Wednesday, December 01, 2010

I Quit!

Well, this is the end.

Not the end of everything, you understand. Just the end. Or, rather, an end.

As most of you know, I have spent the past three years working (or, if I'm honest, undertaking a not always convincing facsimile of working) in a convenience store in order to make a contribution to the household budget while my Dearly Beloved and I candidated to the ordained ministry of the Uniting Church. But now that we have completed our Exit Year (and, presumably, have completed the assessment requirements!) and are awaiting placement in permanent ministry positions, the time has come to draw a close to certain things. And one of those things has been the job at the store.

So, I have resigned. Actually, even if I hadn't resigned, I would have gone anyway, on account of the fact that the store has been taken over by another retail chain and is currently closed for refurbishment. Owing to the business model employed by that chain, it is unlikely that I would have secured a position with the new owners; and I didn't fancy trying to get a shift at one of my former employer's stores which had not yet been taken over - having done it once, there is no way I was going to work a graveyard or whatever other unwanted unpleasant shift they thought they could squeeze me into. Besides, my Dearly Beloved and I were determined that, this year, I would be spending Christmas Day with the family, not at work.

So, no more of that for Yours Truly. But since this has been a not insignificant part of my life, and since my escapades at the store have formed a large slice of this blog's content, I thought I would mark the end of this particular era by sharing a few thoughts.

Employees. The first thing I want you to do is to urge you all to change your attitude to all the people who work behind the counter at convenience stores and other related retail outlets. I have worked in a lot of different environments, from factories to corporate offices, but in few of them have I encountered an environment in which the work was as repetitive, tedious, physically exhausting, and mind-numbingly dull. When you add to that the fact that the workload (in terms of customer flows) can switch from inertially boring to frantically busy in a matter of seconds; and the fact that an enormous burden of responsibility rests on convenience store employees in terms of OH&S, security, and corporate responsibility/reputation, then the convenience store represents one of the most demanding and least rewarding workplace environments I have ever encountered. So, please, next time you go to a convenience store, no matter how angry, busy, existentially angst-ridden, or otherwise pissed off with the world you may be, remember that there is someone who is in a much worse position than you - namely, the poor sod behind the counter who has to serve you. So try a little kindness - or, if not that, a little understand. Okay?

Customers. The first thing I want to say is that 95% of the people I encountered were basically decent human beings: just working stiffs trying to make their way in the world like the rest of us. I know I have written more than one post taking the piss out of customers and their foibles; but that is only because they were the exception not the rule. It is the exceptions that make for interesting stories, as any tabloid hack can tell you; the people and situations I wrote about were not representative of the whole. But having said that, let me also say this: that being a convenience store clerk sure brings you into contact with an especially rich cross-section of human society (particularly when you work nights or graveyards on the weekends), and much of that humanity is profoundly broken and limited. It reminds you how inadequate your own experience is, and how vast a world of human reality exists beyond the confines of your own life. And you come to appreciate how sadly constrained so many others' horizons are, a realisation that does not fill you with a sense of your own superiority, but with a lament for the inadequacy of the human condition. So, in the long run, I think you learn compassion. Yes, you also learn to deploy dark humour, sometimes as a coping mechanism, and sometimes as a necessary corrective to human stupidity. But I think you also learn to respect the struggle that is the "daily grind" for so many people, whether because of the circumstances they find themselves in, or because of their own limitations.

Relationships. Most people are used to forming relationships through work, not just because you have to operate co-operatively with other people, but because there is something innately human that seeks out the other in order to make a connection. Indeed, some work relationships become truly significant, leading to anything from life-long friendship to marriage. But that's not the case with the convenience store clerk. Because the staff are all employed on a casual shift basis, and are rarely all together in the same place (shift-changes and store meetings being about the only time more than one clerk is there at once) the bonds that tie other workplaces simply don't exist. To be sure, there were long-standing employees at the store with whom I did form connections; but with the changes of management and staff turnover that are endemic to the convenience store environment, these connections are easily sundered. Indeed, when the store closed, and after I had worked my last shift, it seemed to me that we had all become like leaves scattered before the wind; leaves that had been none-too-securely attached to the workplace "branch" to begin with. And yet, oddly, this lack of connection was made up for by an attachment to the "regulars" one encountered on most shifts, the people who lived locally and who came into the store on a frequent basis. After a while, you got to know their names; and, through conversation, learned a little about their lives. Granted, a small number of "regulars" came with a degree of "nuisance value" attached; but the bulk were, in fact, people you looked forward to seeing. They either helped mark the passing of the hours because their metronomic habits ensured they always came to the store at the same time; or, more importantly, they were the ones who offered consolation after your shift had been spoiled by some aggressive, impatient, arrogant twat. In many ways the "regulars" were a reminder that, even in the most sterile of environments, meaningful human relationships are possible.

