Skint pollie not short on detractors


BARNABY Joyce doesn't like his current impecunious state being described as "skint".

But his financial situation outlined in T he Courier-Mail yesterday - turning his heater off each night to save money, running low on cash at the end of each month, slaughtering his own beasts for dinner (out of necessity) - sounds like it fits the bill as he struggles to stay on top of his bills.

Whatever term is used and however he found himself in this position, far too many Australians can understand the sobering dread of an incoming bill during the torturous final days of the pay cycle.

Barnaby Joyce at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Kym Smith
Barnaby Joyce at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Kym Smith

Yet however it came about, Joyce's new-found empathy for those on the Newstart Allowance - who everyone can agree are "skint" - should be welcomed as it has helped shine a rare spotlight from the mainstream media on the issue, capturing the attention of the nation's media cycle for at least an entire day.

Joyce is a rare politician who is at once able to make himself the story while simultaneously turning the attention on an issue that would generally remain in the dark.

He is savvy, and would most certainly have expected many of the attacks that have flowed today.

Some point to his $211,000 salary as disqualifying him from the debate, others at the fact that he's been unable to really imagine the situation until now.

Sure, as a former Deputy Prime Minister and still commanding a backbencher's wage of $211,000, he comes from a position of privilege few on Newstart could possibly imagine.

But just they like they would struggle to understand his life, it's taken him to fall this low financially to understand some of what they face trying to make ends meet.

A wage that should be enough to keep the heaters on and stock the shelves with name-brand groceries has been eviscerated through difficult personal circumstances for which he accepts responsibility.

Last year after he resigned as Deputy Prime Minister he found himself with an unexpected glut of spare time and wrote a book about his political career.

He called the book Weatherboard and Iron, his shorthand for the regional battlers that he said he had been fighting for during his political career.

Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce arrives in the House of Representatives at Parliament House on July 29, 2019. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images
Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce arrives in the House of Representatives at Parliament House on July 29, 2019. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

Presumably, he spent plenty of time researching and thinking about those struggling to make ends meet.

But until a situation like that - with obvious differences - hit his own back pocket, it was difficult to comprehend.

He said yesterday that if there's been a "purpose" for finding himself in this situation it's that he's now more focused on people who don't have money and that's a good thing.

One of Queensland's most respected advocates is Debbie Kilroy who started Sisters Inside after she was released from prison.

Would she have become an advocate if she hadn't gone to prison and simply thought about what it was like to be in prison and decided to make the issue her life's work?

Does it even matter?

No one has ever questioned her intent for sticking up for female prisoners.

Attacks on Joyce for calling for a more honest conversation on welfare are as skint as his dwindling bank balance.



IN AUGUST of 2003 the now Queensland Senator Pauline Hanson was sent to jail and emerged less than three months later an enthusiastic advocate of prison and justice reform.

Senator Hanson said the experience behind bars, before her conviction was overturned, had opened her eyes to the ordeal of prison life, especially for those wrongly accused.

"I've learnt from this experience and I do think I'm wiser for it,'' Senator Hanson said.

In recent months former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has found himself short of cash and become an advocate of increasing the dole. "It's just a great exercise in humility going from deputy prime minister to watching every dollar you get,'' the federal Member for New England said.

Warren Brown cartoon regarding Barnaby Joyce doing it tough.
Warren Brown cartoon regarding Barnaby Joyce doing it tough.

Politicians are routinely accused of a multitude of sins, often unfairly.

But the charge of lacking in creative imagination might be one that sticks in this instance.

Increasing the dole and reforming the justice system are worthy ideals, both would have supporters and detractors.

But how on earth is it that our politicians appear so lacking in imagination that they must experience a condition before they start advocating for change?

Poverty is a terrible ordeal, but the huge majority of Australians can surely comprehend its reality, not least because the majority of us have at least a passing acquaintance with it.

We may be one of the world's wealthiest countries, yet the majority of Australians were almost certainly bought up in households where money was an issue. The scope of that "issue'' ranging from severe to mild.

But most of us, as children, have heard parents holding discussions about money, and have been conditioned to understand there are certain things we go without because of the absence of it.

Even many middle class youths with well-off parents often live through the "cask wine and minute noodles days'' of university life.

They often enjoy them immensely because of the compensations of youth.

But those student years can be instructive, educating people about the yearning for a full fridge of food, or even a $10 pub meal, accompanied by the sombre understanding the yearnings can't always be fulfilled.

Barnaby Joyce in his office at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Kym Smith
Barnaby Joyce in his office at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Kym Smith

The $5 cup of coffee has to be foregone for instant coffee and boiling water because that $5 blows a hole in the week's budget.

Today a single person with no kids can expect around $253 a week under the Newstart Allowance.

That means, relative to average Australian living standards, that person will suffer cruel poverty unless they have some assistance from friends and family.

Having that amount of money is light years away from Joyce's circumstances, makes ordinary life impossible in terms of renting a home, running a car and feeding yourself properly.

Most of us can imagine quite vividly the reality of that existence - of putting $5 of petrol in the car, of the agonising arrival of the power bill, of the whims about an alternative life when holiday ads appear on your free-to-air television.

But, just as we shouldn't need to be banged up in the "Big House'' to understand the agony of unjust accusation and the horror of prison life, we shouldn't need to experience a massive pay cut to know the cruel reality of poverty.