The Taxman Cometh

A letter from the taxman. I open it, urgent fingers fumbling. It’s a short letter on the official letterhead of the Deputy Commissioner. The Deputy Commish, as darkly powerful as Gina, as shapelessly feared as Rupert, as suddenly potent as Clive, has taken time to write me a letter.
The letter reads: “Returned herewith a document enclosed with your Bass payment.”

No ‘Dear Howard’, no salutation at all.

Above the name of the Deputy the letter is inked with a couple of initials preceded by the notation ’pp’.

What does the enclosure reveal of me to the Dep Commish? What does she now know about me from this item of my private correspondence?
I peer at the attached document. It is a cheque drawn on my bank account, signed by me, intended as a donation to an institution I like to support.

That institution has been accused of cultural pluralism. Rumours speak of a nasty Green streak running through it. It doesn’t hate Israel nearly enough, nor for that matter does it conflate Islam with Islamism.

With the new anti-mass-terror initiatives (which I wholeheartedly support. Honest. We really can’t let in all those RohyngianSriLankanTigerTamils), my support for the Institute will see me forfeit the presumption of innocence. And truly who can blame Mister Abbott-Shorten for trying to protect the country in all its nonasylumseeking (“a wonderful fabric”) diversity?

Once the terror police haul me in for questioning, they’ll shave my head and send me to the showers. There the CCTV cameras will home in on the (absent) foreskin. I won’t have a middleleg to stand on: circumcision will mark me as Aboriginal or as a Son of Abraham. Tantamount to rejecting Team Australia. Thank goodness ASIO will have all those extra millions to detect and arrest and question dodgy characters such as I; and laws to suppress any notice; and no need to charge me while holding me. Habeas Corpus has Habeat its day. About time.

I will flee the country. I will change my name, I will buy a dodgy passport; I’ll swim to New Zealand, claim asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy.

Do they have the internet in Ecuador? If not you may never again find me on your screens.

Farewell, Shalom, Salaam.

Two Flies on a Wall and Darky Harris

fliesWhen I was a boy I came across cultural truisms like, “Aussies will bet on anything; they’ll bet on two flies walking up a wall.” What I heard was something to celebrate, a playfulness in the Australian spirit. When I inherited from a great uncle a curious little plank with two identical circular depressions, someone had to explain this relic of “two-up”, a national pastime. It spoke to me of the irrepressible Aussies of  “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. As a more than commonly sentimental bloke myself, I was not disposed to judge or diagnose any malady.

In 1972 I met Darkie Harris. I was the new GP in an ethnically homogenous semi-rural community, an oddity in a skullcap. Somehow the community embraced and included me while excluding the pig-raising Maltese and my only co-religionists ‘the Jews on the hill’.
Darkie Harris differed from everyone and in ways solely his own. Unprepossessing, short, stocky, swarthy, with a face marked by scars and improved by large purpling lips and a vocal tone that ranged from a growl to a bark, he looked older than his fifty-four years and fiercer than anyone so old (I was then exactly half his age) had a right to look.
Darkie distinguished himself by a sort of verbal pugilism. By word and facial expression, and yes, by facial complexion, Darkie dared everyone he encountered to fight him.

What was it that Darkie wanted to fight against? One thing, one thing only. Racism: I don’t care if you’re a chinaman or an abo or a white man. If I cut you, you’re blood’s the same colour as mine.* Darkie was the only person in the town who saw this Jewcomer doctor as undifferent. In equal parts alarmed and charmed, I found I liked him. To most in town I seemed exotic, to some a too shiny exception (‘you’re not like the others’), to some an emblem of a nobility I never earned.