I'm sure there's more I could tell you, but I think that's about it for now. I hated the job and every minute I was compelled to perform it; but I am also grateful for the income it provided, and for the people who meant that it wasn't the dehumanising nullity it might otherwise have been. At the end of the day, I guess all I can do is mark it down to experience and hope to learn the lessons it provided. And breathe a big sigh of relief that it is now a chapter in my life that is well and truly over!

And, since this post is about endings, I now announce that this post also represents the end of this blog. Like the job at the store, it has, I think, served its purpose. So while I won't delete this blog, it is highly unlikely that any further posts will be listed here. So thank you for listening and commenting and for coming along on the ride together. I hope you join me on my other blog The Still Circle.

Talk to you soon,


Quote for the Day: Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in days of old moved heaven and earth, that which we are we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts made weak by time and fate but not in will; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (Alfred, Lord Tennyson - "Ulysses")

Friday, July 02, 2010

For What It's Worth...

Why, if I think it's great Australia now has a female Prime Minister, do I feel so heartsick?

Sure, the coup - and let's not be pedantic about this, it was a coup, albeit a political rather than military one - was conducted with swift, sure precision, the kind of clinical surgical strike the American military only wishes its so-called "smart" weaponry could achieve. There was no long, drawn-out saga of innuendo and undermining, leaving behind great tearing wounds of bitterness and public disillusion. We quite literally went to bed one night with Kevin Rudd as PM and woke up the next morning with Julia Gillard as our new Prime Minister.

I don't for a moment believe that Gillard didn't know what was happening. Even if only indirectly, she would have been aware of the numbers tilting against Rudd as his popularity declined and the ALP "brand" became ever more on the nose with the electorate. Maybe she even tried to warn Rudd, perhaps obliquely at first and then directly, that the forces of deposition were gathering against him. Either way, Gillard is too experienced and assured a political operator not to have seen what was coming and to have positioned herself accordingly.

But that isn't what has got me feeling as though our country has taken one almighty step backwards. True, the fact that a politically astute woman has shown herself to be as ruthless and unsentimental as "the boys" doesn't give me much confidence that our political culture specifically - or our social culture generally - has matured much. Which doesn't mean that I don't think Gillard will be a competent, perhaps even excellent, PM. But I suspect the circumstances of Gillard's ascent to the Prime Ministership tell us that while women are able to play "the boys" at their own game, the fact remains that it is still "the boys" game that is being played. No new territory has been staked out, no new paradigm has been put into place.

Still, I kind of expect that from Gillard. She is, afterall, a product of the same cynical, mercenary party "machine" that has produced her factional contemporaries within the ALP. So why am I feeling like I want to curl into a foetal ball and start keening for my country?

In part, I think it's because I'm angry with Kevin Rudd. In party political terms, Rudd was a relative outsider, having been "foisted" upon the federal parliamentary ALP via the party's Queensland administrative wing and his connections to the Queensland Premier's office. This meant that he largely lacked either a factional power-base or cross-factional support - as is the case with most parliamentarians, who do their time as footsoldiers in the factional machine before being given the nod to step up to the bright lights of elected office. But the fact of Rudd's outsidership meant that he had a great opportunity to change the political narrative of our country, both in terms of the ALP specifically and the wider political process generally.

Remember when Rudd was Leader of the Opposition, and when he first came to power? Back then, he articulated a cohesive political-social framework founded in a set of principles that spoke to the yearning of the Australian public for a new kind of politics: a politics of ideas, a politics of engagement, a politics of the "big picture" whose vision extended beyond the horizon of the three year electoral cycle. For the first time in a long time, Australians glimpsed a vision of the political process that transcended both the cynical "consensus pragmatism" of ALP factionalism, and the conceited "natural party of rule" arrogance of the Coalition and its neo-classical ideologues.

For the first time in a long time, Australians began to hope for something more.

