Newstart and the casualties of the arts

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Ricci Bartels and Jason Falinski on their Q&A appearance (Screenshots via YouTube)

No one is immune to potential poverty and the crippling effects of being on the Newstart allowance, writes Melvin Fechner.

THERE HAS BEEN much in the media lately, both in print and online, about the pittance that is the Newstart payment, the fact it has not been increased for some time and the truth that so many on it are in the older age range — too old for employers to want to hire them but too young for the age pension.

Ricci Bartels questioned Liberal MP Jason Falinski on Q&A about her struggles with trying to find a job at age 62 after 46 years of work, which she dubbed “the worst time of my life”. Predictably, Falinski dodged the issue. Bartels mentioned the loss of dignity and friendships; it's little wonder many on Newstart report a decline in their mental health. There was much debate online about the fact that Bartels was not currently on Newstart and actually on the Age Pension. To me, this was irrelevant.

What was interesting was the fact she was proof that one can go from a high-paying job to unemployment through no fault of one’s own. Nobody is immune from retrenchment, corporate downsizing or the slings and arrows of free market capitalism. Any of us can fall into poverty headfirst and the powers that be keep hinting they would love to remove that safety net from us.

Many comrades of mine here in Adelaide are also in that same boat — a leaky, capsizing boat it is, too. The other week I found myself purchasing a washing machine from Aldi for a 64-year-old companion, as his had broken down while on Newstart and there is never any extra money to purchase such things or to pay off loans. His physical health had deteriorated due to not being able to clean himself or his clothes properly (his hot water service had also died) and he is too disabled to go find a laundromat. Being a little better off, I wanted to help him out.

This companion has an aged vehicle, but it is unregistered because, well, you know why. So we hired a trolley from Bunnings ($16 + $100 refundable-on-return deposit) and I wheeled the 65kg washing machine from the store to his house. Luckily, he lives right across the road from the biggest shrine to capitalism in Adelaide. I had a cold developing and was feeling weak, so I don’t know how I did it. But I did, even wheeling the trolley back in time to Bunnings to get the refund.

This companion, like many older folk on Newstart, had periods of his life being quite well-off. Famous almost — well, famous-in-Adelaide type famous. He studied acting at Flinders University and was quite the up-and-coming enfant terrible actor in the Adelaide theatre world back in the day. He later went back to the same university to study to become a theatre director, started his own company and multidisciplinary arts venue, which thrived during the ’90s. He put on wild shows during the Festivals which people actually went to see, employing many young local actors and bands.

The arts, unless you’re one of the very highly successful or come from old money, has always been an extremely unstable career path. One day you’re put on a pedestal, the next day it can be ripped from under you — especially if the political climate of the day is not pro-arts. Another interesting thing about being an artist in Adelaide is that one minute you can be dining at a mansion in Stirling with rich people who want to be in your presence, the next minute you're at Maccas on Main North Road trying to score drugs. It's a colourful life.

I was involved in disability theatre for a while and managed to get my companion a brief gig as a director at the company where I was learning acting. While at this company, I used to see a transient old bloke hanging around in the park out the back with his cart of worldly belongings. My companion revealed to me who he was and I was amazed. He was a graduate of NIDA from when they first started — not just that, but he was also probably one of the first non-caucasian NIDA graduates.

Being very talented, he did lots of theatre acting in Adelaide and was in the State Theatre Company until one day he had some sort of breakdown, probably due to undiagnosed mental health issues. He attacked a fellow actor on stage and got swiftly carted off to Glenside. In those days, mental health treatment would have been very primitive and they would have subjected him to all sorts of quasi-experimental type treatments of the day. The old actor was never the same after his stay in Glenside and from then on just drifted around from place to place. Apparently, he couldn’t work much as an actor again since everyone was afraid of him, except my companion who was the only director he felt he could trust.

The media and the Government love to portray Newstart recipients as bludgers, job snobs and the “other” to encourage and invite hate. With the MSM, there always has to be an “other” to use as a scapegoat rather than get to the real crux of an issue. The reality is that people on Newstart can be anyone — they are mainly just regular people like you and me, people who don't have rich and influential relatives to help them when life takes strange turns.

Unfortunately, the brainwashing has influenced other regular people who act like they are immune to being fired or retrenched, who perpetrate the hate when the reality is that nobody is immune. All this does is further divide us as a society, which is exactly what the LNP Government and MSM want — to divide and conquer.

Melvin Fechner worked as a library assistant/researcher for News Ltd in the 1990s but left due to political differences. Melvin blogs here at and is on Twitter @MelvinFWriter

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