Life in one of Australia’s wealthiest suburbs

I’ll be honest: when I first moved from the 4101 to one of Australia’s wealthiest suburbs, I was decidedly underwhelmed. All the things I loved about my former life – proximity to a thriving arts and culture scene, easy access to a man-made beach, an abundance of lifestyle markets, quirky neighbours – were 4800 km away. In this new place, I knew no one and no one it seemed, had time to know me. Seated in a French café, I called one of my Brisbane girlfriends for company.

“It will get better, Stella,” said my girlfriend. “Really, it will. When I first moved to West End (4101) I thought people were snooty and unwelcoming too. But I’ve since made many friends here. Life will get better. You’ll see it will.”

There was nothing I could do about my predicament so for my sake, I hoped my girlfriend was right. I went to a morning tea hosted by the parent body of Amanda’s school for parents such as myself, new to the schooling community. The principal took 10 minutes out of his busy schedule to give us all a warm welcome.

He told us of the school’s upcoming centenary and how our children would benefit from the many programmes the school has to offer. “I guarantee you that if your child stays here for 2 or 3 years, he or she will be impacted positively for life. Misbehaviour warranting disciplinary action is hardly an issue here – most of our students come from good homes – you’ll realise the importance of that as your child gets older, when his or her behaviour and choices are influenced by those he or she mixes with, and the vast majority (of our students) will go on to university.”

The claim about university might seem like a stretch in any other part of Australia, especially for a public school, but in our suburb, it is simply a way of life. It is the natural progression for children of highly educated parents, whose median household income is estimated to be well above the $150k pa mark. One suspects that but for the impoverished University students who also make up the demographic, and are thus included in the calculation of household income, the average would be significantly higher. It stands to reason, these are households that can and do see the benefit of proper schooling.

But just how does this translate into day-to-day life?

For one, even if the time-poor adults are a bit hard to get to know, the children have the most impeccable manners. There was once when Amanda and I turned up for school just as the morning bell was about to go. Most of the “good hooks” (read: height appropriate for little people) for hanging school bags had been taken and we were down to the last “good hook” available. Just then I noticed one of Amanda’s classmates standing there with his bag, it would seem, contemplating the last “good hook.”

To my surprise, he said to me (Me, a full grown adult!), “After you.”

“Are you sure?” I said to this seemingly very confident and gentlemanly little person. “It’s the last good hook.”

“Yes, please go ahead,” he said.

“But what will you use then?” I asked.

He pointed to a higher hook, which he obviously could not reach!

“Do you need a hand with your bag then?” I asked.

He nodded and said thank you after I’d put his into place.

When I asked Amanda how she liked school weeks later, she said, “It’s been good. No one has threatened me here, yet.

“Is anyone mean to you?”

“No one is mean at all. They’ve all been very nice.”

I was going to ask her if any of her schoolmates have gone around shooting expletives, but it seems that in this land for whom none has heard of “gentle parenting” and the like, such a question is more than redundant. For the rest of Australia, for whom wealth is equated with undeserved privilege, such a uniformed display of good breeding is usually unheard of. Outside of suburbs such as mine, the common belief is that freedom of speech and choice is a God-given right, welfare is a basic entitlement, and people who pay shit-loads of tax are the unfeeling, calculative bastards known as the “idle rich.” Few see that in many cases these are simply ordinary people who have worked hard and made many right, if highly conventional, choices.

Take NAPLAN for instance; while parents right around the country are actively deriding the series of tests for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, many mothers in this suburb have bought their children NAPLAN-style practise test workbooks. They don’t say NAPLAN is backward or that it stifles their children. They don’t spout any of the common arguments against the exercise. Instead, we all compare whose kid had done the most pages, what books to buy next, when the next available workbook sale is going to be; all this, even when most children are bound for elite private schools and university thereafter.

Conversely, one might contend that it is precisely because of this behaviour, not usually associated with Australian laissez faire parenting, that the children are going where they are going. The rest of Australia may pooh-pooh at this, calling the children a host of unflattering names synonymous with “robot”, but due to the high level of conformity among inhabitants, welfare is almost nonexistent, crime is low to nonexistent, academic achievement is consistently high, incomes are well above the national average. If nothing else, the suburb makes a good case for a return to conventional values.

Three and a half months on, I am no closer to the life I once led, but as much of this post attests, have come to appreciate the many positives of living here – chief of which is Amanda’s remarkable improvement at school. If you had asked me a year ago what I thought my daughter’s chances of getting into medicine is, I’d would have said it depends on how hard she’s willing to work. She wasn’t at all hard working. I’d also have been the first to say, “My child’s not brilliant.”

We were consistently late to school; she often didn’t finish all the exercises doled out during a normal school day. This year we’ve been consistently early because she’s been racing me out the door each morning. She finishes most of the exercises at school because everyone around her does so too. Rather than report on how well her classmates are doing, Amanda’s telling me how she’s been commended for her efforts and achievement. There’s even a spark of hope in this old heart of mine that she might go on to land a scholarship in one of those elite private schools – something that if you’d ask me about a year earlier, I’d have said is totally impossible.


Two sides to socialism (aka “If you have 2 cows, can I have 1?”)

I’ll tell you 2 stories, both true. I once asked a friend if she would ever return to live in Malaysia. She said, “Why ever do that? Australia gives me so many benefits.”

