Aus­tralia’s dole cap­i­tal.

As the fed­eral govern­ment plans to ex­pand its cash­less wel­fare card pro­gram to Bund­aberg, the res­i­dents of Aus­tralia’s ‘dole cap­i­tal’ say the prob­lem is that there sim­ply aren’t any jobs. By Amelia Pax­man.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week | Contents - Amelia Pax­man

Peo­ple call it Aus­tralia’s dole cap­i­tal. The skies are bright and cloud­less, and the tem­per­a­ture’s balmy. On the beaches is the largest nest­ing log­ger­head tur­tle pop­u­la­tion in the South Pa­cific.

Bund­aberg, in Queens­land, also has the most New­start re­cip­i­ents of any post­code in Aus­tralia, with an un­em­ploy­ment rate of 9.2 per cent recorded in March, well above the cur­rent na­tional fig­ure of 5.6 per cent, and a me­dian house­hold in­come one-third less than the na­tional av­er­age. A quar­ter of all its young peo­ple are un­em­ployed.

There’s no short­age of me­dia and po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary on Bund­aberg’s un­em­ploy­ment – it’s be­come a tar­get for puni­tive mea­sures such as the cash­less wel­fare card.

But with fewer than 200 full-time jobs for the area listed on Seek on any given day – many of them in highly skilled health pro­fes­sions – at­ti­tude seems like the least of any­one’s prob­lems. There are peo­ple here, and al­most no jobs.

At 10 o’clock on a Fri­day morn­ing, about 30 peo­ple sit qui­etly in the wait­ing area of Bund­aberg’s Cen­tre­link. In the shade out­side, a man is dressed in work gear

– a high-vis shirt and steel-cap boots. I as­sume he’s a tradie on a work break. But, no: he, too, is wait­ing for his ap­point­ment at the next-door Max Em­ploy­ment “jobac­tive” provider. The of­fice is adorned with cheery posters bear­ing mes­sages such as, “The per­fect job is out there with your name on it”, “Em­ployed full time and re­ally lov­ing it” and “I have pur­pose”.

“I’ve gotta go in there and lis­ten to some guy piss in me ear for five or six min­utes,” he tells me.

He worked as a fit­ter and welder, and spent 10 years in prison af­ter get­ting mixed up with “the wrong crowd”. Now, in his 50s with a crim­i­nal record and a large gap in his re­sumé, he is strug­gling.

“There’s no jobs for any­one over

50,” he says. “I’ll drop off my re­sumé at two farms on my way home to­day. They tell me, ‘There’s no work.’

“I might just pack up, get a tent and go look­ing for work.”

He’s not the only one who has con­sid­ered this op­tion – Bund­aberg is home to a tran­sient pop­u­la­tion of peo­ple sleep­ing rough who travel the coast search­ing for em­ploy­ment.

The man leaves for his ap­point­ment. A few min­utes later I see him driv­ing out of the car park in a bat­tered white sedan, look­ing just as frus­trated as be­fore. Kath, 49, lives in Gin Gin, a 45-minute drive from town. She’s been out of work for four years now. In 2012, Kath was liv­ing in Col­lie, West­ern Aus­tralia, when her fa­ther died of can­cer. Then her old­est daugh­ter took her own life at the age of 22. Within months, her part­ner of 11 years passed away af­ter a bat­tle with al­co­holism. Kath says she and her daugh­ters were the only ones car­ing for him in his fi­nal months.

Af­ter this wave of tragedy, Kath be­gan ex­pe­ri­enc­ing symp­toms of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, and was dis­missed from her job at a bot­tle shop for tak­ing “too much per­sonal leave”.

She says, “I said to my­self, ‘I’m get­ting out of this god­for­saken town.’”

In 2013, Kath de­cided to try for a fresh start in Bund­aberg, where her sis­ter lived. She’s been un­em­ployed ever since. She feels her age and lack of con­nec­tions are a hin­drance.

On days when things get too much, Kath says horserid­ing brings her com­fort.

“If I’m feel­ing low I’ll jump on my horse – go out to the pad­dock and talk to him.”

Kath told me she’s wor­ried about how the cash­less wel­fare card is go­ing to af­fect her life. The sys­tem, which the fed­eral govern­ment pro­poses ex­pand­ing into Bund­aberg, quar­an­tines 80 per cent of a per­son’s wel­fare pay­ment to be paid only by debit, which can’t be used for gam­bling or al­co­hol. It also means that places where only cash is ac­cepted – sec­ond-hand stores, some pri­vate land­lords, mar­kets, trad­ing posts – are out.

Kath – strug­gling with fam­ily tragedy, de­pres­sion and re­peated job re­jec­tions – has been un­em­ployed for a long stretch. But this broadly crit­i­cised pro­gram would be another mea­sure to make her life more in­con­ve­nient. No amount of drug tests, cash­less wel­fare or obliv­i­ous slo­gans will change how many jobs are avail­able in Bund­aberg.

