I'm in the waiting area at Centrelink in Abbotsford silently considering the chaotic and disjointed energy of the room. Most of my correspondence with Centrelink is online these days and it's rare that I enter these buildings.
An old blue-haired woman with a thick accent, possibly Eastern European, is wandering around the room, refusing to take a number, and insisting that somebody help revive her pension. She's pacing around the waiting area in a clear plastic poncho, though it hasn't been raining. "It's been cut-off," she gravely keeps repeating. Numerous staff members advise her to sit and wait but she evades them, aiming herself at the desks where the claims are processed.
A heavy-set man in faded blue jeans, a leather belt and a white, tucked-in polo shirt sits down next to me and starts to mutter in frustration. "Fucken idiots make ya wait all fucken day." He glances at me for approval or empathy but I only smile sheepishly, not wanting to add fuel to any stray flames.
The most intimidating of the bunch is a huge bald man seated at one of the phones, barking at someone in the Centrelink call centre.
Eventually my turn comes and the woman behind the desk talks to me about my Youth Allowance payment. She begins to list the options available to me with robotic professionalism. I haven't gained the required rapport to be treated like an individual yet and she is addressing me with a memorised script. I represent a number in the system, nothing more.
It's difficult to hear her for the large man bellowing into the phone. He looks like he eats a lot of meat and potatoes. He must be 20 metres away, demanding his payment. "I just need some fucken money, cunt!" he's shouting at the person on the other end. He's already been warned once to keep it down and watch his language.
The woman dealing with me has her back to the man but cringes at the word "cunt." She's maintaining her professionalism, continuing her explanation over the building aggression, but her voice is drowned out by the man's threats. She closes one eye as if a power drill is being forced into her ear and she is unable to move her head away from it.
"Cunt, if you don't give me some fucken money I'm gonna go fucken apeshit! I'll start throwin' chairs round and shit... I'll fucken smash every computer in this place!"
Everyone is looking at him now. 50 or 60 people in a large, open plan government office space and the attached waiting room are staring at the back of his neck. It appears as wide as my waist, each fist the size of my head. His size and aggression levels scream out that he's not used to being told no.
"No, no, fucken no! That's all ya been fucken tellin' me you fucken cunt!"
I don't imagine he's had much experience with Centrelink because he seems hell-bent on a fight rather than a swindle. That's not the way to get paid in this place.
My interview has come to a pause and we give our undivided attention to the yelling beast. The entire building watching his rage steaming towards violence. If all the men and women in the room tried to physically contain him I don't know if we'd manage. I wonder if he's on amphetamines.
He slams the phone down hard, picks up the first chair he sees and launches it into an unoccupied desk. He flexes his arms and lets out a tormented roar like a cartoon hulk. He then runs towards the nearest desk and throws a knock-out punch at a computer screen. The screen protrudes from the desk on a telescopic metal arm and he punches it again, this time so hard that it flops limp over the corner of the desk, only held off the ground by bundled electricity cords.
People start shrieking and scrambling to get out of his way. The braver men and women stand at the doors and usher people out, front and back. Some crouch down behind desks while others run fast for the exits. The sudden movements spur the man on and he carries his huge chest and arms across the room in big loping strides, punching out a few more computers. They are left limp and hanging like lifeless heads on broken necks.
The woman who's been telling me about my Youth Allowance has snapped out of robot mode and found a new urgency for living. She is standing up and telling me to do the same, that we need to get out of there. Her bored, apathetic speech has transformed to urgent pragmatism.
She urges me to get out of the building as fast as I can, then runs out the door without looking back. I duck down under her desk and shove my Youth Allowance documents into my bag, deciding to wait and see what eventuates. I look around the room at all the screaming, panicking people and am reminded of the CCTV footage in Bowling For Columbine.
Somewhat belatedly, I begin to assess my own safety. I stand up and look at the man, livid and violent, punching the shit out of inanimate electronic objects. I catch his eye and feel scared. His face is possessed and not responsive, but there is lucidity in his rage. He is determined to smash everything in his path and wants no interruptions. He is beyond reason, discussion or consolation. It appears that this situation will only be solved with more violence.
I turn and head out the back door with the rest of them.
There is a crowd gathered out the front, some concerned and distressed, some laughing. Nobody is hurt. A woman in a Centrelink uniform is telling everybody to clear the front doors because the police are on their way and will need to get through. The building is completely empty now, except for the angry man pacing in circles, his hands balled into fists and his brow contorted. He takes quick, shallow breaths. I press my face to the glass window at the front and watch him run towards another computer and punch it hard. There must be twenty or thirty computers in there and he has punched them all at least once.
Another customer, clearly frustrated at losing his place in the queue, begins to abuse the woman clearing the front door.
"I just lost my fucken place in the queue and I'm not gonna' get fucken paid now!"
The woman curtly explains that she can't do anything about it because all the computers have been smashed and he'll just have to go to another Centrelink office. The man wanders from the doorway mumbling frustratedly.
"One fucken wanker comes and ruins everyone's payday."
Two unmarked police cars speed to the front doors and a troupe of plain-clothed cops run in with tasers and mace at the ready. We watch through the window. I can't hear what they are saying but soon the big violent man is lying on the ground with his hands behind his back. Four cops pounce on him in unison and cuff him. I'm shocked that they don't rough him up.
The police complete their task with efficiency and conviction but the crowd regards them with fear and distrust. Most keep their heads down and walk away in search of the next closest Centrelink office.
The Centrelink staff visibly brighten. They don't have to process any more of society's liabilities today and this is probably the most interesting thing that has ever happened inside the building.
I unlock my bike and wheel it away. I can't ride it yet because cops are everywhere and I don't have a helmet. I'm not sure whether my documents have been processed or not.
I can't help but feel for the man who smashed everything. He's still inside, handcuffed, laying on the government carpet. It takes both determination and desperation to actually receive your right to a Centrelink payment. There are many nuances and technicalities and information varies according to the staff member. It can depend on how you present yourself, your tone, your eloquence, your situation, the experience of the staff member, their regard for you, their regard for the institution and, most of all, their mood. Though it often feels petty and sad it is a firm lesson in diplomacy that keeps getting harder, fortnight after fortnight, year after year.
On the scheme of things it's a pathetic little skirmish for a payment that still leaves you below the poverty line but then again, welfare accounts for almost a quarter of all government spending. And as the Tories constantly remind us: "The age of entitlement is over."
I wheel my bike down a side street, get on, and start riding.
Illustrations by Katie Parrish Gandrabur
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