The Guardian • Issue #2007

What do you notice after a long time away?

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2007

Photo: Garry Knight (CC BY 2.0)

What is like to return to Australia after two years away? What do you notice? There is a brief time – maybe a month – when you notice things that are otherwise part of the “furniture.”

Almost immediately upon leaving a still empty Kingsford Smith airport in Sydney, I noticed the bedding on the streets. A pile of blankets, an old doona, a shopping trolley filled with items a homeless person has managed to scrounge here and there. Staying in Parramatta for a few days, I kept coming across someone’s temporary shelter: beneath an overpass, sheltered near the railway station, and in many other places. There seemed to be more than before, and that is saying something. Later, I was to hear first hand accounts of the housing crisis in Australia. Few places to stay, exorbitant prices, unaffordable even for those with a job and modest pay.

Not long afterwards, I found I needed a sim card for my phone. Sure, there were plenty of options to bamboozle me, but I bought a simple version for which I pay monthly. Out of the five bars that are meant to register the strength of the phone signal, I soon realised that the top two – the fifth and the fourth – were pretty much aspirational. Three bars is great, two bars normal. Now this brought back old memories! The signal drops out as soon as you leave town. On the train between Sydney and Newcastle, there are long stretches with no signal at all. In Gordon – where stayed in a tiny basement for a couple of weeks – the host said, “the signal comes and goes, depending on the wind.” You learn to live with it over time, but you certainly notice it on return.

Well, I thought, perhaps I should rely on internet connectivity. Like many, the work that I do needs pretty good internet coverage. For the first few weeks on returning, we had to stay in Airbnb’s. In the first, I ended up switching to using my phone’s hotspot, which at two bars was better than the WiFi. The second place boasted “internet” on its website listing. On arrival, the host had to call the technician to re-install the whole system. Even then, whenever I needed to download something, I had to stand in the old shed right next to the wifi router to get it to work.

By now some may be wondering whether I am simply a whinger. No, my point from these personal experiences is that infrastructure of all types is absolutely crucial. It provides a foundation for economic development, industry, governance, and thus jobs with adequate wages.

Two more experiences. For a few weeks, we stayed at Coal Point on Lake Macquarie. One evening, my partner and I were in nearby Toronto. It had been a long day, and the last of the few buses each day to Coal Point had well and truly gone. Uber? Taxi? We tried the latter, via their phone number and their online booking site. We waited and waited. In the end, my partner went into the local pub, where a person working at the bar told her that taxis and Uber no longer come this far out. Seriously, Toronto is not remote, and certainly not far out from anything much. But, said the publican, Donna runs a local “taxi service,” which is actually her car. A handwritten phone number and then a call to Donna. She turned up in two minutes.

Public transport is probably the most well-known item of infrastructure, and I do not think I am telling the reader anything new by saying that it is pretty ordinary in this part of the world. By contrast, any modern city today (with the exception of the US) has buses, metro, heavy rail, and often light rail (trams). They cover the whole city and intersect in a way that means you are never more than a few minutes walk from a stop and you can get anywhere in the city. And they need constant up-dating, improvement, and expansion to meet changing needs. In the countryside, regular services between towns mean vital connectivity.

But infrastructure is much more than public transport, as my other examples show. I have mentioned housing, telephony, internet, public transport, and even taxis. My impression in those first few weeks after returning is that the infrastructure has not so much stood still, with little change, but that it is somehow degraded from what it was two years ago.

The first few weeks passed, and what I noticed clearly during that time soon began to fade and risked becoming part of the “furniture.” Before I knew it, I was negotiating it in a way that I no longer noticed too much. But that is something I want to avoid. For a communist, homelessness and a housing crisis should never be part of the “furniture.” Nor should crucial pieces of infrastructure that enable economic activity, stable jobs, and the well-being of all workers.

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