At the time, this wonderful government was giving her both parenting payments and rent assistance. This came to about $1100 + a month. Today, she still receives the same payments, but gets around $1250 a month. The school kids bonus and any free money going around is extra. She also has a health care card, which subsidises the costs of medical consultation, medication, utilities and public transport.

To her credit, she was able to feed her family of 4 adults and 1 child from Monday to Friday on only $50 a week, whilst on weekends, she’d eat out. From her, I learnt quite a number of penny-pinching tricks (good ones too) so  in return, using what I’d gleaned from faithfully reading Money Magazine, I gave her some layman’s financial advice.

“Lose the credit card debt,” I told her. “Your credit card charges around 17% in interest. How long will it take you to pay off what you owe? What you’ve bought on the cards aren’t even income-generating assets and if they were, I wouldn’t bankroll them with cards if I were you.”

She wouldn’t listen and the debt kept piling up. Instead, she confessed to spending up to $400 a month on herself, my then-home and personal belongings serving as a real-life “Pin-interest” with which to decorate her own home. Using her first baby bonus she bought an old car with a 5-year loan attached, and with her next baby bonus, she took the family back to Malaysia for a month-long holiday. After that, she brought them back another 2 times, an average of once every two years.

“Why don’t you put the children in childcare and get a job to help out? At your level of wages, the taxes are negligible,” I advised.

You might say the same thing of me but there is no point I work outside the home since my husband already pays the taxes he does. I’ll have you know: for him to work those hours to pay these taxes, I do the bulk of all home duties and child rearing. In return, I receive no parenting payments, no rent assistance, no school kids bonus, and if I were to have another child, no baby bonus either. Since I’m out of the labour force, I’m also ineligible for the paid maternity scheme, single, childless folks Australia-wide have been seeing red over.

People often preach to me the value of work-life balance, of spending time with the family, but no one acknowledges that my husband is not just keeping me at home, but other mothers too. My friend’s husband works a regular 40-hour week. Mine works double that. Until last year, HRH was upgrading his skills (to pay even more tax in the future) so he didn’t have much time for us when not working.

Anyhow, a family member of hers told me, “She wants what you have, to be taken care of by a man, but married someone who can’t even care for himself.”

“What are you going to do in the event something happens to your husband? How much does his work insurance pay?”

“Sixty thousand.”

“That’s not enough to bring up children,” I said, out of concern. “What more with outstanding credit card bills.”

I tried to get her to put her finances in order and aim for self-sufficiency but that ultimately put a strain on our friendship. The way she sees it, I’m a FAT CAT because I live a much better life than her. She doesn’t see the sacrifices, the years of toil.

The flip side of the coin is story number 2. This other friend is like HRH, a surgeon. He isn’t HRH, because my stupid HRH is too much of a socialist, plus he always likes to take the opposing side just to rile me up. He says I look cute when pissed off.

Let’s return to story number 2. This conversation took place roughly a year ago, in my house.

The country is heading down the drain under this government,” said this other friend.

“Why would you say that?” I asked.

The government penalises you for working hard. People all point to me and say I’m rich and use that as an excuse to take my hard-earned money, but don’t see the 20 years I’ve put in to get to where I am. I had to work very hard to get into medicine, then very hard to get into surgical training, then very hard to stay in surgical training, then very hard to exit surgical training, then very hard to establish myself… when I could have skipped university, got myself drunk every night, found some interesting hobbies and gone on the dole.”

The truth is it doesn’t pay to be responsible.

We, stupid people, have mortgages, body corporate and council rates to pay (so we can fund our own old age), a flood levy to foot (so we can afford to clean up after another flood), the carbon tax to bear (God knows what’s that about), medibank levy and SURCHARGE taken before we even see a cent  of our wages (now no longer offset completely by the taking up of private health cover), private health insurance  to cough up (to reduce the strain on the public health system), flood insurance to protect buildings (to nullify dependence on public funds collected through the flood levy), and a raft of personal insurance policies (to prevent dependence on the government in the event of being sued, falling ill or being struck with disability) and FOR ALL THAT, we’re labelled SELFISH FAT CATS and targeted every time the public coffers run short.

“In hindsight, option 2 probably seems much better,” I said. “The interesting part is you have to provide care for the very people who accuse you of being a FAT CAT and you have to PAY for their care through taxes and various levies. And, none of them will ever hesitate to sue you, because you’re a FAT CAT and they are the “little guys.”

“That’s true.”

“Did HRH ever tell you about one of his consultants? He asked the guy why he drives such an old car. The consultant said he once treated someone, who subsequently tried to sue him, even though everything went well surgically, because the latter simply needed the money. ‘It’s not personal, doc,’ he said as he slapped him with a lawsuit.”

I’m not saying that all patients are ungrateful bogans. Many are very considerate and appreciative folk who bring sushi and fruits and whatever else they sell, as gifts, when coming for consults. But you will encounter those who think you should be taken to the cleaners simply because you are doing better than they are. You will also encounter many who feel ENTITLED to welfare payments because Australia is a supposedly rich nation and everyone, save them, is OBLIGED to help the underprivileged.

At any rate, I don’t see the need for more levies or more taxes. If, in managing the country’s finances, the government were even half as good as a regular housewife is at managing the family budget, they won’t have to keep slapping tax payers with more levies to fund projects.