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The Australian bureaucratic Mean Virus is epidemic



'Take that out of your mouth, I have to touch that,' barked the Border Protection officer, glaring at me. I'd been juggling bags, boarding tickets, and a passenger exit card, so my passport was positioned precariously between my lips.

Cartoon by Chris JohnstonShame-faced, I put my bags down, took the passport out of my mouth and repositioned my belongings so I could hold it while I waited for Officer Border Protection to finish shuffling the papers in front of him.

I wondered if there was a class for teaching them how to be that special mix of forcefully domineering and nasty. We've all experienced it — whether waiting in line to enter or leave Australia — that tangible feeling as you approach the Border Protection counters, that here are people with the power to make your life a temporary nightmare if they don't like the cut of your jib.

They have the authority to disrupt your travel plans in an instant and they know it. I'm a true-blue, fair-skinned Aussie; God help the people who have exotic accents and more melanin that me.

It's not just at airports that ordinary people are increasingly feeling a sense of helplessness in the face of bureaucratic antagonism. Our governing and public service bodies more and more seem to be succumbing to a Mean Virus.

We have long failed to properly address restitution for our Indigenous brothers and sisters; we lock up innocent asylum seekers and refugees in degrading and deplorable conditions; our politicians have eagerly taken up anti-Muslim fear mongering to gain votes; and castigating welfare recipients and those who need a bit of extra help as dole-bludgers is regular shock-jock fare.

Penny-pinching seems to be the raison d'etre of all government departments. Imagine if our Department of Health was told to look for ways to increase its spending on providing healthcare, particularly for the most vulnerable in our community.

The reason we have this Mean Virus spreading is a fundamental breakdown of trust between institutions and individuals.


"Trust between government and society's institutional bodies, and the individuals that make up our nation is being severely eroded to our collective detriment."


When my friend Melissa* was packing her son Daniel's* bag for summer camp, space was at a premium. Along with the myriad necessary items a young teenager requires was a card with his asthma preventer tablets along with the original pharmacy sticker detailing his name and prescription details that Melissa had carefully snipped away from the original box. Imagine Melissa's surprise, then, when she received a call from the camp administrators. Because the rest of the cardboard wasn't wrapped around the tablets, they were legally unable to give Daniel his medication, nor could he take it himself because the summer camp fell under childcare regulations designed for pre-schoolers.

What was the camp administrator's alternative solution to Melissa taking unscheduled time off work to go to the doctor, get a new script, buy a new box of medication and drive it a hundred kilometres to the camp? Daniel just not take his medication for the week.

The camp administrators felt it was better for Daniel to neglect his medication than run afoul of the childcare regulations. But better for whom? Certainly not Daniel, since asthma can be a life-threatening disease if not well-managed. No, it was better for the camp business that feared government auditing and presumably litigation in some hazy possible future legal case. The fear of unreasonable punishment by government bureaucracy was greater than the concern for Daniel's actual health and wellbeing.

Trust between government and society's institutional bodies, and the individuals that make up our nation (and indeed many Western democratic nations) is being severely and dangerously eroded to our collective detriment.

The ongoing Centrelink debt-recovery debacle, in which an automated system has sent out incorrect debt notices to welfare recipients, is another example that demonstrates how our public service bodies no longer deserve their name. There seems to be a toxic attitude in which trust in ordinary individual Australians has decayed under decades of policy directions treating all of us as potential adversaries. More and more our public service institutions are not serving the public, they are serving the vested and partisan interests of those in power. They can be terribly mean.

The flip-side to that coin is that individuals increasingly do not trust the government or its bureaucratic institutions either. We need an alternative vision for our society. One that rejects fear, suspicion and meanness. We need to hold our politicians, our public servants, and indeed all of us, to a better standard. We need to build a society based on justice, compassion, equality, support for the vulnerable and the flourishing of all. Whatever it costs in monetary terms, it will be a hell of a lot cheaper than the malignant future we are heading towards.


Rachel WoodlockDr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.

*Names have been changed.

