the coming years. The result will be vital in establishing the way we engage with the future. Our country may be about to change its government for only the second time this century, and the sixth time since the end of World War II, 77 years ago.

But if you really want to see what life in this country looks like, don’t listen to the politicians, or look at statistics (a record 27 years had passed since the last recession before the pandemic). Go, instead, to the suburb of Narrabundah, a couple of easy blocks’ drive down from Parliament House. Travel just far enough to enter a different world, one where most people never get their chance to “give a go to have a go”, and where all those slogans about “opportunity” ring shallow and empty, like the hollow promise they are. A place where young mothers with hard-working partners pay for food with coupons because the money’s gone on the rent; where an old man, now dead, went without food and heating for a week in the middle of winter until, finally, his pride collapsed and he struggled into the neighbourhood hub, begging for help.

Amanda Tobler sits in a small office just off the central hall of the old school, near the Narrabundah shops. A tightly compressed ball of energy, she’s chief executive of not-for-profit Community Services #1, and spends her time juggling the slender resources of her organisation to make ends meet. Today she’s engaged in a desperate attempt to keep existing programs running while finding ways of meeting newly emerging requirements.

“The other week we got a birthday cake and [a small] present to a four-year old,” Tobler says proudly.

“But food insecurity is becoming worse. We’ve had more and more people turning up every week for a long time now. The problems from the pandemic aren’t nearly over.”

What’s made her task more challenging is that it’s no longer just a matter of providing desperately needed physical support. The needs of people pushed to the sidelines of our society are growing faster than the economy.

Community Services #1 is just one of many small, local not-for-profits trying to make a difference at the sharp end of glib phrases like “economic transition”. She approached me at the National Press Club, asking if I really wanted to see how desperate the situation is for those on the breadline. I had no idea, but after sitting in the little “shop” where her meagre stock of food is being given away to people in need, the scale of the problem hit home.

What’s disgraceful – genuinely scandalous – is how fragile existence has become for so many “ordinary Australians”. They’re pushed to the edge with, crushingly, no apparent path out of the deep poverty in which they’re trapped.

This is the very real face of Australia in this year of our Lord, 2022. The prosperity gospel offers slim comfort to those on the streets of our capital as winter closes in.

Don’t think this is just some sort of poorly camouflaged “Vote Labor” screed. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have both visited Community Services #1 over the past term, and listened first-hand to the problems. Yet if either have discovered a real solution going to the core of this problem, it’s not apparent in their election bumf so far. Labor would put registered nurses into the community, which is great, but it’s still nothing more than a patch-up. Only Band-Aid solutions are offered for huge problems going to the heart of our society that need a team of problem solvers (social workers, trainers, grassroots workers and simple help to distribute things like food and clothes to those who can’t leave their houses). Neither side has a snappy 30-second grab with a pithy solution, for the very good reason that our economy appears to be built on pushing anyone who can’t immediately contribute off to the sidelines, while the rest of us divide up the goodies amongst ourselves.

Maybe this is the reason disadvantage isn’t mainstream. It simply isn’t one of the decisive fault lines that are critical decision points for swinging voters. They’re invisible, as they had been to me before I had to meet with individuals and saw the truth all around me in Narrabundah. Our “leaders” prefer to focus on their their loyalty to rugby league teams. Spare me the pretence. Those handing over a couple of dollars in return for a food handout didn’t look as if they could care less which team their PM supports. They’re far more worried about where next week’s rent for the caravan park will come from.

Politicians and journalists prefer to spend time focusing on issues like defence spending, negative gearing and fuel taxes. Along the way we lose track of the reality that no number of first home owners’ grants are ever going to make a difference to the handout queue.

And yet even here, in the midst of their need, people hold back so there’ll be enough food left for the others.

The economic train of prosperity left the station long before those living in entrenched disadvantage ever got a chance to board. It’s already pulled way off into the distance. No matter how hard people run, there’s no way they’ll ever be able to catch up and clamber on. That’s not the way things work. These people have been left behind.

The distance between those of us who have, and those who do not, is becoming greater and greater. And, unless the political rhetoric changes dramatically in the next couple of weeks, it’s difficult to imagine either of the major parties outlining a real solution.

The wells of entrenched disillusion, poverty and hopelessness run deep.

Columnist
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer

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