‘Mum, there are some cops at the door.’
‘That’s strange. I haven’t called them lately. I hope everyone’s ok.’
Mary did a quick mental scan as she got up from where she’d been relaxing on her sofa, chatting with her kids and their friends who had come to visit for the Easter holidays. If you didn’t call the police, they were usually bearing bad news, so she quietly crossed her fingers.
‘Hello, happy Easter,’ she said as she opened the door.
‘Are you Mary Jones?’ The taller of the two was standing, clipboard in hand. The expression on her face indicating this was clearly not a friendly visit.
Mary’s spirits dropped like a stone. Someone must have been hurt, no killed. Who could it be? Thoughts raced through her head like brumbies taking flight before a helicopter shooting party.
‘Are you Mary Jones?’ the woman asked again.
‘Yes’, Mary replied- her eyes fixed firmly on the gun and handcuffs dangling from the woman’s hip, centimetres from her right hand.
‘Did you send a letter to Treasury?’
‘Huh, no, why? A 180 degree flip for the brain- so no one is dead, or injured- thank goodness, she thought.
‘Did you send a letter to the Treasurer?’
‘Do you mean the Federal Treasurer. Yes I wrote to him a couple of weeks ago. Why? What’s the problem?’
‘We’re here to detain you?’ the policewoman intoned.
‘What- what are you talking about. Is this an April Fool’s joke, because you’re a bit late.’
Once again, the voice seemed to have grown deeper and more menacing, ‘We’re here to detain you.’
From then on the conversation became a blur to Mary. All she could think was I need to get them away from my front door. My kids are inside, and there are people everywhere – both strangers and people I know. It’s the Easter holidays for goodness sake- don’t they have real criminals to be chasing.
‘Do you think we could move away a little. It seems as if this might be a private conversation.’
People gathered to watch the spectacle, as the police put their hands on their guns and followed Mary as she moved several metres from her front door.
A little boy, around four years old came running up and stood tugging at the policewoman’s blue trousers.’ ‘s’cuse me. Is that a real gun? Why do you have a real gun? Are you gunna shoot this lady? What are these bracelets? Are you gunna put the bracelets on someone…..’. Mary suddenly realised he was talking about her and felt herself slide into shock.
‘Am I in trouble? What have I done?’
‘We’ve been sent to detain you.’ The conversation seemed to be going around in circles with Mary ever more desperately trying to hold onto reality by focussing on the little boy, while trying to talk to the police about her letter. They hadn’t even read it.
She had written to the Treasurer. A fairly innocuous letter she thought. She was devastated by the impact of a recent bureaucratic decision which had seen her $200 a week widow’s allowance from Centrelink reduced to less than half that. She had been hit, like thousands of others under a faustian ‘deeming law’ where a loan she had forgotton she had made to a family trust decades before had not, and could not, be repaid as the trust had lost heavily through bad investments and the Global Financial Crisis. However, under the laws of bureaucracy she was being ‘deemed’ to be receiving income from this non-existent money. This theoretical money and theoretical income was supposedly enabling her to eat and live, so her allowance had already been affected. But due to the ‘economic recovery’, and an increase in home loan rates, the ‘deeming’ interest rate had gone up and she was now attributed with receiving even more ‘theoretical income’ and hence her allowance had been slashed by a further thirty percent.
She had no idea how she was going to be able to survive, let alone pay her rent, and had commented in the letter- only semi-joking – that the only way out for her that she could see was suicide. In trying to explain these circumstances to the two police standing in front of her patting their guns, Mary was told by one ‘just get a job.’
‘I’ve been trying but there’s not much call for PhD’s around here. Even Woolies won’t employ one. Am I in trouble?’ she asked again.
The police hesitated as if suddenly becoming aware of the spectacle they were creating. The one who had been threatening detention- four times Mary had counted, suddenly exclaimed ‘well we’ll just have to report this to mental health.’
‘Bloody hell’, Mary thought- how much worse can this get. ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘This is a process’ the policewoman said as she started to move. ‘Hang on, you still haven’t told me what I’ve done wrong.’
‘We’ll get mental health to call you on Friday afternoon. You said your kids were leaving Friday morning.’ As they walked away leaving Mary totally confused and distressed she suddenly became aware of a small hand tugging at her shorts, as the little boy asked ‘Are those policemen leaving? Why were they cross with you?’Desperately trying to regain both focus and composure as she tried to process what had just happened, and trying to figure out how to best explain this highly embarrassing tableau to those who had been watching, and to her kids, Mary said ‘Wave goodbye to the nice policemen- they’d like that’. As the little boy raised his hand and waved, Mary wondered how much worse this could get. She had no idea what would happen next.
A phone call at 7am the next morning had her scrambling for the phone so it would not wake her visitors. A disembodied voice penetrating her hazed, sleep deprived brain, ‘I’m Matt from mental health. We want you to come and meet with a panel next Tuesday.’ What. Why?’
That was the first of a further six calls, each repeating the same words. Relating the story to a friend brought the reassuring response- ‘ Wow, you’re stuffed. Pack your toothbrush when you go to the tribunal. Don’t wear a belt- they’ll take it off you. Take lots of coins and some important phone numbers with you as they’ll take your mobile off you. That’s what happened to me.’ Mary’s panic grew over the weekend and the thought of suicide started to grow as a genuine escape.
9am Monday morning, after a sleepless weekend, she received another call. ‘Hi, I’m Francesca, I’m a social worker and have been asked to call you. Are you ok.’ ‘Yes, I’m fine, I’m just broke and have no idea why I’m in so much trouble.’ ‘ You’re not in trouble. We’re just worried about you.’ Well you’ve got a bloody funny way of showing that, but thanks for telling me I’m not in trouble- everyone else has given me the clear impression I’m in heaps, ’ Mary responded, as she related what had happened to her. The social worker laughed’ You should write that down and send it to them. It’s a great story. I’ll call mental health and see if I can cancel that meeting for you.’
Finally, Mary felt she could start to breathe again and took herself out for a walk. That afternoon a friend who just happened to be the community’s greatest gossip called in for a chat. As they were talking, a knock at the front door was followed by a loud voice calling out ‘This is John and Ibrahim from Mental Health, we’re here to talk to you.
Here we go again, bloody idiots. Mary thought. If they’d given me the money they’ve spent on this stupid and gross over-reaction to my letter, it would have solved my problem and I’d be able to eat for the next two year, instead of being treated like I’m a ter**rist!’ and she caught the curious look racing across her friend’s face as she plastered a smile on her face and walked to the door to try and stop the voices while planning her next letter.
Dear Treasurer. I’m broke, not mentally ill! I have a cashflow crisis, I’m not a threat to national security! I’m hungry and about to be homeless, but don’t require a police escort to get there…
This is a true story of a dear friend, with the names changed to try to stop the harassment Mary experienced. Since Matt and Ibrahim left, she’s heard nothing more from anyone, but estimated the ridiculous response, involving 10 people, would have cost several thousand dollars. With not a single change to her situation other than she now feels too afraid to write to the government again.
Mary is not angry just for herself but for the thousands of others who are caught in this awful situation and are being forced onto the streets by bureaucracy.
While the intentions of the government appear acceptable- the implementation also seems to be enabling massive rorts of programs on one hand, while those who can least fend for themselves are being forced to live on less and less and are now being bullied with the never ending appeal to those who are fully employed and have plenty of money to beat up on those receiving welfare yet again.