Topic tags: Rachel Woodlock, Border Protection, trust



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Existing comments

Clothes may well not make the person but they sure as hell influence public perception.

john frawley | 26 January 2017  

Centrelink have long been a problem. I've had them decide an application on the presumption that I had lied. When called out, there was no apology, just a statement that they had reconsidered in the light of further information. Customs and immigration used to be a pleasure to experience, now they, and airport security people, are sullen and surly. It's not so bad at the state level, except for transport inspectors who come across as a bunch of over-weight bullies. In my experience, local government officers are a pleasure to deal with.

Ginger Meggs | 28 January 2017  

The words "officious", "offensive" and "off-putting" spring to mind about the behaviour outlined in this article. And that's just on one page of the dictionary! I think a little more "pleasantness", "plenitude" and "playfulness" may be in order.

Pam | 28 January 2017  

Very important warning. But I think trust does not just erode away. It is being destroyed when politicians choose to be devious and manipulative, and put unnecessary pressure on enforcement entities. Power gone crazy for purpose of gain. We need to openly talk about trusting, openly show courtesy and respect, openly show our disapproval of bullying by officials. Openly be better than that.

Tony Lawless | 29 January 2017  

This article is so correct about current bureaucracy. If we fail to passively comply to the most outrageous useless rules, life becomes untenable. Every time I visit a detention centre regulations without reason are forced on us- can't wear sandals in certain detention centres, must wear orange safety vest in some but not all, arm banded, wrist stamped, searched but not in all. Not allowed to smile or say hello to a detainee whose name is not on your list even though you know them. Bullied bullied- sit here go there. Imagine what it is like for the people inside. At end of visits continuous alarm rings out and 4 big bovver boy ERT officers stand at the door to escort us out. Us being 5 or 6 mainly women. ERT togged up in riot gear without shields- so far- cameras and growls. Australians are a supine lot- we ignore the "mean" viruscat our peril. Thank you Rachel.

Pamela | 29 January 2017  

What we need is a Human Rights Charter. Simplistic? Not necessarily.Some years ago when the discussion was taking place i attended numerous public forums on the issue.Public servants often spoke very movingly about how such a move would create a culture in which they were encouraged to act more humanely towards clients, a yardstick by which their conduct could be measured. That said i have never experienced anything but courtesy and friendliness from bureaucrats in general or airport staff in particular (such a blessed relief after the UK!). The most officious and ridiculous rule keeping conduct comes from the Principal in my local Catholic primary school!

margaret | 29 January 2017  

I have no doubt you feel happier in Ireland. My family came as educated immigrants to Australia in good faith, unaware that it was a prison colony. Living in Australia, the extent and intensity of the prison stock arrivals has been drastically diminished to mask the prison traits which are today so prevalent and embedded in every core of Australian society. The prison roots and white supremacy had an entrenched conditioning on the Anglo Saxon Celtic Australians through permeation and permutation passed down intergenerationally. These Australians of Anglo Saxon Celtic descent who have 100 years of family historynow hold the majority of positions of influence in every core of society. The traits of 'what they don't know, won't hurt them', 'do as I say, not as I do', duality(two masks), 'Australian front', 'trading on respectability' etc are all forms of deceit which come from the prison stock roots. You would be hardpressed to find any influential Australian admitting their prison roots so as to dilute it in society today as non existent. Racism is the original sin of Australia - it led the people from the Church where God made man to the Church where the white man makes himself God. The question to ask: Did the white convicts make the dark skinned man the new convict race and steal there land and titles? The Aboriginals are the highest incarceration rate in the world. We need to return to the dignity as sons and daughter of Jesus Christ. The right ordering of society presupposes the right conscience of society. Without it, man becomes a monster in himself, towards others and in his relations to the world. We suffer immensely here but have no voice because the racism and prison stock shame is something no white Australian want to publicly own up to. God stand for truth. Satan stands on deceit, lies, coverup. Please be more bold in your articles as you live abroad.