But Rudd blew it. Once in power, and despite an impressive catalogue of initiatives that included affirming the Kyoto climate change protocols and the much-delayed apology to indigenous Australia, Rudd lapsed into an autocratic, presidential style of leadership that brooked no dissent and heard no other points of view. Decision making was limited to a restricted coterie of senior parliamentarians (the so-called "gang of four", which ironically included Gillard and Treasurer - now deputy PM - Wayne Swann), as well as a select group of staffers appointed by Rudd himself. Moreover, stories soon began to leak out about personality flaws in Rudd that presaged problems for the future: his frenetic, almost insane addiction to work; his short fuse and temper tantrums; his apparent insensitivity to the human and personal needs of those around him.

None of which was going to threaten Rudd while he was so spectacularly popular. The alienated parliamentary colleagues and factional mandarins couldn't move against a leader who so obviously had the nation's confidence. But it was in this fact that the seeds of disaster lay. For instead of using his outsider status to bring change into the ALP - and, by extension, the whole political culture of Australia - Rudd refused to persuade his colleagues to back his vision, instead demanding obedience and loyalty. Had he done so, once things turned sour he could have drawn on depths of goodwill and support that were previously absent. Indeed, it seems that Rudd's own consciousness of his "outsider" status provoked a sense of personal insecurity that drove him toward authoritarianism and the hostility from others which it engenders. Instead of being able to draw on the support of others, he found the knives were drawn against him.

And those knives came out for two reasons. The first was the "reform obsession" which seemed to characterise the Rudd government. Like the Whitlam government before it, Rudd tried to push through a raft of reforms at every conceivable level of policy, from industrial relations to climate change, from tax policy to health services. And like the Whitlam government, the Rudd government found itself swamped by the logistics of trying to implement reform across such a wide spectrum of policy areas. Which, combined with the relative inexperience of most of Rudd's ministers, and the corresponding inexperience of their personal staffers, resulted in some monumental policy disasters. Instead of tackling a couple of major projects at a time and getting them attended to in detail, the Rudd government tried to do everything at once - and paid the penalty for its poor judgement.

But the second cause of Rudd's downfall lay in Rudd himself. As noted above, rumours about some of Rudd's less attractive personality traits began to circulate earlier in his Prime Ministership. But when these were just "quirks" of the man himself, they were - electorally speaking - more or less harmless. But when they manifested themselves on the policy stage, they were disastrous for Rudd the politician, and gave the signal to his factional enemies to start organising the numbers.

Perhaps the most egregious example was Rudd's handling of the Trading Emissions legislation. Having tried and failed to get the legislation passed on more than one occasion, Rudd should have explained to the Australian public that the parliamentary process had not enabled the government to pass its legislation, as a consequence of which, the government would go to the next election seeking a clear mandate for both houses of parliament so that the legislation could be put in place. However, and in an almost inconceivable display of petulance, Rudd did the policy equivalent of taking his bat and ball and going home, declaring unilaterally that there was no community consensus on an emissions trading scheme, and delaying any legislation until at least 2012.

A response that only served to disillusion the public who had believed Rudd's image of "big picture" commitment, and who now not only questioned that commitment, but began to wonder whether his personality traits made him fit to be PM. The polls began to plummet, the knives were sharpened, the numbers counted. Rudd's continued refusal to realise his peril and change his ways only hastened the end. To borrow a classical allusion, Rudd started off looking like Australian politics' equivalent of Marcus Aurelius, only to end up its Tiberius: an isolated, ill-tempered, suspicious, and mistrusted individual whose unpopularity was largely of his own making.

And, ultimately, I think it's the rather pathetic humanity lying at the core of this tragedy that makes me feel the way I do. The almost unbearable sight of Rudd making his all-too-late appeal for support based on his record the night he realised the chickens had come home to roost; the gut-wrenching agony of watching him realise and struggle with the extent of his failure at the next day's media conference; the indescribable pathos of Rudd sitting in the backbench while parliamentary colleagues and opponents alike poured out their crocodile tears (a spectacle made all the more poignant by the presence of a delegation from Vietnam in the chamber). All these sights had me thinking: well, we could have one in a different direction in this country, but we blew it. Rudd blew it, the ALP blew it, the whole Australian electorate has blown it.

Maybe I'm being melodramatic. Maybe I'm being sentimental. Maybe I'm being a fool. But there's something within me that says, no matter how good a PM Julia Gillard turns out to be, there was a moment here for the seizing which, collectively, together as a society and a body politic, we have let slip through our fingers. And I think we're all going to be the poorer for it.

Talk to you soon,


Quote for the Day: Opportunity: that which comes disguised as hard work in order that it not be recognised by most people. (Ann Landers)