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One man’s trash is another man’s measure (of how deep the cost of living is biting)

For the longest time it was a kind of Brisbane suburban sport – finding the best items left on the kerbside for the annual council cleanup. But in these straightened times, you can tell a lot about families by what they throw away, writes Madonna King

Mar 30, 2023, updated Mar 30, 2023
The pickings are slim for those kerbside collectors these days. (Image: Ipswich First)

The pickings are slim for those kerbside collectors these days. (Image: Ipswich First)

If you want a new barometer to measure how suburban Brisbane families are struggling with the cost of living, take a walk around a neighbourhood expecting a kerbside collection.

In previous years, fossickers were out early to furnish new rental homes for young adult children, or to nab a desk for a school student, or even a whole toy room that promised hours of joy.

This year, it’s an entirely different story; first noticeable by the lack of treasure-hunters wielding trailers just after sunrise. Close-up, it’s evidence that in 2023, we are only dispensing with what has long passed its expiry date.

Torn and stained mattresses. Broken windows. Old lounges with rips that run through centimetres of fabric. Lamps and dressing tables and chair that shows a cost of living crisis spanning rents and grocery bills and petrol prices.

Perhaps the forerunner could be seen late last year as mortgage interest rates marched north. That’s when, in my suburb, carloads of visitors every second Monday night would arrive with torches to scour bins awaiting council collection.

Now it’s as though suburbs have been divided into territories, and each fortnight the same crew – with personal headlights and gloves – empty bins looking for bottles that can be recycled for small pockets of cash.

It’s bracket creep playing out in our own personal household economies. Increases across the board, but in pockets – like school fees and grocery bills – which mean the broad impact can lie dormant, and unnoticed.

But the housing crisis has lifted the lid on that, highlighting a heart-breaking struggle that is seeing families living rough, and mortgage distress reaching global financial crises levels.

What can be done is a matter of personal and political views. At the home level, we can tighten our belts, put off that holiday, and re-prioritise everything from school sporting involvement to new shoes.

But at the political level, we should be able to rely on those we employ to govern to do their job adequately. And this week has shown, in broad daylight and with spectacular clarity how tht is not happening.

At every level – Commonwealth, State and local – it is sorely disappointing.

Let’s take Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner’s idea to house families who are living in parks and under bridges in facilities at Pinkenba.

That would help hundreds of families. It would involve an empty facility built specifically to be used in a crisis. (And if the fact that we have elderly couples and toddlers living without a roof over their head isn’t a crisis, I’m not sure what is.)

Schrinner even offered to nut out a plan with Translink so that transport options were not the hurdle that grounded a sensible solution to an escalating problem.

But that’s where Schrinner’s idea really halted. And if that’s what he sees as fighting for a position, he needs to get into the ring and learn a new technique.

He owes it to his constituents, the ratepayers of Brisbane, to work harder behind the scenes to deliver an outcome, and not just stick his head above the parapet for a TV grab.

At least Shrinner had a go, perhaps, as opposed to the Commonwealth which torpedoed the idea for absolutely no reason – other than it was unsuitable because it was too far away from other support services.

That was the verdict of finance minister Katy Gallagher. She didn’t like the location. But I promise her this: living under a tree in a park, or in the back of a car where the windows don’t close is an even worse location. Guaranteed.

So Pinkenba sits there, waiting for a future natural disaster or another pandemic. And that’s a disgrace that prime minister Anthony Albanese should act on today.

But the State Government is even more in the frame than its local and Commonwealth counterparts here because of its blatant refusal, over years, to address a crisis that has been loud in its approach.

And faced now with publicity that might dent its diminishing popularity, it immediately hits out at private industry and the role it should play in fixing the mess.

But shouldn’t a voter be able to expect a government, that has been in power for almost a decade, to have a plan that involves more than a crisis summit, every time public frustration boils over.

How can that be the fault of private enterprise? Or of investors who are trying to meet rising mortgage payments?

This is the fault of those in power who specialise in ‘short-term-ism’ and who now govern for the next television grab or news headline.

The housing crisis just joins a long list of other issues that looks like sending the Palaszczuk Government out onto the kerb, for collection on October 26 next year – election day.

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