Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held a doorstop in Corangamite, Victoria this week, accompanied by Minister Nash and local member, Sarah Henderson MP. But as David Tyler reports, the PM did little do assuage voters’ concerns, especially on the NBN.
BEFORE THE first flush of Malcolm Turnbull’s popular appeal disappears entirely, something profound has appeared amidst the high-vis vests, sound-bites and talking points — the signs of a nation in distress. Daily, Turnbull is confronted by first-hand evidence that puts the lie to his smug slogan that, for Australia,
“... there has never been a more exciting time to be alive.”
Australia is hurting and it shows. Visiting the marginal south-western Victorian electorate of Corangamite this week, the PM was shocked during a media conference to discover the high rate of suicide in the area. Despite Turnbull being caught off guard, none of the journos mention the elephant in the room – the NBN – which instead of being cheaper than Labor’s FTTP, is sucking up $56 billion, leaving less for local hospitals.
The NBN is Turnbull's baby and a Federal priority — one that is yet to improve communications or boost employment in Corangamite, as the talk turns to black spots.
Luckily, residents are spared Turnbull's view that Corangamite will soon be booming courtesy of a “productivity dividend” as his government cuts taxes to businesses and wealth trickles all the way down to the Western District of Victoria. So, too, with his abiding conviction that the changes to negative gearing proposed by Labor will cause local businesses to close their doors.
Oddly, he chooses to say nothing about how his government's cutting of Gonski education funding to a quarter of the original commitment, pledged by Abbott last election, will make it even harder for local youngsters to get the level of education they need. Over-represented in the statistics of suicides are those who have failed to proceed past Year Ten at school.
Of course, like every snake oil salesman, Turnbull's has a patent remedy to hand. An app, or a phone number, or some counselling — although, to be fair, the technological fix is proposed not by the PM but by Ian Hickie, co-director of Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre.
Hickie holds that if you are a suicidal young man at 3:30am in a rural Western District town in Victoria, you need at least to be able to phone a specialist. He is right. Left out of his equation, however, is a $73 million cut faced by Victorian hospitals, this year, which makes it unlikely any doctor will be available, assuming the young man is not in a mobile black spot.
What Turnbull can't fix, because he is part of the problem, is the truth: his party's neoliberal and “financialisation” policies are largely to blame for the distress faced daily by ordinary Australians.
Tragically, the Labor Party is equally smitten by the ideology of free trade, small government and leaving it to the market, a laissez-faire abdication of fiscal responsibility which has destroyed car manufacturing at the local Ford factory in favour of a free trade god who exchanges the economic and social security of skilled employment in local manufacturing for cheap Chinese imports.
Men and women who have no jobs, no prospects and who can't pay their bills are increasingly at risk of suicide because of their poor economic circumstances.
Centrelink's Newstart is a cruel hoax. It provides a series of demeaning experiences in return for a life below the poverty line. Mental health issues are routinely dismissed, beneficiaries report. All job-seekers must endure the dehumanising jobs merry-go-round in which they are pawns in Australia's privatised unemployment services sector.
Professor in economics and director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE) at the University of Newcastle, Bill Mitchell points out:
'... there's been a whole industry of punishment and coercion and monitoring of the unemployed when there's not enough jobs anyway.'
Add to this, a new industry of surveillance, the institutionalised expectation that each claimant is a fraud. Stuart Robert's recent Task Force Integrity, increases surveillance to “claw back” welfare fraud.
Corangamite and Casey in Victoria have the highest rates of suicide – suffering 184 and 111 suicides in the period 2009 to 2012 – while Longman and Brisbane in Queensland, have had 162 and 105 suicides respectively. John Mendoza, director of consultancy ConNetica announces grim statistics he has compiled from Australian Bureau of Statistics and Public Health Information Development Unit data. It's a cue for campaigners and others to deplore the figures.
But no-one in government, or the Business Council of Australia, or the IPA, or the armies of other lobby groups for lower wages, penalty rates and “more flexible work options” is listening when Mendoza proceeds to explain that the causes of suicide are embedded in the neoliberal ideology, which encourages an increasingly casualised, contract and part time work force.
It’s what the literature refers to as precarious employment conditions less certainty. If you want to give people a mental health problem, if you want to raise their psychological distress, what do you do? Dose them up on uncertainty, dose them up on fear.
That’s what causes mental illness, that’s what gets them to the point they see no other option but to take their own life.
Quickly, the media focus shifts to dairy farmers who have just suffered retrospective indebtedness, surely one of the most outrageous forms of extortion in farming history. Not only has the price of milk halved, dairy farmers are told by email, it is retrospective. The average Goulburn Murray farm supplier now faces a debt demand for $120,000. Some farmers walk off their farms.
A package is announced. Farmers will be able to borrow half of what they owe — if they can qualify for a loan. Up their burden of debt. No-one in government or opposition has the guts to call big business on its “step-downs” — the industry jargon for abruptly dropping its price.
Somehow, with a bit of media skimming, the consumer is to blame for buying on price alone. Not that Coles and Woolworths and the big dairy providers have extorted primary producers by colluding to get prices so low they are sending some farmers broke.
Suddenly, the media conference turns to mobile black spots. Improving connections would help small businesses and ordinary people. Fiona Nash, in her other role as minister for regional communications, pledges $60 billion to fix mobile phone black spots, a matter of life and death, which it has taken the coalition three years to notice.
Minister Nash appears oblivious to the fact that before Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott, claiming to have a better understanding of what the economy needed, he failed to deliver on his NBN promise to build a better, cheaper faster network sooner than Labor.
NBN costs have blown out to $56 billion. Turnbull’s NBN has taken twice as long and double the cost to deliver half the speed promised. Yet, as the AFP raid last week makes clear, or its inspection of Peter Young's phone records, the Turnbull government is quick to invoke national security law to deal with the political embarrassment of being held accountable.
If the neoliberal Liberal Prime Minister's visit to Corangamite will do little to assuage voters' real concerns, let alone ease their suffering, his NBN and his government's approach to whistle-blowers will do even less for their peace of mind.
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