If you can’t deal with vulnerability you’ve no business being in government

1 Apr



If there’s one single characteristic that defines the Abbott government, and increasingly the ALP opposition, it’s their utter lack of care for people who are in some way vulnerable.

One might once have been tempted to use the phrase “lack of compassion” but it’s been rendered almost meaningless through overuse, and besides, in the current political discourse the word “compassion” carries negative value,  being framed as a weakness unless directed towards victims of plane crashes, and hostages. Almost everyone else faced with difficult circumstances is implicitly blamed for finding themselves in them, denied care, and all too frequently punished.

The public attitude politicians seem most to represent is one expressed to me on Twitter yesterday, after I’d remarked that it was time to leave Craig Thomson alone as he looked like a man at the very end of his rope and enough is enough. He’s putting on an act, he’s putting it on, a couple of people responded. And you know this how? I felt like replying, but didn’t, thinking it pointless to attempt to challenge that level of ignorance in 140 characters. I’d be at it all day to no useful purpose.

He or she is “putting it on” is a phrase that has always been used by people with a particular mindset towards anyone who reveals vulnerability. It’s used repeatedly about asylum seekers who express their distress through the only means available to them, their bodies. It’s used about people who attempt or express the desire to attempt suicide. A variation of the phrase was used by the former headmaster of Knox Grammar Ian Paterson, about a boy who was being sexually abused on his watch, when he claimed the victim was a “drama boy.”

This lack of care has brought us to situations such as this one, in which a five-year-old child currently in Darwin with her family, has attempted suicide because she so fears being returned to detention on Nauru. I’m waiting to hear Peter Dutton declare she’s “putting it on.”

For mine, this attitude reveals a great deal more about the person expressing it than it does about the object of their derision. It tells me they are bereft of imagination, and incapable of thinking themselves into another person’s shoes, even momentarily. It tells me they are terrified of vulnerability and must attack anyone who confronts them with it, however distanced from that vulnerability they may be.

Consider the mental attitude of a person who is compelled to declare on social media that an individual unknown to them is “putting on an act” when he says publicly that he is close to suicide. It is this mental attitude that forms the Abbott government’s demographic, and to whom the government plays with callous contempt for any vulnerability it does not consider legitimate, that is, vulnerability experienced by anyone other than the group with which the government  identifies.

The conservative mind dehumanises those it does not perceive as one of its tribe, because it does not consider the concerns of “outsiders” as valid as its own. The Abbott government exemplifies this in its attitude to tax reform for example. Consider this piece by Ross Gittins on Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget spin, skewed to benefit the tribe to which Hockey belongs, at the expense of those who are most financially vulnerable and thus, outsiders.

No matter where you look in government and many opposition policies, you will find they have in common lack of interest and care for the vulnerable, and overwhelming bias towards groups they consider their own. The Abbott government’s attempts to push through a budget almost universally regarded as unfair, and its attribution of that failure as a failure to properly  “sell”  unfairness, reveals everything you need to know about the conservative mind. They couldn’t sell unfairness, which is their ideology, so they need to work out how better to do that in the future.

There’s a building body of opinion that the conservative mind is incapable of compassion for any other than those it recognises as its own, and the attitudes and actions of this conservative government, and to an increasing degree our supposedly left-wing opposition, fit this conservative ideological profile.

This harsh and unyielding position, erroneously claimed as strength, extends itself beyond the immediately human to vital matters such as climate change, with Abbott’s reputation as the world’s worst climate villain perfectly expressing conservative contempt for the vulnerable situation of the very planet on which we must all exist.

We need politicians who can cope with vulnerability of all kinds. It isn’t so much compassion we need as intelligence, and particularly active emotional intelligence, of which compassion is a part. I doubt there has been a time in our living memory when Australian politicians have been further from this intelligence, or a time when it has been more dangerous for them to be so.

They’re “putting it on” is a particularly invidious perspective to take on the vulnerability and distress of others. It’s ignorant, it’s defensive, it’s dangerous. If you can’t deal with the sight of another’s vulnerability that’s your problem, not theirs. Vulnerability is not legitimised or delegitimised by the social class to which you belong. When a government can’t deal with vulnerability of all its citizens it is not a democratic government. It’s an ideological tyrant.



19 Responses to “If you can’t deal with vulnerability you’ve no business being in government”

  1. Sam Jandwich April 1, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    You’ll be pleased to know the younger generation are safe. I just drove past my local primary school (inner-western Sydney admittedly) which has a sign at the front gate saying “Think differently. Sometimes, different thinking is the best kind of thinking!”

    Yeah, I’m not surprised the scientists have gotten into this. it’s somewhat more difficult for a social scientist to argue that there is a connection between personality and political leaning… one thing I remember thinking back when I was a young whipper-snapper at uni was that the distinction between “left” and “right” was a bit of a false dichotomy (since there are manifestly many similarities between the two), and that a more meaningful split could be couched in terms of “people who believe that individuals are the best-equipped to make their own minds up on how to act and what to believe”, and “people who believe that most other people need to be cajoled and manipulated into thinking a certain way”… suggesting a neater split between political camps as politicians slot into the world view they are most comfortable with. Never could quite make it stick.

