The oil slick that imagines itself the sea

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 21/04/2013 - 2:13pm

Last night I was at a party held by a couple of friends who I've known a long time, but not very well, in their grand, well-appointed house on a gated waterside estate. There were a few people there I knew slightly, more people that I knew not at all, and still more that were the pre-school children of the above, stumbling about, hitting their heads on things, and screaming at random intervals (the children, I mean).

In these situations, most conversations start with the question "What do you do?", and this was the first social situation I'd been in where I was able to answer "I'm involved in this fantastic IT industry grants program called Newstart Allowance." Ha ha. With increasing alarm I found nobody laughing at this line, not because it wasn't particularly funny (which, to be fair, was the case), but for these three reasons:

  • They thought I meant the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme.
  • They didn't know that "Newstart Allowance" was the official bureaucratic term for the dole.
  • They had no reason to know better because neither they nor anybody they knew had ever been on the dole. Newstart Allowance just wasn't a part of their world.

The second question strangers ask each other in these situations is "Where are you from?" Indeed they are often given to marvel at how absolutely nobody in Coffs Harbour seems to come from Coffs Harbour. One fellow I spoke to last night did so, and I am guilty of likewise wondering at this apparent phenomenon during my first few years in Coffs.

If you visit the decidedly downmarket Toormina Hotel, as I did earlier that day until the muzak drove me out (Oh, Meatloaf! You took the words right out of my mouth. It must have been while your music was making me vomit.), you will however find the majority of the patrons and staff are Coffs born and bred. You will also find that they know all too well what Newstart Allowance is, and what it's like to work low-paid, tenuous, often cash-in-hand jobs. They also know what it's like to live in a situation where the instruments of the state can be capriciously used against them; where AVOs and DoCS (now rather unbelievably known as FaHCSIA, which unless I'm mistaken would make the staff FaHSCIsts) can be wielded as weapons in acrimonious relationship breakups because magistrates and bureaucrats see them as second-class citizens.

Through the Boambee East Community Centre's excellent Life Skills for Blokes course, and volunteering at the Mens' Resource Centre in Coffs, I've heard awful stories by heartbroken people in situations such as losing access to their children, and unable to even speak to them on the phone for fear of ending up in jail. These are for the most part (though I admit not universally) thoughtful, intelligent, thoroughly decent people.

In contrast, if you attend any one of Coffs' multitude of business networking functions, you will struggle to find anybody who isn't a mindless, heartless, unscrupulous scam artist. These are the complete dullards who consider their fatuous enterprises to be the primary source of the region's wealth (such as it is) and bleat with panic and terror at the thought of losing any of their privileges, which are funded mainly from the pockets of that socially and economically disadvantaged majority of the local population who are completely invisible to them. They are the "key stakeholders" who craft the public policy upon which, once settled, they graciously permit us "public consultation". 

These people are a thin, rich film riding on top of the rest of society; the oil slick that imagines itself the sea.

At the Toormina hotel you can see the prematurely old and zombified shuffle, shake, and shudder their way to the nearest ashtray to clumsily stub out their cigarette butts. While watching one such fellow, I was reminded of something which I discovered while filling in Centrelink forms; something that a decade at the computer keyboard had hidden. On the average Coffs Harbour income, a moderate amount of beer at the pub is a rare luxury, but an excessive amount of wine-like product from a cardboard box is quite affordable. Consequently my nervous system is so shot that I find I can barely hold a pen, much less write with it. I've joined the rest of the trembling zombies created by the celebrated Coffs Harbour lifestyle.

At least I know that my Coffs zombie-hood is largely a product of this environment. The majority of my fellow zombies in this sprawling, key-stakeholder-designed, civic-infrastructure-free expanse of what Phillip Adams calls "brick veneerial disease" have never known anything else, and can only wonder why they feel so lonely, isolated, angry, and in such relentless psychological pain.

I am angry, and I don't quite know what to do about it. At least I know which side I'm on. I think maybe we should do something about that oil slick.