IN SEPTEMBER 2020, two months into Melbourne’s second lockdown, I was in my local park doing my allotted hour of physical activity when a pleasant feeling that wasn’t just feel-good-exercise-chemicals flowed through me. A surprising thought followed: ‘I’m really happy.’
I’d just had another weekday of the same routine: get up, eat breakfast, go to my desk, write more of the story I’m working on, knock off after six or seven hours, go for a walk, cook dinner, eat, chat, read, bed. Then the next day, start over again, same routine, same rhythm. On weekends, I’d scale things back a bit and do an hour or two of writing, go shopping for groceries and clean up around home.
As I walked around the park that day feeling happy, I looked at the other masked walkers and wondered how they were getting on. Had their pre-Covid work selves changed dramatically like mine? In March 2020, when the first lockdown began, had they too been worried – even terrified – about how they were going to survive? Had their bodies, like mine, been tight with anxiety? Then when JobKeeper and JobSeeker with its Covid supplement were announced and they realised they were eligible, did they notice, like me, that the tight feeling vanished, just like that? Did they also think to themselves, okay I’ve got six months where I can actually not worry about money? I’ve got the rent, bills and groceries covered, and we’ll be right for now.
AS MELBOURNE’S SECOND lockdown dug in – eventually lasting 111 days – my paid work didn’t have a hope of resuming for some time. At the same time as that fact was sinking in, I noticed a lightness in myself rising up from this new reality of mine. I had time and freedom to do creative work that I usually squeezed in around the edges of my day job. I could now spend several days a week on a project I’d started, working with an eighty-three-year-old gentleman to write a book about his life.
In the park that day as I walked the paths and cut across the grass in places, I actually had a spring in my step and, probably, a stupid grin on my face, if anyone could have seen it under my mask. What was its source? On the one hand, an absence of worry about money. On the other, the presence of truly satisfying work. I have enough, I thought. I actually said those three words aloud. I have enough to live on and be able to do work that I love.
BACK IN FEBRUARY 2020, Vince Copley, a senior Ngadjuri man, had asked me to work with him on his life story, which he wanted to document for his children and other family. I’d first met Vince four years before when I interviewed him for some research I was doing. At the time he and his wife Brenda lived in Adelaide and they’d welcomed me into their home, cups of tea and big plates of scones and jam and cream laid out on their dining table. The country-town girl in me warmed instantly to their hospitality.
We had a great chat that first visit and they said to drop in next time I was over from Melbourne. I did, and then Vince and I started talking by phone. As well as the research I’d originally approached him about, we were both interested in related subjects. Gradually we became good friends. He told me lots of stories from his life and I came to see that there was something about him and his way of being in the world that was, well, a bit special. I thought someone should write all this down so it wasn’t lost, but hung back from offering because of my full-time job plus other commitments outside of work. I didn’t feel I could give it the time it needed.
Then a health problem of Vince’s got worse. With a heightened sense of his time on this Earth being short, and aware that not just his immediate family were interested in his life, he asked me if I’d work with him on turning his story into a book. Although nervous about how I’d fit it in, I got back to him with a quietly determined yes. In early March 2020 I was in Adelaide to do the first three interviews with him in person. At the first one we sketched out what the main sections of his story would be. At the second, he and Brenda talked about how they got together. We never made it to the third because Covid lockdowns were beginning to be talked about. I packed up and headed home to Melbourne earlier than planned, and Vince and I switched to telephone interviews.
I’m a freelance trainer and workshop facilitator, a job I’ve been doing for twenty-plus years. In those first few weeks of lockdown, thousands of dollars of work I had booked in for the months ahead disappeared. I’d been travelling for work for years, between three Australian states and New Zealand. Now I couldn’t get to them. I managed to switch one training course to online, and it worked okay, but it wasn’t possible with the others. When other states began to ease their Covid restrictions, in Melbourne we were heading into our second wave, which saw thousands of people infected and many dying. We weren’t welcome in other states. In one state where I’d once worked regularly, the government brought in a policy of hiring only local freelancers. Regular clients there started emailing me to ask if I could recommend someone they could use instead of me. The area I freelance in is small and a lot of us know each other and sometimes work together. It stung a bit to recommend others, knowing I was out of the picture. But because of JobKeeper, it wasn’t a threat to my survival. JobKeeper was keeping me afloat financially, while writing a book with Vince Copley kept me feeling both useful and creative. That federal government action of providing what equates to a basic income transformed what otherwise would have been a very bleak time.
JobKeeper gave me a lived experience of a different way of being, of how it feels to lose your income but not sink into poverty, of how it feels when you’re not driven to make money at any cost. JobKeeper freed me up to work on a story that deserves to be told and heard, even if ultimately its audience may be just a handful of people who appreciate its offerings.
JobKeeper, and JobSeeker with its Covid supplement, was Australia’s mini-experiment in having a universal basic income (UBI) – a payment to everyone that covers the basics: housing, food, bills. I now understand at a visceral level what UBI can offer, to me individually and to society as a whole. No one lives in poverty. No one is forced to do work without the proper skills or potential. No one panics and takes a job they’re not suited to so they can fund the thing they’d really love to do, the thing that draws on their natural gifts and talents.
