Walking along Swanston Street today, I saw something that I’d never thought to see in Melbourne: a homeless mother, daughter and their cat camped on the sidewalk in front of a 7-11. I’ve seen the younger woman and her cat a number of times in the last few weeks. She normally has a post at the corner of Collins and Swanston in front of the Westpac branch, opposite the community kitchen that runs there all week. This was the first time that I’d seen her with an older woman – I’m not sure if she is her parent or not, I probably just want them to be together because that might mean they are less vulnerable together.
In another way, if they are related, I can’t help but see this as a sign that the situation of homelessness in Melbourne has got worse. Families encamped on footpaths is something I associate with India, a country with a per capita income of 5,350 PPP dollars (2013) (ranked 125) as opposed to Australia with a per capita income of 42,450 PPP dollars (2013) (ranked 15).
For a mother, daughter and family pet to be on the streets, a whole host of systemic failures must be occurring in our society. Even if these women have accommodation or shelter (which I hope), the fact that they have chosen to beg as a form of livelihood is a social issue and not something that should be dismissed.
I think that these two are only the most visible tip of a huge social crisis that is occurring under our noses. A couple of weeks ago I saw a young couple asleep together in their sleeping bags on Swanston Street in front of another 7-11 (7-11 never mind its exploitative labor practices must provide a fair amount of safety to and acceptance of the homeless). And it seems to me that every week, the numbers and type of homeless in Melbourne is increasing.
How can this sort of thing be happening in such a wealthy country, in the most “liveable city in the world” with so many empty apartments?
Two nights ago, I listened to the youngest minister ever appointed in Australia, Wyatt Roy (25), on RN. I was skeptical to say the least. Ah, good old Malcolm, I thought, using his commercial marketing background to ensure he is covering as much of his audience as possible. What better than an actual living signboard that the new Coalition has been rejuvenated so much that they are almost newborn? And who knows, the younger generation who have primarily deserted fossil Abbott and cardboard Shorten might even return from the Greens.
But after a few minutes of listening to Roy’s high pitched barely broken voice, I found myself being more and more impressed. I began to realise that this was not just a tokenistic appointment, a shadow play of style and no substance. Mr Roy is intelligent, confident and articulate. He appears to answer from both the head and the heart. And he seems to take his role as a minister and a political voice for his generation with all the respect, dedication and consideration that it deserves.
Later, the new minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, another progressive Liberal, came on and again I was impressed by his ability to maintain a considered narrative, one that focused on reason, reasonableness and balance. Even the digs at Labor didn’t come across as attacks so much more as actual points of argument against their policy.
I began to understand that something has happened in Australia. That the tone of government brought down into the mindless aggressive gutter by Abbott has actually shifted. It was just the first day of course. There’s plenty of time for corruption, cynicism, despair and aggression to re-emerge (see this excellent article on the Conversation on how being PM effectively lobotomised our last two). But looking at the fresh faces on the frontbench, some of whom had jumped up many levels, I began to suspect that Mr Turnbull’s claim to have appointed on merit with a vision of Australia’s future was not just empty rhetoric.
And for the first time in many years, I started to think of the current government not as Turnbull’s government (as it was always Abbott’s government) but as my government.