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Treasure Ireland

The Custom House George's Quay

|| Apart from the significant barriers to housing and healthcare, the single currency remains the elephant in the room ||

After living in England for seven years I moved to Melbourne in 2014 for a relationship, as opposed to a job. While I have never been out of work, it has never been the kind of work I would like to do. A good way to describe working in Australia is “a fair go, if you’re in the know”, much like everywhere else. It is no workers’ paradise; in my experience they work hard, do a lot of unpaid overtime and “bank” annual leave, if they get it at all.

I have a part-time job with the Victorian state government and rent a cheap room in a sleepy, nineteenth-century suburb about fifteen minutes from the city centre by tram, or bike. By Wednesday of the first week I have covered my rent, though - in estate agent parlance - my room could reasonably be described as bijoux.

Entry-level contract or permanent office-based roles in Australia with annual leave (20 days) and sick pay (10 days) are usually paid at a lower hourly rate (typically €16 an hour) as opposed to higher-paid casual work, which only comes superannuation (pension) paid at 9.5% of gross income into a fund of your choice. Minimum wage is equivalent to about €12 an hour. There are fourteen public holidays a year in the state of Victoria.

I wanted to return to Ireland this year as I am writing a book about the Irish housing crisis, and my experience of growing up in Ballymun, but I could not afford to live in Dublin on a part-time wage while doing this so, I returned to Melbourne, settling for regular late-night phone calls on my return to Australia to catch up with interviewees and friends; renewing my acquaintance with push notifications.

It’s cheap to eat out in Melbourne on a part-time wage; you can get a phở (Vietnamese broth) or dumplings for $10. Gas and electricity are expensive, having been privatised, but medical treatment is easy to access as it’s “bulk-billed” (free), though you can elect to pay an out-of-pocket expenses for greater convenience or for private hospital care. “Opportunity shops” are a favourite pastime for Melburnians on the weekend, where you can get just about anything second-hand for a good price. Groceries are expensive but of excellent quality thanks to Melbourne’s food bowl, the future of which is being put at risk by the inward migration that has underscored Victoria’s economic success in recent years.

While Melburnians are friendly, many are alarmed by the extent of inward migration. Australians are mostly ignorant of the Irish contribution to their history, though up to 30% of them claim Irish heritage. We don’t fall foul of racism but are still othered. I am asked frequently why I still have my accent, and when I am going "home", the implication being if I am to stay that I should assume their manners and interests, or at least the appearance of them.

The writer Donald Horne once mused that Australian antipathy to difference owes to their long experience of suburban living, preferring “superficial but correct social relations to deep and intimate ones”.

Australia’s success owes much to the past Keynesianism of the Australian Labor Party and the weakness of the Liberal government under its constantly changing leadership. Their original objective under Abbott was to introduce austerity; settling instead for tax giveaways and privatisation. Inequality and public debt have increased and there seems to be no thought given to the future of the country beyond arguments about cultural preferences.

Commodification of the housing market through investor tax-breaks like “negative gearing”, foreign investment and loose lending practices - set to end with the Royal Commission into banking - have created bubbles in Melbourne and Sydney which may drag the economy down along with them and might even create a credit crunch.

Anyone with experience of the financial crisis in Ireland will find these events alarming to watch, but at least Australia has the advantage of not being a member of the Eurozone.

Being a member of the euro, Ireland was not free to float its currency so any economic downturn would always need to be followed by a painful deflation in wages and in the value of goods and assets. This, apart from the problem of being housed, is the reason I would not move back to Ireland permanently.

If Eurozone members are not able to create a system of wealth transfers like in other currency areas like Australia, the United States or even Germany it is a sad, but safe bet that the future has in store another episode like this for Ireland if not several.


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