The paid work I do is useful work. It’s practical. It makes some people’s working lives easier, more productive even. But it’s something many others can also do, and do well.
This creative work I’m doing to write Vince’s book with him is something few others could do, at this point in time anyway. It’s also unlikely to earn me much income. Its value to society is intangible, perhaps impossible to measure. It’s risky. It might work as a piece of writing that others might enjoy, be moved by, even be transformed by in some small way. But it might not. And so its value in this society with its current economic foundations could be seen as zilch. A waste of time and resources.
THE RESEARCH THAT led me to Vince is the early contact history between his ancestors and the first European settlers to arrive on Ngadjuri country, also known as the Mid North of South Australia. The area I’m particularly interested in is the Clare Valley, where I grew up.
I’ve been reading the diaries and letters of the early colonial settlers and one thing that has struck me is how busy they were. All of them. Aspiring pastoralists from England and Ireland, who squatted initially on large tracts of land and ran sheep and cattle and rapidly built houses, outbuildings and fencing. Speculators and opportunists who built towns to service the stations and smaller farms. An order of Catholic priests, the Jesuits, who built a church for worshippers and then a seminary to educate young Catholic boys, and who planted vineyards to make altar wine.
They were all working very hard. The pastoralists were in a race to build up their numbers of sheep and cattle and establish profitable cycles of buying and selling. The builders of towns were in a race to set up shops and services and secure their own buying and selling power. The Jesuits were in a race for souls, competing against the Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists, who’d all transported their different histories of religious persecution from Europe to the new colony. As well as ministering to their own flock, the Catholics, like other denominations, had their eyes on converting the so-called ‘natives’.
I have a particular interest in the Catholics. I grew up in that world and attended Mass regularly in that church built by the Jesuits. Their first priest arrived from Austria in 1848, twelve years after the South Australian colony was established in Adelaide and nine years after Europeans first arrived on the lands to the north. Father Aloysius Kranewitter wrote long and vivid letters back to his superiors in Austria, detailing the minutiae of daily life and the context in which it all took place. In one of the nine letters in translation I’ve read at the Jesuit archives in Melbourne, Kranewitter rattled off statistics about South Australia’s rapid growth:
South Australia is a colony in the process of very fast development. The first settlers only came here about 10 years ago and already the population has grown to 40,000. Every month ships come from England with immigrants, and every year from Germany, and of the immigrants a small number set themselves up in the city, while the greater number settle on the land.
Kranewitter noticed that the land was highly arable. But rather than wondering in any genuinely curious way about how it came to be that way – that perhaps the people who’d been living here long before he arrived had managed and cared for it – he took the fact for granted. In his view of the world, providence had provided it so he could do God’s work of saving souls. Kranewitter ran through some of the numbers for his superior:
All the soil is wonderfully fruitful here. The first year, without any help from manure, it produced a very fine crop of wheat. A section of land, such as the immigrants usually buy or lease here, is 80 acres forming a square, so that each acre runs for 200 feet in both directions. The work of cultivating a piece of new land is certainly hard and constant, but the return is great: to take an example a ton of potatoes costs £10 or 100 florins of English money, and a good acre gives a return of 5 to 6 tons, and often 8 to 9. A ton of oaten hay is worth £5. Wheat is at the least always a profitable crop, good land giving 20 to 30 bushels per acre, and a bushel of wheat is sold for 3 shillings. The climate is extremely mild, so that the keeping of cattle practically costs nothing, as they can be let run freely on the pasture lands during the whole of the year without the need of stalls for shelter.
He mentions Vince Copley’s Ngadjuri ancestors in a few sections. His views swing between despising and admiring them: ‘As regards the black natives living here… They are swarming at this moment all around our house with a number of scraggy looking dogs, but as I can make nothing of their language I am not in a position to announce the gospel to them.’ Later he says, ‘These people are by no means wanting in ability; it is astonishing how quick they are to comprehend various things.’
The way Ngadjuri people worked was a source of both awe and irritation to him. In one section he describes in detail how they catch a possum and cook it:
Their chief occupation is hunting. In summer they hunt the opossum, and in winter the kangaroo… The natives are very clever at spying them out and once they know that one of these beasts is in a particular tree it is never too high for them to root it out. With a little axe and a pointed stick they climb up the tallest trees with ease. They cut a hole in the bark with an axe and in this they get a hold for their toes, and they drive the pointed stick well into the tree to give them good support. In this way they go on stage by stage often up to a height of 60 feet. When one of these animals has been caught, they at once set about a feast, both the men and the women busying themselves in its preparation. The man digs out a hole and lights a fire in it while the woman, in quite dexterous fashion, skins the game with a sharp pointed stone or a piece of glass. When the fire is ablaze they throw stones on it and lay their meat to roast on top; adding some branches of peppermint gum, which has a turpentine-like smell, to flavour it. On top of it all they pile the earth which was dug out in making the hole, leaving some vents in the covering for the air. They leave their meat in this oven until it is quite cooked, and it comes out quite a toothsome feast for them.