Darkie was retired by the time I met him. He’d take up his position on a bench outside the Chinese café and the fish and chip shop run by a pair of Maltese brothers. He’d sit and glower, softening into a winning chivalry towards women (a sweep of the hat, a flash of gaptoothed smile, “Good morning, Ladies”) and to engage toddlers in amiable conversation while uncertain mothers tried to hide their nervousness and drag their children away.
Darkie sat on his bench and kept vigil. He was waiting for the unguarded comment, any reference he could take exception to, any sneer at the immigrants he championed.
Young hoons and would-be thugs about town learned to shy away from Darkie. As he informed me on a number of occasions, I’d sooner have a fight than a feed. Darkie was referring to his younger self in the Depression days when he was a runner for an illegal bookie, a risky position in a volatile industry. But in 1972 his interlocutor would take Darkie at his word as he’d rise and stride, frothing, barking menacingly to confront the casual bigot.

Darkie never gambled. Those were not the risks he’d take. He described his working life as an honest buccaneer. He served his boss – some degree of criminal – honourably. He’d take the blows and deliver his own and he’d return home and hand his earnings to Joyce, his leathery wife, who subsisted in a cloud of tobacco. Before Joyce Darkie would humble himself, confess his escapades and worship.

The stories of Darkie and flies on a wall and two-up created the sketchy image I had of gambling in Australia. We must have had gambling addiction but I never knowingly met one. I knew dimly of the ancient rabbinic edict that disqualified a gambler as a witness in court proceedings because an addict could neither trust himself or be trusted by others.

In 1976 I went for an early morning run in Launceston, pausing to poke a curious nose into the local casino, a gruesome cellar where women in curlers and moccasins sat mechanically before fruit machines from six in the morning.
Shaken, I ran away.
For some years in the late nineties my younger daughter, a psychologist, worked as a therapist at Gambler’s Help. Her stories of human wreckage at our dinner table opened my eyes. In 2000 I met Alan, a shining youth who became my patient. He starred at hockey, graduated from his elite school, studied business, was recruited by a leading financial institution that trained him as a currency dealer. Two years ago Alan married his golden girl Helen, a primary teacher. They bought a house together in the regional city were she grew up. Neither Alan nor Helen yet realised the bank Alan worked for had trained him as one of their corps of gamblers.
A year ago doctors in the city’s ICU worked on Alan through a Saturday night and all the next day and night. At 27 years of age, Alan’s life seemed at its end, his blood pressure unrecordable, his breathing and heartbeat negligible. It must have been his hockey that saved Alan, his underlying fitness, that brought him back from where his overdose had taken him. After gambling away the contents of the joint bank account, Alan punted on the marital home and lost it. On a weekend when Helen was out of town for a friend’s hen’s night, Alan wrote a note and swallowed the tablets that were to end his self-loathing and his shame. Only Helen’s dog, locked out of the house all Friday night and Saturday, raised the ire of neighbours with her barking.

The marriage died and was buried in a divorce. In the settlement there was little to apportion: Helen took her dog, Alan his shame. His need, his comfort, his fateful hoping – I mean his urge to gamble – survives. It is a daily battle which Alan does not always win.

I turn on the TV to watch sport. Sport still has the power to inspire me, to express nobility, to create wonder, to delight, to unite and uplift. Before and after and between plays, the gambling industry shouts its messages of slim hope, seducing, reducing the game to mere exchange. It is not possible for a child to watch sport on TV without seeing gambling ads. I turn off and prowl my bitter old mind and think of Alan.

In these wrinkled years the past glows, the present moulders, the future threatens. We need someone to blame. That’s why we elect governments – there are some things you just can’t blame on your wife. In the matter of our gambling pandemic I blame governments. Governments bankrupt of funds fall hard for the revenue that streams from gambling. Soon the treasury is addicted to gambling. A few budgets later, we have a government bankrupt of judgement and ultimately of morality. In their lonely amorality, our representatives fall into bad company, the Gambling Lobby. Governments collude with the industry to prevent and foil the simplest attempts to ameliorate our national malaise.

