Macklin / The hungry hidden behind the billions

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I WAS waiting for a taxi outside an Adelaide hotel when a tall, relatively well dressed, young man approached and said: “Excuse me, could you spare me some small change?”

Robert Macklin
Robert Macklin.

Well, of course I could but I was so taken aback that I said: “No” and he turned away. It’s been on my conscience ever since.

When I told Zeru, my Ethiopian taxi driver about the encounter he said Adelaide had many people begging and sleeping rough. And when I mentioned it on Facebook, friends from around the country responded with similar stories.

But here’s the thing: I was in Adelaide to attend the launch of the third of our three new Air Warfare Destroyers that together cost some $9.2 billion. Moreover, they’re the forerunner of a planned “continuous naval shipbuilding plan” announced by PM Malcolm Turnbull, to cost some $95 billion over the next decade and a bit.

Zeru couldn’t get over it. “Oh, Mr Robert,” he cried, “ninety billions of dollars! Just think what we could do with all that money… billions, you say, not millions… billions…oh, Mr Robert.”

“Watch the road, Zeru.”

The program incorporates the $56 billion for 12 new submarines, $35 billion for nine new frigates and about $4 billion for 12 offshore patrol boats. Then to service and maintain them for their 30-year life cycle will cost the usual three times the initial build. So in 2018 dollars we’re talking roughly $380 billion. And that’s provided we don’t have a war that requires them to be replaced if the worst happens.

Now, I don’t have a problem with that kind of spending. In fact, the way global warming is accelerating I think we’ll need every last warship to deter the millions of climate-change refugees who would otherwise be making for our coastline.

But for the next few days I couldn’t help thinking about those homeless people in our cities and what just a fraction of that money would do to house and feed them.

Then, as these things do, it faded from the mind as other domestic events crowded in. But then I happened to catch the national treasure, Jennie Brockie, on her SBS “Insight program talking with a room full of Australians – mostly women – really doing it tough. Indeed, many of them were actually going hungry in the weekly quest to put food on the table for their kids. Good, decent women who had fallen on hard times, whose hearts were as big as the Ritz but were breaking under the endless strain.

Then the lady from Foodbank told the audience that no fewer than 3.6 million Australians needed their help. And still “hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren go hungry in Australia each year”. That, my friends, in a country as rich as ours, is a damned disgrace. And I haven’t heard a squeak about it from any politician from any party at any level of government – local, state or federal. That’s worse.

I still think the spending on our naval defences is fully justified. It’s the first duty of government to keep its people safe; and a combination of good diplomacy backed by firm deterrents is the sensible way to go. But at the same time, no rich country that lets its kids go hungry is worth a tuppenny damn. I really thought we were better than that.

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