Wednesday 18 May 2011

Budget 2011: Front Line Casualty

Registered In Flesh and Blood: If Bill English could see what his numbers added up to, I wonder: would his calculations be different?

BUDGETS ARE WRITTEN for the sake of abstract nouns: Prosperity; Stability; Productivity. But they are experienced by people who are all-too-real. And, if the decisions of our Finance Minister are expressed in numbers, their effects are registered in flesh and blood. If Mr English could see what his numbers added up to; I wonder: would his calculations be different?

THE POLICE CONSTABLE stared at the blank page of his notebook and took a deep breath.

“Can you tell me why your father took his own life?”

The young woman seated opposite him lifted her head slowly, as if the knowledge inside it was too heavy for her body to bear.

“He’d lost everything that meant anything to him. His wife, his home, his job, his self-respect. I think he looked ahead and saw nothing but uselessness and loneliness. In the end, I reckon he just didn’t see any point in going on.”

“He was an educational consultant?”

The young woman snorted.

“That’s what he called himself after he’d been made redundant in that first round of cuts. Used nearly all his redundancy money setting himself up in business. God, he was so keen. But there were no contracts – not one. His whole life had been devoted to research. He picked the eyes out of other countries’ education policies and fed them into the Department. But no one wants ‘back-office bureaucrats’ any more. These days everything’s for the ‘workers on the front line’. He went bust.

“And your mother?”

The young woman smiled wanly.

“She tried – she really did. But the mortgage was just too big for one salary to service. They got behind. The bank was pressuring them to sell. Dad blamed himself. He got more and more depressed – started drinking. There were arguments – fights. In all my life, I’d never seen Dad raise a hand to anyone. But one night I got a call from Mum – she was crying. Dad had hit her. I told her to get out: ‘Go to Women’s Refuge’, I said. Mum just laughed. ‘You’re behind the times over there in Australia’, she told me. ‘The Government’s stopped funding the refuges, most of them have shut up shop.’ I told her I would fly back as soon as I could get a flight, but she told me to stay where I was. ‘They’ll be after you for that student loan of yours’, she told me. ‘You save your money. Your father and I will be all right’.”

“But they weren’t.”

“No. Dad thought he’d go back to varsity – do a law degree. But the Government had stopped lending to mature students – reckoned the over fifty-fives would never pay them back. Seemed like everywhere he turned someone slammed a door in his face. Mum says he just spiralled down and down. His GP referred him to a private psychotherapist, but they couldn’t afford the fees. The public mental health service was no bloody use – just filled him full of lithium. Mum said he was like a zombie. He’d just sit and sit and sit. She couldn’t bear to watch. The house was sold. Mum set Dad up in a little flat – arranged for him to go on the Sickness Benefit. What a joke that was! All he got were endless hassles from the MSD. Told him that if he wasn’t actively seeking work they’d stand him down. A Master’s degree in Education and they had him sweeping floors at the local primary school.

“And that’s where they found him?”

“Yes, that’s where they found him. He’d hanged himself from a metal beam in the school’s reception area.”

The young constable closed his notebook.

“I’m very sorry for your loss.”

The young woman looked out the window at the grey winter sky and blinked.

“You know what Mum said?”

The constable shook his head.

“She said: ‘Dad gave his whole adult life to the back office – but that wasn’t enough to save it from the bottom line’.”

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 May 2011.


Anonymous said...

You do a good line of fiction Chris.

I heard there are 5,000 people employed at the Ministry of Education. That's not school teachers, thats bureaucrats that do what exactly?

We could reduce that number to 1,000, or even 500 and no one would notice.

No one outside Wellington at least.

Bloated bureaucracies might be useful in generating a permanent voting class for Labour, and filling the buildings of property developers, but little else.

But in reality, National is only reducing public funding by 1%, and 'vote education' actually had an increase in this budget.

Yes, more money for educational bureaucrats, which makes your article a double fiction.


Adze said...

Chris, I could no longer suspend disbelief at the part where the Women's Refuge lost funding (with the implication that they no longer existed). I doubt even ACT would let those places close.

Anonymous said...

I sweep floors at a primary school, its a socially useful job that i take a pride in doing well. Not as well paid as it might be, but, incredibly, I'm not stuffed with drugs, beating my wife or about to go and hang myself.

Anonymous said...

Why did he not move to Australia? Why didn't he do some research into the prospects of success for his business before sinking all his redundancy money into the venture?

It is nonsense to suggest that every bureaucrat is entitled to employment for life in the back office, regardless of their usefulness or the financial circumstances of the country. No one in the private sector has this kind of security, nor should they expect it. Moreover, no one is entitled to business success that is a matter of hard work, ability and luck.

It is also more than a little distasteful to blame fictional suicides on the finance minister.

Loz said...

Brendan - you can't say you don't know what staff in the Ministry of Education do and then declare that they're all bureaucrats.

Whoever told you about 5,000 “bureaucrats” is badly misinformed... it doesn't take much to disprove that statement. The Annual Report states:

At 30 June 2010, we employed a total of 2,444 full-time equivalents. Of this figure, 1,264 full-time equivalents worked for, and with, children with special education needs.1

Surely you can’t mean that those working with special needs kids are bureaucrats?

Based on your own reasoning, if the Ministry was effectively operating with only 1180 staff (yet they oversee one of the largest government votes) it sounds like the "back room" people have been doing a really great job.


Skua said...

And your point is exactly? Things should stay the same? Suicide is not a personal choice? Skipping your student loan is a moral stand? Retraining is impossible for grey men leaving the Public Service?

Sorry Chris this is BS. Think for a moment about the teens at the check-out each time you shop. They pay taxes to fund your National Super to fund R&D NZ managers are too stupid to invest in for the long term productivity and higher wages. Oh yes and the dole their mates get because of where the minimum wage is set. I'm surprised they are not committing sideways more often.

jh said...

I know quite a few people who have similar stories such as:
1. top job @ "ABC" govt dismantles "ABC"; buys business selling a common device and looses all his money; sells posh house and has to rent and gets a menial job (in advanced years). Splits from wife.

2. High income person in IT; goes private but finds young things out competing and gets work as cook at pub.

3. High income in sales; sales move to China; Chinese national steals job. Struggles selling unsuccessful startups.

All these cases demonstrate how the market value of labour can change or be artificially propped up. Generally it takes time for the person taking the hit to accept that their earning power is that of a common plonker.
We need to focus on economic rationalisation: reward clever, talented useful people such as Dr Fred Hollows (eye surgeon) but not Dr Dolf DeRoos (property investor) and we need to ensure people can retrain.

NZ used to be the sort of place where people could respectably retire into the landscape [picture old guy in tattered hat throwing drift wood for spaniel] but that was before Helen Clark's government discovered the economic wonders of a globalised property market in a populous world.

Anonymous said...

I became cynical about teaching, when I found out that my best friend's daughter, working for the Ministry, made almost twice as much as I did. For sitting on her bum all day pushing a pen, while I struggled for 25 years in low decile schools. Great priorities from both National and labour governments.