Beds and horse carts key to understanding the Coalition’s contemporary approach to the poor, the wretched and the despised.

Treasurer Joe Hockey and the finance minister Mathias Cormann enjoying a cigar.

Watching the world go by. Treasurer Joe Hockey and the finance minister Mathias Cormann enjoying a cigar after a long hard week sorting things out.

In May last year, as the treasurer Joe Hockey and the finance minister Mathias Cormann enjoyed a euphoric Friday afternoon cigar, a few days before Mr Hockey delivered his first budget—it was evident they were pleased with their work. In a few days the age of entitlement would be consigned to the annals of failed Australian social policy. That’s what they thought at the time. You can only imagine Mr Hockey’s despair when it all went pair shaped. Instead of being lauded as the man who would put Australia back on track, some people that were watching his fall from grace (even on his own side of politics), began to think Joe Hockey was an unhinged fool.

However, to understand the Coalition’s enthusiasm for selectively attempting to dismantle the age of entitlement, we should go back in history, back to Victorian England when there was much public debate of what exactly the poor and marginalised were entitled to.

There were those who argued that the poor and other social outcasts had almost entirely brought about their present circumstances by their own doing. “Lifestyle choices” you would probably call it now. Naturally, in those days the word lifestyle hadn’t been invented; you just knew your place and tried to keep it quiet. If you ended up in the gutter you were to be pitied—but only so far. This was because they were most probably not the deserving poor. The however deserving poor, were like Howard’s ‘battlers’—mythical types who existed mainly in the imagination to be used when circumstances required it. It was also a great initiative in social cohesion in that they were like some enormous focus group. You could only be the deserving poor for a limited period of time. The deserving poor were for example soldiers returning from a great imperialistic adventure. Then they hung around a bit too long and as abject poverty set when they couldn’t get a job and they started to beg, that’s when they became a nuisance and were relegated to the ranks of the undeserving poor. Just like that. A feature of the undeserving poor was that their poverty was also characterised by a lack of piety and other godless ways. Then they realised that giving such people food or money was a waste of time. It simply encouraged them to continue their lifestyle choices.

And it all had a lot to do with of all things, the bed, that ended the Victorian age of entitlement.

If you wanted to get a prostitute off the streets, you could not just give her accommodation for a while and a nice hot meal of an evening. No. Such comforts would do little to encourage spiritual introspection and a desire to mend their ways. They had sinned and had to repent. That’s why some institutions when taking in a prostitute or someone else in wretched circumstances, continually reminded their client that their wretchedness was their own fault. Some institutions didn’t even think supplying a bed was necessary to the unfortunate girl, even though she was forced forced into prostitution by her own poverty. A bed would make her too comfortable and as such would not be responsive to proper penance and redemption. That’s why they thought sleeping on the floor was more conducive to sorting yourself out. It was cold and damp—rats and cockroaches clamoured over you like you were some overpass. Pain and penance were the secret to a better life. Likewise with the filthy and decrepit dosshouses that dotted the length and breadth of England. Making it too comfortable for the down and out itinerant simply encouraged them to continue their roaming around without any thought of reforming themselves and perhaps even settling down and denying themselves the chance of redemption. If you want redemption, there has to be a bit of pain involved. Charity was only a means to an end so as to keep the body and soul in a minimum physical condition that would be congenial to redemption. After all if you were dead, it was too late.

Such convictions brought with it a great deal of innovation. Dosshouses for example required beds—and sheets. Maybe the occasional blanket. Beds took up space, sheets had to be washed every few months or so. Beds and sheets also become breeding grounds for all possible types of vermin as well the ubiquitous rat. Still, even in these filthy conditions, a bed gave a certain amount of comfort, especially in the heart of winter when it was two below outside and a gale force wind was blowing. Such comfort encouraged idleness, godlessness and other social ills that blighted the cities and countryside of Victorian England. Then there was the trouble in getting them out of bed at six in the morning before giving them a scrap of bread or something and sending them on their way. But this was the Victorian Age—age of Brunel, Dickens and Gladstone. The age of personal initiative. It wasn’t long before someone came up with the idea of a dosshouse with no beds. The attendant simply tied a rope from one end of the wall to the other so that itinerant could sleep mainly upright, supported by the rope—after all, don’t astronauts sleep upright? So it can’t be that bad. In the morning, the proprietor would simply untie the rope and the unfortunate few who were still asleep would fall flat on their face. It was also a more sanitary experience as well, with the vermin confined to each other rather than the entire environment, so cleanliness was a personal (lifestyle) choice. It was a win-win situation.

