This is a story about a woman who ended up with more than $700 worth of fines for making some simple mistakes one weekend. Fines she has little choice but to pay, despite having no idea where the money will come from.
It’s a story that involves minor laws and money difficulties and a lack of a ‘fair go’ that are rarely an issue for politicians like… Barnaby Joyce.
Weeks after news of Barnaby Joyce’s affair broke in the mainstream media, his colleagues and his Prime Minister continue to talk about the sex and the affair, as if that’s what Australians are interested in.
Sure, a few people want to read the salacious story of a senior politician and his media advisor, and some are rightly claiming that power differentials between bosses and subordinates must be more seriously discussed. But for the overwhelming majority of us, the main story is what Joyce did or didn’t do to hide the affair to get re-elected, create jobs for Vikki Campion, and/or abuse taxpayer-funded entitlements. Because this is where the experiences and privileges of Joyce are in stark contrast to how these issues play out for mere “ordinary” Aussies.
A good friend of mine organised a birthday party for her eight-year-old son last week. She lives an hour away from the beach, but he wanted a beachside party so that’s what she arranged. She transported 10 over-excited children to the location, set up umbrellas, food, drinks and beachy activities, and a wonderful time was had by all.
That is: until the local council dog ranger turned up. My friend thought she was on a dog-friendly beach but, because she was in an unfamiliar area she miscalculated by a few hundred metres and was, in fact, partying in a no-dog zone. And yes, she had her goofy mutt with her, mainly because her son has disabilities and the dog helps calm his anxieties. So after the ranger issued a fine of several hundred dollars, she was forced to pack up food and games and dog and complaining sandy kids, pack them all back in the cars, and drive on to the dog-friendly beach.
She re-started the party, and all went well until it was home time. Whereupon my friend discovered she’d been so flustered moving to the new beach that she’d read the parking restrictions wrongly and had overstayed the time by 15 minutes. Which incurred another fine of $160.
As if that all wasn’t enough, there was more bad news the next day. Apparently when issuing her fine, the ranger had picked up that she’d failed to renew her dog’s council registration on time. Now the council were sending her another fine, of an extra $300. In total, my friend was nearly $700 out of pocket from making a couple of simple, human, mistakes. She isn’t wealthy and this is an enormous sum for her; so much so she’s having sleepless nights wondering how she’ll come up with such an amount.
This tale illustrates how Australians put up with a lot of frustrating authority and regulation. Some of it’s clearly necessary, but a lot is out of proportion to the wrongdoing, and the punishments usually make no concessions for people simply making understandable errors that, oftentimes, hurt nobody.
In road safety laws and other matters involving police and government institutions, and in our dealings with Centrelink and the Australian Tax office, Australians are expected to be absolutely accurate and above-board or face serious consequences.
And while we all (mostly) accept these directives as a necessary evil, we get sick of them very quickly when we suspect or learn that there’s one rule for us and another quite different rule for those who govern us.
I see this a lot in my work as a driving instructor. Young drivers are forced to jump through the most extraordinary hoops to get through their learner phase, including – in Victoria, at least – a rule that if they make a single mistake filling out their log book recording their hours of supervised driving, they can be made to buy a new book and do it all again. And amongst fleet drivers, the stories I hear about being fined huge amounts for briefly exceeding the speed limit while overtaking, for example, or briefly and accidentally straying a few kays above the limit while driving downhill, take up a lot of classroom time during my courses. Drivers don’t mind facing punishments for driving dangerously, but they’re suspicious of hypocrisy when there seems to be little leeway for errors they couldn’t have foreseen or punishments that way outstrip the offence.
This is exactly what’s happening with the Joyce saga. Which is why it’s not about the sex. We don’t care about that: we care that Joyce is potentially getting away with behaviour that might see the rest of us in serious legal and financial trouble. And that depending on the situation, we could face homelessness, severe hardship, large fines or even jail if we’re unable to quickly and correctly navigate these difficult laws.
Australians are also clear Joyce lives in a very different world to us. Most of the laws Australians regularly come up against simply aren’t on his radar: for example, he has a car and driver so never has to worry about road safety laws or parking regulations, and his large staff smooth away all the normal issues of everyday life that take up so much time and frustration for the rest of us. His large salary insulates him from potentially devastating consequences should he incur difficulties, and he even has “friends” willing to provide him with free accommodation when he runs into trouble, a luxury very few other Australians would have any hope of duplicating.
At the very least, Joyce has been duplicitous, selective with his definitions, quick to absolve himself of any blame or wrongdoing, and even quicker to paint himself as a victim. Yet Australians don’t see him as a victim: we see him as a privileged, wealthy and powerful person who, with every opportunity to lead a productive and respectable life, has utterly failed to do so. It’s also highly relevant that Joyce has never been shy to make judgements on exactly how he thinks other Australians should live, which only adds to our annoyance that he’s the second-most senior member of a government which insists Australians live by their rules and punishes them when they don’t.
To revert to this week’s vernacular on this: it’s not the rooting, Barnaby, it’s the rorting. Australians want your activities investigated and if you’ve done the wrong thing, we want it quickly exposed and punished. Most of all, we want you removed as Deputy Prime Minister if you can’t live up to the rules you impose on the rest of us.
Because what Aussies believe in most of all is a fair go, and yet a fair go works both ways. And we can’t say fairer than that.