Morrison government's complete lack of empathy remains on display

POOR RESULT: The Morrison government famously spent a large sum on an empathy consultant. Picture: Karleen Minney
POOR RESULT: The Morrison government famously spent a large sum on an empathy consultant. Picture: Karleen Minney

Empathy is a superpower. A lack of empathy lies at the root of entitlement and privilege, blinding us to the lived experience of others and fuelling our biases and prejudices.

When a person can feel empathy, it allows them to walk a mile in the shoes of another and see the world from different perspectives, allowing us to act with fairness, and inclusivity.

The importance of empathy has become a topic of interest since Prime Minister Scott Morrison took office, not because of his government's demonstrative capacity in this area but its stunning dearth of it.

It was widely reported that the government had hired an "empathy consultant" with a meal ticket set at almost $200,000 in 2019 to help it with community engagement.

Quite possibly the biggest waste of taxpayer money in the federal budget, if the results of this consultation are to be considered.

I don't question that it must be incredibly challenging to live your life and manage your career in the public eye; to have every handshake (or forced handshake), every facial expression, and even your tone of voice under a microscope.

I understand why a government might want to have help in their public interactions, but there is a difference between being invested in actually growing your interpersonal skills and just wanting to give the appearance of it in order to get what you want from the community - aka support for your initiatives and projects.

Let's be clear, the government didn't hire consultancy firm Futureye to teach it about the fostering of genuine connections, or to engage with, and understand with a view to serve, the people.

It was about developing a "social licence" with communities as rebranded "corporate social responsibility" which is pitched to be a problem-solving approach to secure community buy-in (specifically to an inland rail project in this case) within the context of shifting community confidence in government. In essence, it was about marketing.

If the government was genuinely in the market for empathy, the debate around raising the JobSeeker payment wouldn't be a debate at all, it would be a done deal.

The woeful inadequacy of the payment for people experiencing unemployment has been well established, not just by social justice organisations but by the government itself when it established the coronavirus supplement last year.

But then the government's lack of care when it comes to our most vulnerable Australians has also been made clear, evidenced by the rolling back of this "bonus" over recent months, with the JobSeeker payment set to return to $41 a day next month if a change isn't made in the coming weeks.

I have written many times about the Raise the Rate issue and how the payment is designed to "incentivise" people receiving it to find work.

Senate inquiries into the adequacy of the Newstart (now JobSeeker) payment have all demonstrated that it is at an unliveable level, plunging recipients below the poverty line and making finding work all the more challenging.

But sharing case studies and heart-wrenching stories of Australians who have lost everything while trying to survive on the meagre payment does not move the government.

It is not interested in investing in empathy for people experiencing unemployment. The return on investment just isn't there.

The hoops you have to jump through to attain the assistance of the government can feel quite overwhelming, with no promise of success.

If you have applied for NDIS support or any sort of Centrelink payment, you will be familiar with the government's "empathy" for those doing it tough.

However, in real terms, empathy is the bridge of understanding between two perspectives and thus is the key to connecting with communities. It's about listening to understand, not listening to spin.

This is where the disconnect seems to sit with the Morrison government's approach to engagement. Its apparent focus on giving the "right impression" and using this spin to secure voter support - rather than genuinely empathising and using this connection to collaborate on solutions - means it is wearing the one mask no one in leadership should be wearing right now: one that masks true purpose.

If empathy is a superpower, then it's safe to say that not all superheroes wear capes. But it makes me wonder how many supervillains wear masks.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au

This story Morrison government's complete lack of empathy remains on display first appeared on The Canberra Times.