Bundaberg, Australia’s Newstart capital
People call it Australia’s dole capital. The skies are bright and cloudless, and the temperature’s balmy. On the beaches is the largest nesting loggerhead turtle population in the South Pacific.
Bundaberg, in Queensland, also has the most Newstart recipients of any postcode in Australia, with an unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent recorded in March, well above the current national figure of 5.6 per cent, and a median household income one-third less than the national average. A quarter of all its young people are unemployed.
There’s no shortage of media and political commentary on Bundaberg’s unemployment – it’s become a target for punitive measures such as the cashless welfare card.
But with fewer than 200 full-time jobs for the area listed on Seek on any given day – many of them in highly skilled health professions – attitude seems like the least of anyone’s problems. There are some 93,000 people here, and almost no jobs.
At 10 o’clock on a Friday morning, about 30 people sit quietly in the waiting area of Bundaberg’s Centrelink. In the shade outside, a man is dressed in work gear – a high-vis shirt and steel-cap boots. I assume he’s a tradie on a work break. But, no: he, too, is waiting for his appointment at the next-door Max Employment “jobactive” provider. The office is adorned with cheery posters bearing messages such as, “The perfect job is out there with your name on it”, “Employed full time and really loving it” and “I have purpose”.
“I’ve gotta go in there and listen to some guy piss in me ear for five or six minutes,” he tells me.
He worked as a fitter and welder, and spent 10 years in prison after getting mixed up with “the wrong crowd”. Now, in his 50s with a criminal record and a large gap in his resumé, he is struggling.
“There’s no jobs for anyone over 50,” he says. “I’ll drop off my resumé at two farms on my way home today. They tell me, ‘There’s no work.’
“I might just pack up, get a tent and go looking for work.”
He’s not the only one who has considered this option – Bundaberg is home to a transient population of people sleeping rough who travel the coast searching for employment.
The man leaves for his appointment. A few minutes later I see him driving out of the car park in a battered white sedan, looking just as frustrated as before.
Kath, 49, lives in Gin Gin, a 45-minute drive from town. She’s been out of work for four years now. In 2012, Kath was living in Collie, Western Australia, when her father died of cancer. Then her oldest daughter took her own life at the age of 22. Within months, her partner of 11 years passed away after a battle with alcoholism. Kath says she and her daughters were the only ones caring for him in his final months.
After this wave of tragedy, Kath began experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and was dismissed from her job at a bottle shop for taking “too much personal leave”.
She says, “I said to myself, ‘I’m getting out of this godforsaken town.’ ”
In 2013, Kath decided to try for a fresh start in Bundaberg, where her sister lived. She’s been unemployed ever since. She feels her age and lack of connections are a hindrance.
On days when things get too much, Kath says horseriding brings her comfort.
“If I’m feeling low I’ll jump on my horse – go out to the paddock and talk to him.”
Kath told me she’s worried about how the cashless welfare card is going to affect her life. The system, which the federal government proposes expanding into Bundaberg, quarantines 80 per cent of a person’s welfare payment to be paid only by debit, which can’t be used for gambling or alcohol. It also means that places where only cash is accepted – second-hand stores, some private landlords, markets, trading posts – are out.
Kath – struggling with family tragedy, depression and repeated job rejections – has been unemployed for a long stretch. But this broadly criticised program would be another measure to make her life more inconvenient. No amount of drug tests, cashless welfare or oblivious slogans will change how many jobs are available in Bundaberg.
One of the quandaries of places such as Bundaberg is that on the one hand, the dangers of aiming low can mean a cycle of hopelessness and zero self-esteem. On the other hand, kids being told they can do anything are arguably being set up to fail.
Cristel Simmonds, of Bundaberg’s newly launched Headspace centre, which offers youth support services, says the difficulty of even finding a job locally can be tough on kids who’ve grown up being taught to expect a fulfilling career.
“Even from those early, seven, eight, nine years at school,” Cristel says, “they’re like, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’
“And when they can’t get a job it’s suddenly this, ‘Well, the world is falling apart.’ ”
Research published in 2015, in The Lancet Psychiatry, showed that unemployment was associated with 45,000 suicides a year, globally. The risk was stronger in places where not having
a job was more unusual.
The suicide risk for unemployed people in regional areas such as Bundaberg is even higher, though. From 2011 to 2015, in every state in Australia, the suicide rate in regional areas grew much faster than the rate within capital cities.
Young men in regional areas are twice as likely to take their own lives than their urban counterparts. And young Indigenous people in rural areas have a suicide rate six times higher than the general population.
Vulnerability to suicide can also be heightened by the loneliness of living in regional areas, especially for young people. As one local told me, “Anyone with any ambition just leaves.”
Sue Tasker, one of the co-founders of the support organisation Angels Community Group, tries to look on the bright side of Bundaberg. She’s seen what locals are capable of.
“You know, there’s so much negativity, but we put the word out to do a food drive and we are going to hit a thousand items donated in four days. So there is good community spirit out there.”
She shows me a room packed with tins, noodles, rice and pasta – food her organisation will be giving away to people in need. Many of those will be Newstart recipients. Sue’s been unemployed herself, so she knows how tough it can be.
Sue credits the labour of work-for-the-dole participants with her organisation’s charitable programs, such as their free second-hand bed and household goods schemes.
“It wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for those guys. We wouldn’t be able to do the work we do.”
One of those guys is Leon White, who is 26 years old and undertaking his second round of a six-month work-for-the-dole program at the Angels Community Group, building pallet furniture for their Second to None op shop.
Leon’s been unemployed for a year, his partner doesn’t work, and they have two small children, with the youngest four months old. His frustration is evident.
“That’s what annoys me the most,” he says. “That I can’t provide for my family.”
Some of the unemployed people I speak to for this story only want me to use their first name. Leon insists I use his full name. “Maybe I’ll get a job out of it,” he says, brightly.
Leon has done everything from farm work to travelling an hour-and-a-half south to Hervey Bay for a job. He says he nearly missed seeing his daughter learn to walk. He says the fruit picking he did “kills your back”, but he still applied for another season. He didn’t hear back. A raft of certificate courses through Leon’s job service provider haven’t led anywhere. But, undeterred, he’s doing
a business course next.
Leon shows me a small, sturdy-looking bookshelf he’s about to start sanding.
“These sort of things sell for a lot?” I ask.
“Why do you think I want to do a business course,” he replies.
Despite the hardships faced by many in Bundaberg, Amy Manuel and Cristel at Headspace say they are impressed by the resilience and openness of the young people who come into their office. People who are adapting to tough scenarios and trying to create their own opportunities.
“They just have the capacity and the fortitude to make better, and do better, which I think is quite phenomenal,” Amy says.
“It’s been quite inspiring just to see that side of it. I have some kids that have every reason to give up. And they just want better – they want more, they want to follow their dreams.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "Bundaberg wrung". Subscribe here.