Jackie | 29 January 2017  

Like Pamela wrote on 30 Jan too, there is a mean & rude spirit in some (too many) bureaucrats. I've been in Qld Public service & seen it firsthand. Put them in a uniform eg in DIBP under a dour & surly Minister and that just compounds the problems.

John Cronin, Toowoomba | 29 January 2017  

I concur with this article although i haven't been into a detention centre here. One of my experiences of Oz meanness comes from being a single parent and needing Centrestink. It was during the Kennett era when the policy was to move social workers every two weeks so that no relationship could be formed between service provider and its recipients. I had a 16 year old daughter who didn't exist in her own country of birth - according to Centrestink - because she didn't have a birth certificate paper that was over 5 years old in its existence ... we had to get a school principal and a neighbour with an OAM to verify her existence even though she stood in front of the Centrestink staff each time it was challenged! I saw people who became homeless because of an address typo on their Centrestink Forms (e.g. No. 44 instead of 444 Smith Rd, so their benefits were cancelled and their rent could not be paid). THIS IS OVER 10 YEARS AGO! At least I managed to get the birth certificate policy changed for the better (how many people have to leave home suddenly for safety reasons ... without their paperwork in order?) ... and to think that Kennett headed up BeyondBlue!!!

Mary Tehan | 29 January 2017  

Ironic, really, when we are all now described as "consumers" of these services!! What retail or hospitality business could afford to treat its clientele so... I have heard from many older friends about the My Aged Care phone responders when they ring to get a assessment - the aim of which is to establish eligibility for older people to remain in their own homes - a saving to government. Instead, it seems that the brief is to fob people off from getting assessment appointments - with comments such as, "you sound sprightly, I don't think you would be eligible!" (to a friend in her 70's unable to walk a short way up a medium-steep hill). Perhaps the Department's brief is to encourage us to drop off the twig before we become a greater drag on the economy.

Name Maxine Barry | 29 January 2017  

Bank tellers (Is that the right word for them these days?) can be just as bad. However it is incredible how much different business a teller has to cover in today's banking system. I was stuck in a bank queue the other day. There was one teller on duty. She was trying to explain to a customer how she should have contacted the bank on line re her query about a car loan. After her was a gentlemen who had a complicated transfer of money (tens of thousands of dollars) between three different cash management funds. I thought my depositing of my petty cash neatly packed in different coinage would be simple. The teller asked me how much did I want to deposit. All of it, I said She glared at me. You 're supposed to tell us how much is in each bag.. But, but. I stuttered, last week I did tell you and you went ahead and weighed the bags and I was twenty cents over. I wasn't confident that I had counted and bagged the coins correctly. With a sigh to heaven she weighed the bags. All was correct. But she had the last word. Remember for next time. You have to tell us how much you think you're depositing before we weigh it.

Uncle Pat | 29 January 2017  

I remember a plump official boarding our bus at a state boundary plant quarantine stop, demanding our fruit, and commencing to wolf it down before he even left the bus. That was over fifty years ago. Perhaps there have always been bad, and good, public servants. I find that the border staff at our local international airport are always friendly and helpful - and my skin is well endowed with melanin.

Peter | 29 January 2017  

'We need to build a society based on justice, compassion, equality, support for the vulnerable and the flourishing of all'..True. And, although Dr Rachel is a Muslim, her statement sounds to me very like a statement of the mission of the Church.

Joan Seymour | 30 January 2017  

I have encountered Border Protection officers (and receptionists and police officers and school principals and Centrelink officers etc) who have the Mean Virus. I have also dealt with many who don't. I am pleased to say that in my experience the non-infected outnumber the infected greatly. We could go a long way towards eradicating this Virus entirely if agencies and organisations insist and monitor that all their employees treat all their clients politely and with respect - even in the face of perceived provocation. After all, that's part of the job they get paid to do.