Of course in these enlightened times, such methods would be seen as an appalling affront to those less fortunate. Pain and penance take on a more subtler form. Take for example the $7 price signal co-payment. Most people wouldn’t think twice about paying seven dollars—or five. A lot would. The point was that those who had trouble paying the co-payment were going to the doctor far too often and they weren’t sick at all. “What seems to be the matter with you, Mrs Jones?” “I think I’m coming down with something.” Obviously Hockey believes that coming down with something is not being ill. You’re  only sick when you have came down with something. That’s why the co-payment was pain with a bit of penance. The co-payee had gone from being a normal citizen to a penitent, just like that. He or she didn’t need a cold hard floor to sleep on because it was more a metaphysical pain and penance rather than a purely physical experience. The results were the same. Joe Hockey would know all about metaphysical  penance, having been educated by the Jesuits at St Aloysius’ College. So does our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, having been educated at Saint Ignatius’ College, another Jesuit outfit, then he spent a bit of time in a seminary. If any religious order knows about metaphysical penance, it’s the Jesuits. We might add that just because the Coalition have abandoned the $7 co-payment, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any more price signals in the future. That’s because you need a lot of price signals before you can bury the age of entitlement—and they have to be here, there and everywhere in every aspect of your life to be fully and truly effective.

Deep down, Joe Hockey knows full well the less well off in our society have to be continually reminded that you just can’t go to the doctor on the whim that you might be sick because it’s free or you’re coming down with something. That’s why when you make a co-payment, you’re forced to reconsider your position. Not only is it going to cost you but it’s an ongoing process that every time you have to make the co-payment, you’re going to have to reflect on why you can’t afford the payment. Mainly it’s all about lifestyle choices. Lifestyle choices that have led you into your predicament. A downward spiral into insufficiency and despair—or just plain poverty. Lifestyle choices that you made earlier in your life. Result—you now depend on the aged pension to survive. Hockey—change the way it’s indexed. Pain and penance. The Coalition believes that mixture of neoliberalism and prosperity theology in removing the age of entitlement will not only transform Australia socially and economically but lead us into a unbridled state of sustainable prosperity, even if we do live to 150.

Ironically, the poor and marginalised or some of them have seen the light. Trying to help yourself to extricate oneself from the age of entitlement without government intervention is a good thing. It begs the question however—how many Hillsong Churches or other similar places that preach the prosperity theology that you need to accommodate everyone enslaved to the age of entitlement in? Thousands of them. As Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times said; “Nowhere has the prosperity gospel flourished more than among the poor and the working class. Told that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and favour, followers strive for trappings of luxury they can little afford in an effort to prove that they are blessed spiritually. Some critics have gone so far as to place part of the blame for the past decade’s spending binge and foreclosure crisis at the foot of the prosperity gospel’s altar.”

There was also a second alternative. Move them on and about.

In Victorian times, the parish in which you were born was responsible for your rudimentary care if you fell into poverty. So if you are found in London roaming the streets and poverty stricken, and your parish was Northumberland (about 300 miles) north, they would bundle you in a cart and send you back to Northumberland. This was a considerable industry in those times; carts criss-crossing England with their human cargoes. Naturally the parish to which they were sent had little enthusiasm for supplying any sustenance to the new arrival and instead would give the itinerant shilling or two so that he could continue his lifestyle preference and return to London or some other place of his or her choosing. Still with so many people en route to this place, it took the edge of others seeking more radical alternatives to getting the poor off the streets. The second alternative, move them on and about has found considerable favour in recent times, but they’re so damn expensive—$474.1 million last financial year to operate Nauru (895 people). Manus Island detention centre—$437.6 million (1036 males). Christmas Island—$318 million. God knows how much the Cambodia resettlement might cost. Then there’s the Abbott announcing that rationalising Aboriginal settlements is a good thing because the government can’t pay for lifestyle choices. Yes they can but not if your poor or marginalised.

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