Drawing lines somewhere

Where we draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, included and excluded, as we respond to a crisis like C19 says a lot about who we are, what we value, about our own humanity. The best lines are not about labels and categories, but about need writes CCA CEO David Crosbie.

Drawing lines somewhere, Pro Bono News, 28 May 2020

“At $130 billion we had to draw the line somewhere. This is a massive call on the public purse, and it is a debt that the country will pay for years to come. And at six million people on the JobKeeper program, that’s nearly half the Australian workforce. … bringing the one million ineligible casuals into the JobKeeper scheme would cost an extra $18 billion.” – Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, (The Australian).

When we draw lines around ourselves or on maps, we create borders between people. How we see these borders invariably depends on which side of the line we are standing. 

The government drew the COVID-19 support package line at $130 billion and 6 million workers – this was the cited reason many people had to be excluded from JobKeeper and some other support packages. This was the limit, our line. 

Turns out the numbers were grossly overestimated, but still the government is not about to extend eligibility.

The decision not to include more people makes it clear that the reluctance of government to extend support to temporary visa holders, casuals and others is not just about the money. The fact is the government could provide a more inclusive JobKeeper package for significantly less than they anticipated and were prepared to pay. There are good economic, social and health reasons to do so. 

Many of us know all too well what happens to individuals and their families when they lose their job through no fault of their own and cannot get alternative work or access government support. It is soul destroying. This is the reality for too many people in Australia right now. There is a broad group of people, many temporary visa holders, international students and those who work in short-term casual roles who do not qualify for JobKeeper or JobSeeker. They are on the wrong side of the line.

Charities are doing their best to support these groups, to enable them to eat, have shelter, and assistance to help educate their children. We know many will receive invaluable support, but many will also end up outside of our services, unsupported.

For most of my life, I have worked with people on the wrong side of lines, in prisons, drug treatment services, mental health settings. Some of these people have made mistakes that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, big mistakes, sometimes stupid mistakes fuelled by drugs and alcohol. Many of the people I worked with have survived incredible levels of trauma. Their mistakes were grounded in their experience of injustice, abuse and disadvantage. 

I have sometimes been able to help people realise their dreams, and sometimes watched on helplessly as their nightmares were realised. I have spoken at the funerals of too many people I cared about. 

The most important lesson I have learned in working with and for the marginalised of our community is that they are us. All of us in our own ways struggle with life. In many ways these struggles are what define us, make us human, make life worth living. And by that definition, those who have struggled more often best reflect our humanity.

When a crisis like COVID-19 hits a community, the response says a lot about who we are, what we value, about our own humanity.

Even for those of us on the right side of the line, the impact of a major shut down can be very challenging.

For those on the wrong side of the line, the “they” who are often not valued for their work and their place in our communities, crisis can be a point of engagement. It can also reinforce their place outside of mainstream Australia. For too many groups in Australia, we have chosen to reinforce their exclusion.

For me, this is the most disappointing aspect of the COVID-19 crisis, the willingness of some to cut people adrift as though they are somehow less worthy or deserving than those of us on the other side of the line.

It is important to acknowledge that governments have generally been prepared to listen to charities and have offered quite strong support for our organisations with concessional access to JobKeeper and other important measures including a greater willingness to facilitate roll-over of government funding.

Every state and territory government has offered some measures in support of temporary visa holders and some other at-risk groups. These measures are to be commended.

At the same time, the federal government has made it very clear that it is not prepared to; “saddle taxpayers with additional debt by extending JobKeeper to areas that had missed out such as universities, foreign visa holders and casual workers with less than 12 months service to an employer.” 

And so, the work of many in the charities sector is now defined by a seemingly moveable line that excludes people who are vital members of our communities, our economy and our humanity.

Those of us who know this work also know that the best lines we can draw around programs, services and support are not about labels and categories, but about need. Need driven lines are not straight, they do not rely on labels and categorisations, they wind around us in complex inter-related patterns of disadvantage. Not every temporary visa holder will need assistance, but neither will everyone eligible for assistance. Drawing lines around needs is more complex, requires assessment, flexibility, engagement. It is about where people are, rather than where they are from or what their legal status is. 

One of the critical strengths of charities is this capacity to engage with authenticity, beyond labels, and act in response to need. It is an approach, a way of experiencing community that can be confronting and difficult. It can also be demanding for those who sit outside these communities to understand, which is why so many government programs so often get their definitions and classifications of how to draw lines around eligibility so wrong. 

The scary thing is that sometimes it is charities enforcing the lines, patrolling the borders of eligibility on behalf of government. Perhaps more charities need to reject some of the less informed approaches about how and when we will be expected to exclude people in need?

As we move forward, the big challenge for many charities is to create a system driven by need not labels, inclusion not exclusion, engagement not dismissal. These core values should inform both our practice and our advocacy. They should also determine where we draw our own lines, our own versions of us and them.

Happy drawing. 

Read in Pro Bono News: drawing-lines-somewhere