Peter Gibson | 30 January 2017  

The thing that gets me is the fear of terrorism (the usual justification) has led to an automatic presumption of guilt or wrongdoing when bureaucracy comes up against the public it is meant to serve. At least that is the excuse when they bother to give one. There are limited opportunities for the community to respond to heavy handed officiousness. The response to the planned Border Force attack on civil liberties in Melbourne last year was a rare occasion when community pressure forced a backdown and reappraisal by authorities, but they rarely admit that they go too far. I was in Sydney in 2007 when APEC was on in the dying days of the Howard Government. Watching police officers (mainly young men and women) lording around in hi-tech uniforms and rudely bullying members of the public just going about their day was not pleasant. There was a bit of poetic justice when the Chaser Team prank made them look like amateurs and the public could have a good laugh. But it should not come to that. We should respect authority because they do provide essential services. But authority in turn needs to respect the people they are dealing with every day.

Brett | 30 January 2017  

In the last week I have twice been to Centrelink in Campbelltown NSW. The waiting time for the main group of people on one day was 1 hour 50 minutes, on the other, 1 hour.This is the result of the Commonwealth Government's sacking of so many Centrelink employees, stopping casual work, and not having anyone replace any staff member absent because of sickness etc. Nonetheless, on these occasions and on every occasion I have been to Centrelink I have found the staff pleasant, patient, well-trained (not least is relating to a few difficult people) and well-informed, Spending does have to be reduced. However, the ending of obscene amounts of money given to the very wealthy schools (almost all of them "Christian", the wealthiest of them Anglican - which makes me ashamed of my own Church). Such schools receive no Government funding in the UK let alone the US. One could add, of course, reducing rorts for the very rich, and I think (an ex-services chaplain) a reduction in military spending.

John Bunyan | 02 February 2017  

Well stated and so true I guess it's a world wide virus these days Though I can't imagine being treated this way in Ireland??

Gail Stivano | 02 February 2017  

I agree wholeheartedly John Bunyan. Private schools should NOT get any taxpayers' handouts.

Louw | 02 February 2017  

Try having a learning difficulty, Newstart for 20years, hundreds of job knock backs monthly for that time; I am not surprised when an email comes, "I can't handle this any more..."

Bernadette | 02 February 2017  

I had a similar experience trying to leave Australia. I had been caught in the rain and the photo ink in my high-tech Australian e-passport had ran. The picture was still perfectly recognisable as was the undamaged check picture on the same page. IO also had multiple photo visas in the passport including a valid photo visa for the country I was traveling to. After 2 hours of back and forth i was finally allowed to travel woth a letter to the Australian High Commision that I had to replace my passport 2 years befroe it expired or I would be refused re-entry. Several hundred dollars later I have a new passport with the same non-waterproof photo page, (seriously how hard can it be) and now have to get a new photo visa for where I am currently living. I have also had a losing battle with Centerlink over pension eligibility. I am entitled to a concession card fro public transport and pensioner subscriptions etc which can only be used in Asutralia but because I am living overseas on my own dime my card was cancelled and i have to pay full freight every time I return to Oz for medical treatment.

Gary Dargan | 04 February 2017  

thank you for the article, found in my archives. I too have had very unpleasant experiences with Border Protection and took the officer's name which he was quite willing to give me. The whole episode was a true stuff up and I was placed in a queue as I was running late for boarding. It was the wrong queue. I am 74 yrs old, and have to say in all my 50 years of travelling this true aussie experiences is only repeated in countries where women are considered inferior. Of course what would one expect when their leader is not endowed with grace nor kindness.

helen m donnellan | 16 March 2017  

How perfectly explained - and all of these virus-affected nastiness public officials are only doing their job! How dreadful. The only way to stop this is make the departmental heads and the Ministers and PMs who are driving the paranoias face gaol. Best to start with the one at the top. That would drive more than trickle down change! Immediately!

Jim KABLE | 24 April 2017  

I saw a cartoon. A man waited in a queue for his turn at some bureaucratic counter..When he got there the person plonked a sign on the counter and left. The sign had an arrow on to the left and the words ''Far queue'.'

Karl R. Wood | 03 July 2017  

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