I was inspired by Amy’s story (above). Particularly how her children have weathered things like ‘pov pasta’, and her daughter pretending she didn’t want to go to the movies. What wonderful citizens. I take my hat off to Amy and her children.
One of the earliest memories I have of my husband was when he proudly relayed to me something the Vice Chancellor said to him. “You’re one of the brightest students to come through this University”, Lew was told. It meant a lot to a boy who’d had to walk each day from Tarragindi to the Dutton Park ferry, couldn’t afford textbooks, and starved along with his family when his scholarship cheque was late.
He’d been inspired by the Moon Landing in the early 60s, the call for “more scientists” in the media at the time. He topped his Honours year in Biochemistry and was two years into his PhD when his life began to unravel. The research had been completed, the abstract submitted and approved by the Professorial Board, and it only remained for the final copy to be produced. Out in the back yard one night in early 1973, he made a bonfire of his thesis.
By 1976 we had a file at Social Security. Lew was referred to as a dole bludger. He had to take jobs including railway fettler (my father got him that one; he knew the Queensland Minister for Transport, Keith Hooper. They subscribed to the dole bludger school of thought). In 1975 Lew ran as the ALP candidate for Moreton in the Dismissal Election. He had a lot of support. There was a swing towards the ALP in some parts of the electorate. In another election, had he won, he would have wanted to become Minister for Science. He believed, and would be proven correct, that Australia needed better science and mathematics education. After the Election he drove all the way to Adelaide. South Australia had the only ALP State Government in the country. Lew believed Joh Bjelke-Petersen would see to it that he never succeeded in Queensland. After all, he’d been slandered by Don Lane in Queensland Parliament just before the birth of our first child. My father had pronounced Lew “finished” in terms of having any kind of career, anywhere.
The South Australian job didn’t eventuate. Social Security ordered Lew to pack up and move back to Queensland. By now, our baby daughter and I had joined him, sponsored by my father, who also paid for our few belongings to be sent. Four months after we’d arrived in SA, we packed up the ancient Toyoglide, created a baby bed in the back seat and drove back to Brisbane. We nearly ran out of petrol on the Simpson Desert. On the Friday, Social Security had ordered Lew to submit his form in Brisbane on the following Monday. Somehow we made it, driving non-stop in an old car with a year old baby. Social Security then proceeded to cut Lew off the dole anyway.
Lew went on a hunger strike in King George Square. Rev Thomas Rees Thomas, my old boss from City Congregational Church where I’d been organist, asked his friend the Federal Minister for Social Security to listen to Lew. They had a meeting at Brisbane Airport. The Dean of St John’s Cathedral, Ian George, wrote in his weekly Courier Mail column about the brave young man who hadn’t eaten for two weeks, the growing petition, and welfare rights in general. A rally was organized, addressed by Senator Mal Colston. A march followed, and the petition was presented to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. It asked for better treatment for the unemployed. It asked for the term ‘dole bludger’ to be dropped from general parlance. We believed, for a long time, that the term would not continue to be used in the media, to the distress of so many people.
From 1976 until 1991 we lived on the dole. We were still referred to as dole bludgers behind our backs. We tried, and then pretended, to farm from 1982 until 1989, when a raid was conducted on our home by two burly Social Security officers. They ordered us to sell the farm and move back to the City. After we came back to Brisbane we began FICH. The story of FICH appears elsewhere in this blog. Then Lew decided we should go back to Uni and get Dip. Eds. He was forever trying to find a way out of our long term dilemma – his unemployability. He certainly didn’t act like a leaner.
After getting a Dip. Ed., Lew got a job teaching Maths and Science at Kenmore High. At the end of the first year they wouldn’t give him his Registration; he couldn’t discipline unruly students. The students who did listen to him loved his lessons, and several went on to do well. The teaching experiment, like the farming experiment, the PhD, and the political campaigns, was a failure.
In 1993, for the first time, Lew began to think he might be too impaired to function in the workforce. It should be noted that he had only seen psychiatrists a handful of times. He was so gifted as a young man, so good at cross country running, and surf lifesaving, and editing the athletics club newsletter. He’d organized dances at the local church hall, joined a drama society, sang at folk clubs and met Peter Paul and Mary. The imperceptibility of his decline had us fooled. Nothing from Social Security had helped rid us of the dole bludger badge. In 1992 a Commonwealth Medical Officer had expressed the view that there was nothing wrong with him. We had no income and couldn’t pay the rent. Our children, thankfully, benefited from student allowances and supplements, but once more, Lew was unable to find or keep a job.
A Psychologist we had met through FICH invited us to work part time at Wacol Prison. We met other care leavers. We were beginning to see what was preventing Lew from ever keeping a job. The psychologist wrote a report that was finally accepted by Social Security, but not before our children and I had to witness Lew threatening to self-immolate on the steps of Social Security! That is how much the dole bludger appellation upset him.
In 1995 Professor Beverley Raphael, a world authority in PTSD, told Lew and me that there was absolutely no question that he could work, could ever have worked, and would ever be able to work in the future. And so it was that for us, anyway, the dole bludger myth was finally laid to rest.
If a UBI had been in place, our considerable and decades-long suffering from discrimination may not have occurred. And you can be sure, Lewis Blayse would have added to the already huge contribution he made to society before his life became simply unendurable.