There was a fellow selling lottery tickets in Kuranda Village last week. He was trying to gain the attention of passers-by, 99% of whom rushed past, oblivious. Sadly, I count myself among the rushers-by. I had just dropped my wife and son at the Skyrail terminal and was on a deadline to drive down the mountain to Cairns, fuel the hire car and pick them up at the other end. Mission accomplished, but now I’m feeling a teensy bit guilty about ignoring the ticket seller (I deliberately walked behind him on the way back, to avoid the crowded village streets). On reflection, I often walked past a chap with cerebral palsy who was a Queen Street regular when I worked in Brisbane and not once bought a lottery ticket. Was I just being a cheap-arse? Or did I find cerebral palsy confronting? Did I object to this fellow’s tactic of pushing his wheelchair just far enough forward that you had to make a conscious effort to go around? Perhaps I was just lacking in compassion.
It appears to be an Australian character trait, although the 6.1 million people who volunteer for sporting, neighbourhood and charitable organisations would give me grief about that statement. Compassion is all about making room in your head and your heart to care about someone less fortunate than yourself. We’re a weird mob like that. We’ll run florists out of roses to fill Martin Place with tributes for three people we didn’t know who were killed in a hostage situation. But tens of thousands of Sydney workers brush past buskers, beggars, drunks, addicts, homeless people and Big Issue sellers every day of the week. What’s that all about?
The Federal Government isn’t helping us become more compassionate. The Abbott Government’s year-long reign so far has shown callous disregard for those less fortunate than themselves.
The new Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison, seems hell bent on taking the razor to welfare, ostensibly to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme, although the Labor Opposition says is already fully funded. In 2008, the new Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, became the only Liberal front bencher to boycott the apology to the Stolen Generations. This stance alone must raise questions about his empathy for asylum seekers and those in detention centres.
The West Australian Government could be said to be lacking in compassion, given its plans to close 100 small Aboriginal settlements in remote parts of the state. Premier Colin Barnett admits that closing communities is not a good option, but says the lack of a better one has tied his government’s hands. The Commonwealth Government has been the major funder of the 274 existing Aboriginal communities in WA but is “transitioning” that responsibility to the State over the next two years.
So here we all are, a kilo or two overweight from eating prawns, ham, pork, turkey, chicken and duck followed by Christmas pudding, fruit and custard, cream and pavlova and probably drinking more than usual if we knew we didn’t have to drive somewhere.
Did we stop to spare a thought for those who cannot afford to celebrate festive times like Christmas and New Year? Hands up those who dropped some festive fare into collection bin outside the local IGA, or who donated some money to one of the several charities collecting on behalf of needy families.
And can anyone imagine what it’s like working in an accident and emergency ward at this time of year? As of yesterday, 22 people had been killed on Australia roads over Christmas and New Year. More importantly, proportionately more people were seriously injured in car and motorbike accidents and admitted to hospital. We don’t have this year’s statistics yet, but in Queensland alone 6,173 victims of car and motorcycle accidents were admitted to hospital in 2013. Another 379 were cyclist or pedestrians, the latter two categories usually presenting with worse injuries than those who had the benefits of seat belts and air bags. So the survivors and their families need compassion as much as they need medical attention.
Since January 1, 2012, all Australian hospitals have had to admit or refer emergency department patients within four hours. This cruel deadline creates stress among medicos and nurses who routinely work 12 and 16-hour shifts. At least one of the politicians who imported this four-hour rule from the UK ought to go and spend 12 or 16 hours in the A&E of a busy city hospital and see how the workers cope with this added burden, while dealing with the human wreckage which survives road accidents.
Meanwhile we make our way in the world, perhaps developing a cynical shell from big city experiences with those less fortunate. In Adelaide last winter, a street vendor approached me waving the Big Issue. As street vendors go, this fellow was a little the worse for wear. I handed him a $20 note (the Big Issue costs $6) and he muttered something about having no change, so I left him with it. Ripped off?
A friend who has lived in Sydney for decades says professional beggars and hustlers feign homelessness in a bid to separate people from their hard cash. They can make up to $200 a day, he says, and maybe he has good reason to assume that all street beggars (Americans call them panhandlers), are on the make.
We stayed at a boutique hotel in Potts Point in March last year and were twice hustled by a women who looked a lot like the “after” photo on the posters you see of how a beautiful, bright-eyed girl turns into a smack addict. Her pleas for “Any spare coins” turned into invective after a fruitless pass along the street and back again. “Youse are all a bunch of tight-arses,” she complained.
You don’t have to give money to street people who ask you for it, be they beggars, buskers, raffle ticket sellers or Big Issue vendors. But if you allow compassion to overtake your indifference, you may at least start thinking about those less fortunate: for example, the one in 200 Australians who have nowhere to live.
There are many reputable welfare agencies which help people in need and could use donations. Or you could join the volunteer army and make a difference.
Continuing my endeavours to get my head out of the dark place it has been lately, I’ll let you know you how I’m going with my resolution to be more compassionate in 2015.