I call her in and offer my hand, and she declines. I gesture her to the seat in the small consulting room, and she declines again. Holding her walking stick, she points at the clock.
“Why did they make an appointment for 8:30, if I wouldn’t be seen for two hours?” she asks me, as her opening salvo.
This is my daily front line, as it is for many doctors and nurses and other health care professionals working in Australian public hospitals. She has waited because, fundamentally, there are many patients and not enough resources.
Over the next few minutes, I acknowledge the discomfort and inconvenience that has arisen due to the wait, find out about the fact that she has a bad back and was in pain when asked to suddenly rise and walk down the corridor, and coax her into the chair. I promise that although I might not be able to change the system, she will get 100% of my care now. After a full consultation, she shakes my hand and smiles as she leaves.
I am hardly the only ordinary Australian who has to deal with anger and frustration on a daily basis. A family member works for Centrelink and is regularly abused; she calmly goes above and beyond to find what limited services might be available to help the person facing her desk or on the other side of the phone. Australians from emergency services to retail to parents squaring off with a raging toddler are adept at acknowledging anger, listening to the usually genuine grievance behind it, and responding empathically.
So why can’t our Prime Minister?
On last Thursday’s visit to the fire ravaged town of Cobargo. The township, one of the worst affected villages in NSW, has been razed to the ground. Two loved members of the local community died defending their home. In the surrounding fields, horses, sheep and cattle lie dead. Even before the fires, drought had affected this community.
The Prime Minister arrived to face an angry crowd, and instead of sitting with them, hearing their grievances, and seeking to understand their needs, he grabbed the hand of a woman who declined it, and beat a hasty retreat. Zoey Salucci-McDermott later revealed she has lost her home in the bushfires and that the exchange had left her “heartbroken”. Similarly, Morrison tried to grab the hand of an exhausted fire fighter who declined it, and turned his back on him as well, assuming he was tired and not even able to evoke an appropriate response to the news that he had actually lost his home.
In a struggling health system – also a legacy of years of inadequate resourcing – my day job is to quell anger and deliver what people need. Sometimes this requires quiet listening, sometimes I arrange a cup of tea, occasionally it ends with a hug.
It is remarkable to watch footage of the nations leader fail to deliver even the slightest amount of patience, understanding, caring, or empathy.
Three weeks ago, the Prime Minister told us that it was time to be kind to each other. The reality is that ordinary Australians – quiet Australians even – already are. In this crisis, kindness after kindness is being shown around the country, except by the Prime Minister. It is never appropriate to grab someone’s hand. It is inhumane to turn your back and walk away from those who have lost everything, and are grieving.
It may not be the role of the Commonwealth to run the fire response operations – but it is the job of the Prime Minister to listen and empathise with those who are facing their darkest days; to understand their needs; to respond with a management plan which isn’t just ‘boots on the ground, ships in the sea and planes in the sky’ with a peppy ad coming weeks too late, or a wad of money which most likely won’t be enough.
It is clear that he is not capable of this basic humanity.