Counting One’s Blessings

ntpl_219633workhouse sml
Photo of a very old and haunting looking building that was once a workhouse in Britain.

I attended a brilliant youth conference today. At the conference a young man, a refugee from Sudan, spoke about his journey to Australia from war torn Sudan. He counts his blessings everyday that he lives in Australia. He is grateful to wake up everyday and be safe. He is thankful that he and his family can walk the streets and not have to constantly look over their shoulder in fear. Poignantly he described how he is amazed that for breakfast every morning that he can, ” …choose to have black tea, Earl Grey tea, Breakfast tea or Liptons tea or lots of other teas. In Sudan I would probably have used yesterdays tea leaves.” He is now educated, employed and in his view lacking for nothing. He implored the audience to embrace and be thankful for the country that they are fortunate enough to live in.

The speaker that followed him could not have been more contrasting. She was an academic and a staunch advocate for the youth of Australia. She lambasted Australia for its poor Human Rights record.  She pointed out how Australia flagrantly breached its obligations under the numerous United Nations Conventions that they had signed. From youth, boat people, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people, same sex marriage, education to disability she pointed out Australia’s appalling Human Rights record. “For God sake..”,  she thundered, “Tony Abbott has even written to the UN to ask for permission to keep the children of asylum seekers in detention.” 

Not surprisingly the contrast between the perspectives of the two speakers left many in the audience in shock. Here we had a young Sudanese man, fortunate enough to be living in Australia, who thought that Australia was best country in the world and was forever grateful for the safe haven and opportunities that Australia had provided him. On the other hand we had a well paid academic, who in all likelihood had received her education entirely free under the Whitlam Government, slagging off the country left right and centre and imploring us to hold the country to account. She made it clear that Australia should be ashamed of what it has become.

It left me wondering whether we should be counting our blessings. Judging by the newsfeed on my Facebook there are not too many Australians currently counting their blessings. CHINESE WORKERS TAKING AUSTRALIAN JOBS – SENATE TO EXAMINE SUPER GENDER GAP – DISABILITY BACKLASH OVER NDIS DELAY -SAVE PAID PARENTAL LEAVE – GOVT ANTI GREEN LAW ERODES RULE OF LAW…  It goes on and on. It just seems that everyone has something negative to say about Australia. A far cry from a young Sudanese man who is just thankful he is living here without fear and with so many choices of tea to choose from.

So should we count our blessings? Certainly there are times when we need to take stock and celebrate how lucky we are. To focus on the negatives all the time would be entirely depressing. But what we should never do is count our blessings. And here is why.

As late as the last century Britain still had what were called workhouses. These institutions had been around for centuries. Their purpose was initially well founded. They were established to look after the poor and the infirm. People who were poor and infirm  entered workhouses and part of the conditions of their stay was that they worked. (Perhaps an earlier version of Work for the Dole.)

Over the centuries workhouse conditions became appalling. It was the ultimate degradation to have to enter one. “Men, women, children, the infirm, and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as watery porridge called gruel, or bread and cheese. All inmates had to wear the rough workhouse uniform and sleep in communal dormitories. Supervised baths were given once a week. The able-bodied were given hard work such as stone-breaking or picking apart old ropes called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in the day-rooms or sick-wards with little opportunity for visitors. Parents were only allowed limited contact with their children — perhaps for an hour or so a week on Sunday afternoon” (http://www.workhouses.org.uk/intro/)

Make no mistake the conditions of workhouses were appalling. Many people died within them and were buried in unmarked graves in the grounds of these institutions. These barbaric places were seen as the norm to deal with the poor and the infirm. There were laws passed to ensure that they existed. Overtime people began to protest about conditions of workhouses, particularly how they treated the sick and the infirm. None other than Florence Nightingale campaigned strongly about the conditions of workhouses in Britain. Through her efforts, and other like minded campaigners, professional health care was introduced into workhouses. Before that health care had been provided to inmates by, “ ‘pauper nurses’, or women inmates who were not themselves sick, notorious for stealing their patients’ food and gin ….”. (http://www.historytoday.com/lynn-mcdonald/florence-nightingale-social-reformer#sthash.KUBKAKU7.dpuf )

Through Nightingale’s efforts to reform health care in workhouses it is said that the seeds for Universal Health Care were laid. This eventually led to the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain in 1948. This was one of the first such systems that provided free health care. The NHS probably influenced the establishment of programs like Australia’s Medicare system. More importantly Nightingale’s exposure of the inhumane conditions of workhouses helped to bring attention to the conditions of workhouses and their eventual demise.

The point of this story is that the wonderful life that Australia and similar countries throughout the world lead came about through the hard work of social reformers like Nightingale. People like her took on the system and changed it for the better. Years ago in Australia people in wheelchairs could not get on buses. Until very recently in Australia there were no Auslan interpreters to allow people who are Deaf to participate in employment and education. Did you know as recently as 1945 only 23% of people at university were women? It is now 55%. All of this came about because people fought for change. There is still much that needs to be done.

Australia is what it is today because people fought for equal rights, equal opportunity and freedoms. It would be so easy for us to rest on our laurels and say, “We have it good, stop complaining.”  No matter how good our life is here in Australia we need to remember it got that way because people fought the good fight to make it that way. The minute we get complacent all of those hard gotten gains can be lost. Indeed in recent times, particularly under the current Abbott Government, many of these gains have been lost. The NDIS is currently under threat, god help people with a disability if we do not fight hard for that one! We must constantly remain vigilant.

While we must celebrate the wonderful life that we have here in Australia, we must never forget how that life came to being. Complacency will be our undoing – That’s why the academic today was so scathing of Australia’s most recent Human Rights record. She knows how hard our forefathers fought to get the lifestyle that Australian’s all value today. It’s not because she thinks Australia is bad, rather it is the opposite. She wants to keep it that way. May she, and many of her ilk, keep up the good fight so that young Sudanese refugees can learn what it is like to have a choice of tea for breakfast in the morning. Such a simple thing is worth fighting for, more than most of us will ever know.

Nothing wilts faster than laurels that have been rested upon.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Counting One’s Blessings

  1. Hanging on the wall of my house is the Life Member’s certificate my great grandfather received for 45 years of voluntary service to the Stone Mason’s Association. It is near a ballot paper from the first free election in South Africa – my two most prized possessions because every day they remind me that the life I have was gained on the backs of men who fought for every bit of the freedom and working conditions we have today. And that good people have to stand up to make it or keep it so. I live in a wonderful country and I enjoy every privilege that brings. But that lifestyle comes with a responsibility to work to make sure that we can keep it and that all who need it can enjoy the same life I do. Count my blessings? I do. But I also know that the fight to keep and extend those blessings is mine too. Glad that in the dark of night when my frustration turns my thoughts bleak that I am not alone…

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