A few days ago, on his way to give a speech at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull created a social media firestorm by giving a homeless beggar a $5 note.
Seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? He stopped and gave a bloke in need a few bucks. Good for him. Well, maybe not so much. Turnbull was roundly criticised for being stingy. The wealthiest member of Parliament and one of this country’s wealthiest persons, gave a homeless man $5. As has been pointed out, in his other hand he held a money clip containing a wad of larger denominations, yet he only gave the guy enough for a Big Mac. Watching the full clip is a bit stomach churning, frankly.
So Turnbull took the photo op and gave up some hard earned cash. Trickle down economics in action, as some have quipped. That said, it ought be acknowledged that Turnbull would probably have faced a backlash had he simply walked past the man. There is a touch of the “damned if you do” about the situation.
However, there is ample evidence that the Robin Hood effect regarding charity is a myth and that it is well established that poorer people give a greater proportion of their income to charity than do the wealthy. It sort of puts Turnbull’s $5 in perspective. But, his apparent parsimony is hardly the real story here. As troubling as the symbolism of that aspect of Turnbull’s actions were, they are made far worse and put into proper relief by those of his Government over the last 3 years.
This Government has been ripping away funding from the charity sector at an alarming rate, so much so that the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) found it necessary to solicit public support to stop the ongoing decimation. Homelessness Australia has recently indicated that things have not gotten any better:
‘This budget [2015-16] was an opportunity for the government to say that they DO care for all Australians, whether they are young or old, families or single, wealthy or poor’ Glenda Stevens, CEO of Homelessness Australia said.
‘By not reinstating funding to the peak bodies the government has shown they just don’t care about those on the margins of society, whom they have designated as “unproductive”: persons experiencing long term homelessness, older women in housing crisis, and veterans with PTSD’
Also typical of the Governments slashing of the sector: ‘A domestic violence shelter servicing 50 Aboriginal communities in the remote north of Western Australia has emerged as the latest project to miss out on funding under the Federal Government’s overhaul of Indigenous funding.‘
And then we have the various cuts to mental health services across the nation. I’m sure we all appreciate, unlike the current Government, the non-trivial relationship between mental health issues and homelessness.
The symbolism of the footage of the PM giving a measly $5 to a homeless man is bad on so many levels and for so many reasons. Coupled with the Government’s contempt for the charity and welfare sectors, that symbolism becomes utterly horrendous.
Responding to public disapproval, Turnbull said he ‘felt sorry’ for the guy. Well, that’s great, but I don’t think what he or any homeless person needs is patronising pity. It might have been better if Turnbull had felt concern for him. The truth is the PM had a typical guilt response, if indeed he actually felt much of anything, which he assuaged with a casual fiver and a smug, self-satisfied that’ll-do-pig pat of his wad on the way out.
Actual concern, rather than pity, might have led to Turnbull directing one of his staffers to check on the guy’s circumstances and potentially doing or learning something, you know, meaningful.
Turnbull was also reported as saying he always feels a ‘there, but for the grace of God’ sort of sentiment when he sees people in such circumstances. How quaint. Nice to know the PM thinks God is in his corner, like some boxer who crosses himself after winning a fight. Unfortunately that sort of twisted sentiment merely adds to the delusional notion of the poor being subject to some sort of Divine fatalism, and not something more obvious and practical like, um, Government policy.
There are those who say it’s a bad idea to give a homeless beggar money, for, you know, reasons. I call bullshit on that. If giving a few bucks is all you can do, and no-one is doing much of anything else and we have a Government that is stripping charity and welfare organisations of their capacity to actually assist such people, then screw it, give them money so they can at least eat. The idea that monetary assistance entrenches poverty and the supposed mentality that goes with it, is a peculiarly conservative, anti-welfare socio-economic theory. In the context of individuals begging on the street to survive, it’s nonsense.
Being homeless and begging on the streets is about as dire a set of circumstances as I can imagine being in. And even then we’re going to find reasons and excuses not to give such people whatever assistance we can? No person can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps when they don’t have any bootstraps.
Seriously, Turnbull is the most powerful person (theoretically) in the country, and in the face of public criticism of his actions the best he can come up with is to say he feels sorry for a bloke and blessed that it isn’t him? Bloody hell. How about a public commitment to shore up the struggling charity sector that acts at the coal face of this problem? But it’s nice of Turnbull to have shared his feelings with us and given us an insight into the tremendous depth of his humanity. I guess.
Then again, most of that public criticism was either to do with the fact that he gave the man money at all, or the miserly amount he was willing to part with. For mine, not nearly enough has been made of the stark symbolism of his meanness with respect to his Government’s treatment of the homeless and those trying to help them.
When all’s said and done it may well have been better for the Prime Minister to have simply walked past the guy. As it was, his personal action of handing a man in need a token amount with one hand, whilst holding onto a shitload of cash in the other, no doubt earmarked for scones, is astonishingly symbolic of his Government’s behaviour.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.