    Still, if conservatives are constitutively less compassionate, and progressive more neurotic, then it certainly explains why squabbles between the two camps play out as they do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson April 2, 2015 at 6:18 am #

      I like your more meaningful split, Sam.
      But I’m not so optimistic about the safety of the younger generation…


  2. Michaela Tschudi April 1, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

    Agree with all you’ve written. It’s ironic that many of our elected officials have close affiliations with a conservative religious institution that claims “compassion” as its own. There are exceptions of course. But the old debate about separation of church and state needs revisiting I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. doug quixote April 1, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    The differential is between people who think that cooperation and mutual support is how the world works best, and those people who think every man for himself pursuing his own self interest will get the best results.

    The first lot are called socialists, social democrats, liberals or progressives; the second lot are called capitalists, fascists or conservatives.

    And trying to change the views of either lot is like trying to persuade fundamentalists to become atheists or Daish to become pacifists.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson April 2, 2015 at 6:12 am #

      So what is to be done, DQ?


      • doug quixote April 3, 2015 at 12:00 am #

        I wish I had an answer, Guinevere. I note your further examination of the conservative frame of mind and I’ll join you there, with plenty of time tomorrow.


  4. Di Pearton April 2, 2015 at 7:41 am #

    Bashing the vulnerable is a little like blaming the victim. It means that it will never happen to us, because we will not place ourselves in that position. It is ignorant, unimaginative and uncivil. It is not even good economic policy, never mind the damage it does to the collective social psyche.
    Wow, it has electoral appeal though!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. eroticmoustache April 2, 2015 at 9:38 am #

    Hi Jennifer. I don’t know if you’ve been following the events in Qld politics surrounding Billy Gordon, or if you’ve ever heard of media identity Madonna King, but I’d be curious as to your impression of this article by her. The reason I think it feeds into your piece somewhat is that King’s attitudes comes, partly, from a classic error of assuming a sort of social, psychological homogeneity where everyone is supposed to respond to the same circumstances the same way. http://goo.gl/QWWxv9

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson April 2, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

      Thank eroticmoustache, will read this afternoon. I am following those events very closely.


  6. paul walter April 3, 2015 at 8:37 am #

    Its increasingly struck me, just how developed the streak of callousness in Abbott and many of his colleagues. There is a real “lack”, for want of a better word.

    At worst, they seem to laugh at others misfortunes, to take delight in the struggles of those less fortunate than themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson April 3, 2015 at 8:39 am #

      What is interesting is that the majority will likely elect them again. So their callousness is approved.


      • paul walter April 3, 2015 at 2:02 pm #

        You tell me.

        I couldn’t beleive they were ever even considered for government let alone voted in, let alone by a landslide, after Cameron in England and the Tea Party antics in the USA.

        Certain rocks of my acquaintance have more brains than many Australian voters.


  7. hudsongodfrey April 3, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    I agree, and yours is a wonderfully thoughtful approach to the social contract, but the problem is that its in the hands of capitalist economic bullies.

    I know there’s not a lot of economics discussed here, and nor is it my specialty, but it struck me as worthwhile to try figuring out what’s really at stake here when they say the deficit is a problem. So I looked up a few articles and statistics and found that we’ve got roughly a 12 Billion dollar problem. That’s the size of the interest bill that we get each year. Not large by some standards, especially those of the US, but if it seems fair to argue we have to pay our way then the 12 million strong workforce needs to find just over $1,000 per annum each to cover it.

    The calculations shouldn’t stop there however, because we’ve been meeting part of that debt all along, including under Labor when treasury was happy to support predictions we’d return to surplus sooner rather than later. Some of that changed according to how forward estimates are viewed differently by our new political masters, but in reality the terms of trade haven’t improved with the mining boom starting to slow and manufacturing in the toilet no thanks to them. So perhaps more than half of that debt is in question meaning we’re up for at least $500 per worker…..

    Stay with me I know this shit’s boring….beacuse the payoff is that it requires something like 1% more income tax on a sliding scale than would affect higher income earners most, or at worst less than 2% GST (not my preferred choice because its and inflationary killjoy of a regressive tax and meant for the States not the feds to plunder).

    The point is I strongly suspect we don’t need all this rigmarole when what we’re facing is really only a relatively manageable debt problem.

    Am I an expert? No, but if I have to pay the damned tax I ought to be able to understand it, and I don’t think we should assume it is fundamentally implausible that governments promote austerity and thrust their hands uninvited into people’s pockets on the lousiest of ideological grounds.

    In this case I think the conservative side of politics is wedded to the dread fear that higher standards of living make us fundamentally uncompetitive in a global economy, hence austerity. Perish the thought that increasing standards of living in the developing world continue to provide huge opportunities.

    Either that or its just the Liberals playing at being sounder economic managers by creating crises that don’t really exist. The former is simply ideologically unsound the latter downright disingenuous, either way uber-capitalist concerns driven by self-interest alone prove themselves yet again to be less compatible with any decent kind of social contract the voter would opt for if only they realised.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson April 3, 2015 at 11:59 am #

      Your last paragraph says it all, HG. Either way decency is absent.


    • paul walter April 3, 2015 at 2:08 pm #

      They are not a responsible political party, only mouthpieces for an alibi for plunder and the efforts of a number of journalists of similar ilk mentioned here over time, give a fair representation of what sort of people they are.

      They got in with the help of big business, most of all an American media magnate who walked off with a $ billion in unpaid tax for his end of the dirty deed done dirt cheap.



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