Thursday, 11 August 2016

Kafka on Crown Street

My latest piece in The Australian, on the challenges of getting back in the system after 25 years away

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. — Franz Kafka 
I’d been back in Australia less than a day when I found myself slip-sliding in the slime with worms of a new bureaucracy. At least it was a new one for me.
While Australia was having its nanny state revolution, I was off toiling in Milton Friedman’s laissez-faire paradise of Hong Kong and later in Milton’s Paradise Lost with prawn soup, the lawless ­melange otherwise known as Bangkok.
I had assumed this usurping of the public service and the law by nannies and ninnies to have been greatly exaggerated … until, back in Sydney, I stood, quaking, under the gimlet gaze and granite face of the woman welcoming the great unwashed at the Australian Taxation Office in Martin Place.
As I stuttered through my story of returning after 25 years abroad, my fantasies of being received like the prodigal son fled with the shark-like widening of a smile that bypassed her eyes and heart to ­arrive, unburdened by the milk of human kindness, at her thin, ­bluish lips.
I hadn’t pitched up for a hand-out. I had a proper job and I wanted to get back in the system.
I waved my true blue, supersized and very expensive Australian passport, complete with extra pages for frequent flyers, ­holograms of national symbols and feral pests and smart-chip technology.
Less than 24 hours earlier, I had tiptoed towards immigration at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport on tenterhooks. Given my port of departure (Bangkok) I half-expected to be hauled off to have my trousers Malcolm Frasered and to feel the clammy touch of the latex glove, maybe even end up on that reality show where earnest ockers in airports did their best impressions of Cops.
But I sailed through the automated gates and Minority Report face scan and waltzed through Customs, with nothing to declare except my admiration for this new, zipless, ultra-efficient Australia.
My smart passport had passed muster with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Was it enough, though, for the ATO’s panjandrums of PAYG? Not on your Dame Nellie Melba or a stale piece of pavlova.
“Computer says no,” I could see her thinking. I would need to prove my existence with three pieces of identification, totalling the mystical score of 100 points, to obtain the sacred tax file number and — O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — be permitted to join the ranks of tax-paying-as-they-go Australians.
Had Canadian sage Tyler Brule been right when he recently pronounced Australia in danger of being over-sanitised, wet-nursed and fatally dumbed-down? I needed a driver’s licence (unlikely, since I hadn’t driven in a quarter of a century), an Australian property rental tenancy agreement (impossible on my first full day in the country) or utility bills (ditto).
The best bet, old sharkface said, was a Medicare card, so off to Crown Street, Darlinghurst, I traipsed, to stand in a queue for 30 minutes, and sit in another one for 40 minutes. When I’m finally handed a sheaf of forms, I can barely bring myself to look in case it asks me for a tax file number.
Fast-forward the promised three weeks — no Medicare card. After peering into a mirror to make sure I’m still there, I return to Crown Street, where I’m told my paperwork was in order but had failed to pass through the bureaucratic blood-brain barrier to the place where people actually make Medicare cards, so it would take another month.
Head spinning, I stagger off to the Immigration and Border Protection Department, a sombre establishment near Central Station covered in public toilet tiles the colour of Uluru and emu shit. My private health insurer had informed me I needed a “certificate of movement”. I’d have been better off trying the Ministry of Silly Walks or that artist who sprays paint from his bottom.
Four hours of automated non-response telephone hell spread over eight calls and two weeks had convinced me of the impossibility of getting a human being on the phone. So I join another queue, at the head of which awaits a man smiling like the Cheshire Cat. It’s not a form I can fill out: just a form telling me to apply online. I should have read the reviews: “Moribund administration … waste of taxpayer dollars … ridiculous”.
None of this prepared me for the brutal business of renting a flat. Real-estate agents? Fakes, showponies and big fat liars, chimerical figures who emerged from their shiny chariots to sneer at my desperation while waving more forms in my face, forms directing me to online forms with compulsory fields I couldn’t fill out, forms created by xenophobic sadists unfamiliar with the ways of modern nomads.
Then there was Optus, its unblinking eye gazing from a pyramid of pure stupid, expecting me to sit stranded on the hard shoulder of the information superhighway for six weeks waiting for broadband, setting up then cancelling appointments, always between 1pm and 5pm despite my pleas of only being free in the mornings.
At least this national telecommunications company had someone answering the phones — someone in Bangladesh who kept telling me everything would be all right without actually being able to answer any of my questions.
Still, I remain of good cheer and take it as an article of faith that one fine day, if the gods are smiling and all the lemons align on the great poker machine in the sky, I will be allowed to pass Pokemon Go and receive my tax file number, and thus be filled with the chest-bursting bliss of being a real person in the land of my birth and accorded the inestimable privilege of being able to pay tax. On that same glorious day, perhaps Optus will send the Mad Hatter, the Walrus and the Eggman to rescue me from my rabbit hole and hook me up.
Until then, I will loiter in the shadows of a country born of convicts, living out In the Penal Colony. As Kafka said: “From a certain point there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
Vive la revolution. I am the slime.

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