Kranewitter also writes that after meals, ‘When they have satisfied their appetite they lie on the grass and hum a kind of chant beating time with two sticks.’ Elsewhere he writes several strange and almost tender paragraphs that to me seem to capture a bewilderment within him that his European sensibility makes him unable to sense or name:
Their clothing consists of one or two wretched rags that only half cover them, their houses are made of branches of trees placed one over the other, and into the shelter they creep to secure some protection for their backs against the sharp evening air, and in front they are protected by a fire that is never wanting wherever they are.
I asked a vigorous young man why he did not want to work, was it because he had plenty to eat and a fine house to live in? His answer was, ‘Too hard; white fellows too much work.’
You could say that ‘get ahead, get ahead, get ahead’ became the dominant maxim in Australia, supplanting the sense of abundance and sharing held by First Nations people. Kranewitter noticed this obliquely, but like many other colonial settlers didn’t seem capable of grasping the deeper significance it offered him.
My own ancestry is Irish, my great-grandparents arriving not long after the Jesuits and bringing their own chronic distrust of the English and an industrialised way of life that had been imposed on Ireland. Sometimes I glimpse in myself a feeling from a long-ago pre-industrial past of a way of life that was more in harmony with nature’s cycles. Before the arrival of a world view of humans dominating nature, and of machines and the clunky measures of productivity that go with them. Pre-money, pre-capital, pre-accumulation over the long term.
WHEN CREATIVITY MANIFESTS in a work of art or science – whether it’s a book, an essay, a poem, a painting, a song, a play, a dance, a new technological invention – behind it is much unseen labour, often unpaid in any monetary way. Many of us do this work for the love of it. But the way our society currently structures the economic side of things puts hefty limits on what it’s possible for us to create, in both the small and the large.
Humans invented money at a point in time when sedentary agriculture was taking over from forager societies, and for now we’re stuck with a moneyed system heavy on numbers and transactions but light on reciprocity and relationships.
Anthropologist James Suzman writes about ‘the melancholy of constant aspiration’: that niggling feeling that the way we’re living – our one precious life, as Mary Oliver calls it – might be horribly misguided.
If having UBI meant we all had more time to think creatively about how we live together in this world with all its twenty-first-century problems, who knows what life we could make for the seven billion of us and counting? If we shifted from an economic mindset of ‘get ahead’, of upward social mobility, of accumulating capital, to one of people living together in communities that share fairly the abundant resources we actually have, where would that take us?
Research into UBI tends to work from within the current systems of labour market economics. To be honest, I don’t understand these concepts much – whenever I read up on them I get lost in the different models theorists have devised. I find it much easier to get my head and heart around underlying values. Starting with: What do we believe about life and humans within it? Are we still hostages to social Darwinism? To the idea that untrammelled competition is our natural way of being? To a belief that capitalism is the best way for societies to organise the means of producing the goods we need? More and more people are questioning these dominant world views and they’re slowly being supplanted by a growing understanding that all of life is interconnected – every living creature and the earth, air, water and light that feed life – and that the interactions that keep it all healthy play out over thousands of years. In that sort of system, human ideas of productivity measured over days, months and years make little sense at best and, at their worst, destroy so much.
FOR YEARS, UP until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the people of many nation states in the world believed in the divine rule of the monarchy – that kings and queens were chosen by God to rule over the rest of the people in designated regions. It wasn’t factual and there was no evidence to support it, but people believed it. Author Ursula K Le Guin pointed this out in a speech to the US National Book Club in 2014, when she spoke about the role of the arts in societies:
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
For centuries, monarchs held and controlled the wealth in their kingdoms. Eventually though, enough people saw through the illusion that allowed that belief to persist, and things changed.
ONE DAY DURING Melbourne’s second lockdown, I rang my local bookshop to see if they had a book I was after. They did, and the woman I spoke to asked if I knew where they were so I could pick it up at the shop door.
‘Did you ever come here in the before times?’ she said.
‘Did I ever come there in the before times?’ I’d asked in reply, not sure I’d heard her properly.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I was there in the before times.’
‘That’s great. We’ll see you when you get here,’ she said and hung up. I put on my mask, grabbed my wallet and headed off.
Back then, in the ‘now time’ of that long second lockdown, I’d become a simple soul, my days a quiet rhythm of following the rules needed to keep us all safe.
And things happened. Creative things. New experiments, some intentional, some accidental. I wrote a book that has turned out better than either Vince or I expected, in large part because I was able to immerse myself and concentrate on it so deeply. JobKeeper and the topped up JobSeeker offered me and many others a lived experience of what UBI could do for the country. Prevent poverty, nurture creativity, value people for what they can contribute, tangible and intangible.
Here in 2021, I hope we’re closer to designing an economic system that has no illusions about what it can and should do for all of us, not just a few. I hope it’s there in the after times, now not far away.