In early December, I went into surgery to give my eight-year-old son Harrison my left kidney. He heard me groaning in recovery as the anaesthetist put him to sleep a few hours later so that he could receive it. The operation was the first of my life and Harrison’s 13th. He’d experience his 14th general anaesthetic two weeks later when surgeons removed the vascular catheter that had been used to connect the dialysis machine into his heart three times a week for the five months leading up to the transplant.
After a successful surgery, Harrison had a number of complications that meant an eight-day stay in the intensive care unit of the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide, followed by another six days in the surgical ward. Daily blood tests, a Christmas Day virus that precipitated an extra five days of hospital hospitality, and then on Sunday, 3 January, our family enjoyed our first hospital-free day in well over a month.
As is my wont, I covered the process extensively via my social media outlets, interspersed with the occasional comment on the social and political issues of the period – a Myefo update committed to balancing the budget on the backs of the poor here and abroad; welcoming refugees and asylum seekers; supporting my brilliant friend Wawira Njiru’s work in Kenya making sure kids don’t have to go to school on an empty stomach; protecting penalty rates from being cut by people wealthy enough not to be forced to rely on them.
On Christmas Day, before the infection set in that evening, I took Harrison into hospital for an 8am blood test wearing the full Santa suit I’d donned to give our three children their presents early that morning. I figured if we had to be in hospital on such a day, we should at least make it memorable. We handed out candy canes to taxi drivers waiting at the rank outside, orderlies cleaning the halls and other families having a similar experience to our own. Driving home, I filled the car with petrol in full costume while commuters took photos and small children gawked in confusion. Harrison loved every moment.
On Christmas Day, before the infection set in that evening, I took Harrison into hospital for an 8am blood test wearing the full Santa suit. That afternoon, resting after a hearty Christmas lunch with the in-laws, I posted on social media: “Trip to hospital – saw Drs, nurses, cleaners, servo staff, RAA and more helping folks enjoy Christmas. Of course they deserve penalty rates” to which one person responded, “Enough politics for the day”.
It’s easy to understand the sentiment – why sully the joy of Christmas with “politics” when there’s backyard cricket to play and pudding to consume? But if you’re any kind of activist or political advocate, it’s a familiar response.
Children spending their third Christmas in immigration prisons; Australian Aid set at the lowest level in Australia’s history; health and education budgets being slashed by billions of dollars; one in three Australian pensioners living below the poverty line; climate change; sexism; racism; recognition of Australia’s Indigenous people … the easiest way to avoid thinking too deeply about any issue that arises around the barbecue on the beach is to dismiss it as “politics”.
This is nothing new – people have always employed the word “politics” in the work of absolving themselves of personal responsibility for addressing inequality, injustice and the exploitation of the earth and its people.
For our family, however, there’s no amount of using the word “politics” that can distance us from the truth that government-funded healthcare has not only kept Harrison alive for eight-and-a-half years but has also enabled him to thrive despite a range of other physical challenges.
He’s required a huge volume of medical supplies and medication that have been provided free of charge or heavily subsidised; publicly-funded in-school support services have allowed him to keep up with his peers educationally; 14 operations and more-than-regular appointments with physicians since birth would’ve attracted a financial cost I can’t even comprehend, entirely borne by the public purse.
So, while it might be easy to dismiss $15bn of cuts to the annual health budget as “politics” when you read it as a headline in the paper, the reality is that those are dollars that may have been spent on a child like Harrison. Forcing people to pay for pap smears and other preventative procedures is either “politics” or it’s a change that will mean some people won’t have their illness diagnosed early or accurately enough with huge impact on them and their families.
Similarly, cuts to the education budget and the cancellation of the Gonski funding model are either an ideological minefield to be avoided in polite conversation – or it’s $196m that won’t be spent in my electorate alone on making sure that every Australia child receives a quality education . It’s either “politics” or it’s some children missing out on the opportunity to achieve their full potential because of the economic circumstance of the family they were born into.
For the nurses, service station staff, cleaners and other workers that helped millions of Australians, including Harrison and I, have a good Christmas, penalty rates can’t be dismissed as mere “politics”. They’re students, single parents, new Australians and more who rely on every dollar to make ends meet.
Children in immigration prisons, women enduring the violence of men, pensioners below the poverty line, parents who can’t afford child care, Muslim Australians being vilified by politicians and abused in our streets, Aboriginal people being forced from their communities – while others treat their experiences as abstract, impersonal political concepts, these people have no such convenience. That which is derided as a topic that should not interrupt the Christmas cheer invades their lives without their consent.
Harrison and I went back in to hospital last week for blood tests. He’s on a huge amount of anti-rejection medication. We’re in the hands of the best medical practitioners in the field, the nursing and other support staff at the hospital are wonderful and Harrison has all the social scaffolding he needs to thrive. But this situation didn’t happen by chance – throughout Australia’s history progressive people fought for this outcome, so successfully that it would be culturally unacceptable for us to be paying for this level of care. Australians naturally assume it’s what sick children deserve.
We are living, and grateful, beneficiaries of those who valued other people enough to make politics personal.
Brad Chilcott is the Founder of Welcome to Australia. This article was first published in The Guardian on 16 January 2016.