As a young 20-something, I spent a lot of time doing two things: listening to Nina Simone, and staring mournfully at my frighteningly low bank balance. Back then, I’d graduated from university, my youth allowance was kaput, casual jobs weren’t paying much, and my writing career — if you could call it that — was paying me in CDs instead of cash. I’d do sums in my head, and wonder how I was going to break even. “In your pocket’s not one penny,” Nina Simone sang, “and your friends: you haven’t got any.” It was a sadistic soundtrack for a sad state of affairs.
It was inevitable I’d find myself at Centrelink. Robbo, my flatmate at the time, had mastered the system, having been on welfare for so long, he was now receiving food vouchers. Though he made me hopeful, I found the whole experience to be degrading and tedious. There was a Bible-stack of indecipherable paperwork to churn through which, once completed, was promptly lost by Centrelink staff. There were mandatory interrogations and psychological assaults. But what cracked me were the remedial job-seeking workshops (“How to write a résumé! How to stamp an envelope!”). After that, I lost it, and vowed never to step into the place again.
Which is why, at the age of 26, I’m surprised to find myself in Centrelink’s queues again. Sure, there’s no shame in the dole, especially now. All over the world, the recession has hit hard, and welfare lines now resemble overnight camp-outs for Bob Dylan tickets. But it was an ominous sign when I rang the phone number for Newstart applicants, only the find the phone line had melted, and continued to be broken for 10 days straight. “Oh, I should apologise for that,” an employee told me eventually. “Those lines don’t work. They’ve exploded. Heaps of people getting fired.”
Although this made me apprehensive, one of my friends—fellow Frankie writer Pui-Pui Tam—told me that she looked back on her dole days with fondness. This was back when Centrelink was called the CES. Back then, no one expected Pui-Pui to actively look for work or fill out job-seeker diaries. Instead, she met with a hippy job counsellor who asked about her feelings. “It’s up and down,” Pui-Pui would tell him, “but I feel alright about it all.” The job counsellor nodded. “Stay positive man,” he said, and that was it. Money arrived in her bank account soon after.
But perhaps Pui-Pui is romanticising the whole thing. She also remembers when, infected with chicken-pox, she was unable to hand in a fortnightly form, and was forced to come in anyway, riddled with pus-filled scabs and unable to wear a bra. When she showed them her medical certificate, they bristled. “This isn’t from a Centrelink-certified doctor,” they said. Unaware such a thing even existed, Pui-Pui broke down, pulled up her shirt to reveal her infectious scabs to prove she was ill, then started weeping openly and loudly.
In any case, I’ve tried to lessen the pain by being prepared. Queuing with my fortnightly forms, I am now armed with paperbacks, sudoku puzzles and NPR podcasts to battle lines so long, you could give birth in them. It also helps that my local Centrelink branch happens to be the worst in the region, located around the corner from a methadone drop-in, homeless shelter and abortion clinic. Staff look relieved when they see me: an Asian wearing a collared shirt and a backpack for my documents, completely lesion free. They treat me well.
As kids, “waiting in welfare queues” doesn’t immediately spring to mind when we’re asked what we want to do with our lives. There’s also something about the experience that turns you into the person you swore you’d never be: a nervous wreck, a young women covered in weeping sores, a person who cries in public. But now, as I wait in queues, I listen to music, and Nina Simone sings into my headphones, assuring me this is all the start of a new day, new dawn, a new life — a newstart, basically. What else can I do, but put my faith in her?