‘I remember the first time we found welfare money in our bank account shortly after our arrival in Australia,’ South Australian Senator Lucy Gichuhi said this week in an inspirational first speech. ‘We were terrified because we were not used to receiving money for nothing from strangers. All I knew was that the only time you get money is when you work for it. I said to my husband, “We will have to return it.”‘
Gichuhi is Australia’s first black African-born senator. She arrived in Australia on a ‘warm summer day in 1999,’ and was immediately struck by Australia’s successful melting pot. ‘Right in that airport, I encountered Australians, Europeans, Asians and Africans from all over the world, living and working together harmoniously.’
Nevertheless, Gichuhi explains the difficulty of financial management and balancing work, home life and raising young children. In particular, she was shocked by our welfare system – the idea of paying people money to not work made no sense.
‘The message was quite clear: I could choose to be a victim and receive a handout for a long time, or I could choose the more challenging but empowering road and find a job and learn how to balance work and family life,’ Gichuhi said. In the end, she chose empowerment, ‘I had to put an end to this tedious welfare-work dance… I chose to work, even if that meant going back to school and changing my career path to suit my circumstances.’
Quoting from John Howard’s first speech, Gichuhi derides our welfare trap destroying opportunity and choice. ‘This trap creates stress on those who soon discover they are unable to find a way out. Welfare now becomes their only choice. This creates a welfare-dependent syndrome that could be intergenerational.’
Gichuhi also hits out at the corporate welfare trap: ‘As an accountant, I believe the corporate welfare mentality should be traded for a sustainable business model mentality.’
Gichuhi has ‘learnt that spending money you have not worked for fundamentally changes who you are and inhibits your capacity and ability to become all you could be.’ In the end, ‘a job is the best form of welfare’.
Gichuhi grew up on the beautiful slopes of Mount Kenya, where she discovered that ‘true poverty was when a person is unable to freely choose their own destiny. It is when a person does not have options.’ She says her:
Role as a senator is to ensure in any way I can, great or small, that Australia does not slip into the latter form of poverty. Most importantly, Australian civil institutions, such as the legal, political, electoral and socioeconomic institutions, must remain transparent and accountable to every Australian.
Gichuhi, a first generation immigrant, has come to see what many Australians born here can miss. The great opportunities provided by a free, democratic country. But also seen the dangers of a welfare system that punishes work and disempowers. The new senator from South Australia is one to watch.
Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. He Tweets at @matthewlesh.
Read our earlier report on the racism of the coverage of Lucy’s speech here.
Illustration: Lucy Gichuhi/Facebook.
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