One of the quan­daries of places such as Bund­aberg is that on the one hand, the dan­gers of aim­ing low can mean a cy­cle of hope­less­ness and zero self-es­teem. On the other hand, kids be­ing told they can do any­thing are ar­guably be­ing set up to fail.

Cris­tel Sim­monds, of Bund­aberg ’s newly launched Headspace cen­tre, which of­fers youth sup­port ser­vices, says the dif­fi­culty of even find­ing a job lo­cally can be tough on kids who’ve grown up be­ing taught to ex­pect a ful­fill­ing ca­reer.

“Even from those early, seven, eight, nine years at school,” Cris­tel says, “they’re like, ‘What are you go­ing to be when you grow up?’

“And when they can’t get a job it’s sud­denly this, ‘Well, the world is fall­ing apart.’ ”

Re­search pub­lished in 2015, in

The Lancet Psy­chi­a­try, showed that un­em­ploy­ment was as­so­ci­ated with 45,000 sui­cides a year, glob­ally. The risk was stronger in places where not hav­ing a job was more un­usual.

The sui­cide risk for un­em­ployed peo­ple in re­gional ar­eas such as Bund­aberg is even higher, though. From 2011 to 2015, in ev­ery state in Aus­tralia, the sui­cide rate in re­gional ar­eas grew much faster than the rate within cap­i­tal cities.

Young men in re­gional ar­eas are twice as likely to take their own lives than their ur­ban coun­ter­parts. And young In­dige­nous peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas have a sui­cide rate six times higher than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

Vul­ner­a­bil­ity to sui­cide can also be height­ened by the lone­li­ness of liv­ing in re­gional ar­eas, es­pe­cially for young peo­ple. As one lo­cal told me, “Any­one with any am­bi­tion just leaves.”

Sue Tasker, one of the co-founders of the sup­port or­gan­i­sa­tion An­gels Com­mu­nity Group, tries to look on the bright side of Bund­aberg. She’s seen what lo­cals are ca­pa­ble of.

“You know, there’s so much neg­a­tiv­ity, but we put the word out to do a food drive and we are go­ing to hit a thou­sand items do­nated in four days. So there is good com­mu­nity spirit out there.”

She shows me a room packed with tins, noo­dles, rice and pasta – food her or­gan­i­sa­tion will be giv­ing away to peo­ple in need. Many of those will be New­start re­cip­i­ents. Sue’s been un­em­ployed her­self, so she knows how tough it can be.

Sue cred­its the labour of work­for-the-dole par­tic­i­pants with her or­gan­i­sa­tion’s char­i­ta­ble pro­grams, such as their free sec­ond-hand bed and house­hold goods schemes.

“It wouldn’t hap­pen if it wasn’t for those guys. We wouldn’t be able to do the work we do.”

One of those guys is Leon White, who is 26 years old and un­der­tak­ing his sec­ond round of a six-month work­for-the-dole pro­gram at the An­gels Com­mu­nity Group, build­ing pal­let fur­ni­ture for their Sec­ond to None op shop.

Leon’s been un­em­ployed for a year, his part­ner doesn’t work, and they have two small chil­dren, with the youngest four months old. His frus­tra­tion is ev­i­dent.

“That’s what an­noys me the most,” he says. “That I can’t pro­vide for my fam­ily.”

Some of the un­em­ployed peo­ple I speak to for this story only want me to use their first name. Leon in­sists I use his full name. “Maybe I’ll get a job out of it,” he says, brightly.

Leon has done ev­ery­thing from farm work to trav­el­ling an hour-and-ahalf south to Her­vey Bay for a job. He says he nearly missed see­ing his daugh­ter learn to walk. He says the fruit pick­ing he did “kills your back”, but he still ap­plied for another sea­son. He didn’t hear back. A raft of cer­tifi­cate cour­ses through Leon’s job ser­vice provider haven’t led any­where. But, un­de­terred, he’s do­ing a busi­ness course next.

Leon shows me a small, sturdy-look­ing book­shelf he’s about to start sanding.

“These sort of things sell for a lot?” I ask.

“Why do you think I want to do a busi­ness course,” he replies.

NO AMOUNT OF DRUG TESTS, CASH­LESS WEL­FARE OR OBLIV­I­OUS SLO­GANS WILL CHANGE HOW MANY JOBS

ARE AVAIL­ABLE IN BUND­ABERG.

De­spite the hard­ships faced by many in Bund­aberg, Amy Manuel and Cris­tel at Headspace say they are im­pressed by the re­silience and open­ness of the young peo­ple who come into their of­fice. Peo­ple who are adapt­ing to tough sce­nar­ios and try­ing to cre­ate their own op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“They just have the ca­pac­ity and the for­ti­tude to make bet­ter, and do bet­ter, which I think is quite phe­nom­e­nal,” Amy says.

“It’s been quite in­spir­ing just to see that side of it. I have some kids that have ev­ery rea­son to give up. And they just want bet­ter – they want more, they want

• to fol­low their dreams.”

AMELIA PAX­MAN is a Bris­banebased writer, film­maker and win­ner of a UNAA Me­dia Peace award.

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