Over two decades I have witnessed the card games in remote Aboriginal communities. Large numbers, women usually outnumbering men, sit on the ground beneath huge trees and gamble from first light to nightfall. Darkness falls and the players shift to the bitumen and sit on the roadway and play through the night.
In Arnhem Land once a nurse and I battled through a long day to save an underweight, undersized infant with life-threatening pneumonia, the child starved because his mother had no money for food. After the necessities – I mean cigarettes and Coca Cola – the young mother consumed the family income at the card games.

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Budget 2014

As a family doctor I’ve been thinking about the co-payment to be made for bulk-billed visits to the GP. It has taken me weeks to come to some sort of appreciation of what is going on. A surprisingly long time, really given that I have average intelligence and a keen direct interest. Let me tell you what I have discovered – three things.

The first is no-one has a very clear idea of how the system will work. Will it work like the GST where the provider of the service acts as the government’s tax collector? Will the literally penniless who attend a GP be seen and treated, or must the GP send that person to a public hospital? Or will we be permitted (thanks Messrs Abbott and Hockey) to treat that person gratis? WHAT IS CLEAR HERE IS OBSCURITY. OBSCURITY FATHERS CONFUSION, WHOSE OFFSPRING IS ANXIETY. THE POOR WILL GET SICKER.

I work both in middle class clinics where we bill patients privately and in outback Aboriginal communities where bulkbilling is universal and absolutely and literally lifesaving. Privately billed patients will hardly blink. Aboriginal patients will revert to the traditional healer. If you aren’t appalled at this thought please consider the case of your own child, 500 kilometres from a hospital, feverish, endangered, and effectively unattended. Dickens wrote of this plight in the London of his day. Messrs Hockley, Abbott – go bush, sit down, listen and reconsider!

Finally, I gather the bulkbilled will enjoy a safety net. After ten co-payments, the system bulk-bills them again, free of charge. Ten times seven equals seventy, equals 1 and a smidgeon dollars a week, equals less the cost of one icy pole every five days. Where’s the gain? The gain is derisory: that means BUGGER ALL help to the bottom line. The gain comes at the cost of derision. Messrs A and H hold us in derision. Where’s the pain? The pain is in the deterrence. Don’t go the doctor if you are poor. It’s not government policy. Where’s your mateship? Your citizenship? Your sense of responsibility? The age of entitlement is over. Get real. Get rational. Harden the f-up.

I know how hard hard can get. That condition is called rigor mortis.

Further Deaths and a Birth in the High Arts

Peter de Vries is dead. This is sad but it is not news: he has been dead since 1993. It appears he will remain extinct. What is sadder is that none of his books is in print. You cannot buy any current edition of the works of this pre-eminent American humourist of the early post-war decades. From 1940 to 1986, he chronicled the full comedy of the full human tragedy.

De Vries found plenty of material for dark jokes in his war time military service, in his Calvinistic upbringing in the Dutch Reformed Church and in the death of his daughter from leukaemia. He transmuted grief into sobering mirth and we laughed ourselves silly. Now his books are no more.

Life is just as funny today as it was in De Vries’ lifetime. We have the media, the markets, religious institutions to entertain us. Our politicians are a joke. The pestilence that is our species still despoils the planet, continues to kill, it maims and lies still – and records its glory in the daily newspapers. The papers are on the way out, and soon or sooner the planet appears likely to kick us out too.

Meanwhile a distinctive genre of off-beat humorous fiction for which Australia was once famed has died, unlamented and unsung. I refer to the Annual Income Tax Return. In the 1970’s and 1980’s creative accountants and millionaires and gifted liars combined to create songs from the bottom of the harbour and paid no tax. How they laughed.

Nowadays the accountant is effectively a secret agent of the ATO. She shows no interest in creative fiction, steering me instead along the narrow and straitened path of maximum taxation. The tax return she creates is deadly non-fiction. She then charges me and – for all I know – receives a commission from the Tax Office. This would make her a double agent. We have here the makings of a spy story. Would that the story were fiction.

The news is not all grim. This new genre in literature, the Tax Spy story, incubates in a silence disturbed only by the sound of calculating machines at the ATO.