Australians all, but experiences are not the same | The Young Witness

Australians all, but experiences are not the same | The Young Witness

I’VE spent the last few days reflecting on the state of things in Australia, in the shadows of Australia Day on the weekend.

Social media has been divisive and arguments have broken out between strangers and friends as the issues surrounding Australia Day spark heated debate, fuelled by emotive language and frustrations on all sides.

Personally, I’ve found the posts about how grateful we should all be to live in this country to be blinkered.

I hold gratitude for many things in my life, not least of which is a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food in my fridge, which makes me a part of the privileged 25 per cent wealthiest people in the world.

While I understand the importance of gratitude in our lives, I think we need to be careful in attributing this privilege purely to our Australian citizenship and in so doing generalising our experience as a nation.

In Australia, 2.86 million of us are currently living below the poverty line.

Forty-four per cent of us have to skip at least five meals a week. Homelessness has increased over the last five years. The number of people who own their own home is trending down. Our underemployment rate is trending up.

It is easy to judge the experiences of others from our ivory towers, especially in the metro areas.

Our Medicare system saves lives, but accessibility assumes we have all been raised within a context of normalising the seeking of help: healthcare accessibility isn’t solved with just a piece of plastic. Social, cultural, racial and geographical experiences shape our connection to services, and in many rural and even regional areas the services simply aren’t available.

If you are receiving welfare benefits and need a surgery without emergency admission, even as a public patient, you often need to find significant amounts of money for a surgical consult prior to the surgery. For many, this simply isn’t possible.

We are addressing this, but it’s a work in progress.

I think it is a cop out to demand that all Australians feel grateful for the opportunities afforded to some of us.

Accessibility to education provides similar barriers and challenges. Universities run programs to target school students trapped in generational cycles of poverty and welfare to expose them to educational opportunities, but the fact remains that university costs money even with the option to go into significant debt to achieve your degree.

The cost of books, transport and housing can feel insurmountable, especially when distance courses don’t always offer Commonwealth Supported Places, leaving regionally located students at a disadvantage. Furthermore, the defunding of TAFEs has decreased course availability and this has impacted the employment accessibility.

Let’s look at a comparison to other OECD countries. Australia is ranked 113th out of 118 countries for annual GDP growth for the last quarter. A UN agency has ranked Australia 39 out of 41 OECD countries for education and Australia’s Newstart rate is the second-lowest payment in the OECD.

If we include rental assistance, compared with other nations’ housing benefits, our Newstart payment is the lowest payment in the OECD. Don’t get me started on the Indue Card.

I think it is a cop out to demand that all Australians feel grateful for the opportunities afforded to some of us.

In her speech at a citizenship ceremony on Sunday, Tanya Plibersek, shared her belief that every school student should learn the citizenship pledge, that “patriotism, like mateship, is about solidarity. It’s about what we owe each other as citizens.”

But patriotism is never owed, it is earned, and it only has value if it is given freely. Otherwise, what you have is political dictatorship and a nation who learns to recite meaningless words without conviction.

While we have a lot to be grateful for in Australia, the responsibility that we all hold is not one of patriotism, but one of service.

Ms Plibersek also said “you can be proud of your citizenship and dedicated to progress. You can cherish this nation and want to make it better.” In this, she is right. But to do so, we must not love blindly to its faults under a shroud of sightless pride: we must see Australia’s faults and call them out, demanding better. Making it better.

Gandhi said “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”. In Australia, we all have a lot of work to do.

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