I, Daniel Blake


I’m recommending the movie ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahWgxw9E_h4) to everyone I see, who I know is interested in social justice. It’s a terrifying picture of an inflexible system getting it so wrong. This is my first blog which features a movie, so I hope there are no spoilers. If there are, please forgive me as it will only be because of my enthusiasm about the importance of this movie.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is set in Newcastle and follows the journey of an ageing Daniel Blake through the frustratingly close minded social welfare system in the UK. Having never needed welfare before, the system is very confusing for Daniel. He gets bounced from one component to another, eventually being told he needs to do part of the process online which, for Daniel is like learning to speak another language.

One scene has stayed with me, it is horrifying in its lack of empathy and its show of rigidity. While Daniel is waiting to be seen by a claims officer, in one of his many attempts to navigate the system. A lady with 2 children begins to get upset about the decision made by one of the workers who refuses to give more of her time to sort it out. The worker has called security on the woman. Daniel attempts to intervene, by asking the person whose next to be seen if he minds waiting a little longer, he doesn’t. Daniel attempts to explain this to the security officer only to have himself and the lady ejected from the building.

In our own hyper vigilant social welfare system frustration, pain, embarrassment, mental illness all can often be met with the same unhelpful responses. A neighbour asked me to go with her to meet a housing officer to talk about an ongoing issue with noise coming from the apartment above. We hadn’t been in the meeting 10 minutes before the officer had accused my neighbour of being rude and hinted at her being aggressive. This was despite the fact that on numerous occasions officers had cancelled meetings without informing her, had promised particular actions with seemingly no follow through. The officers tone continued to be condescending throughout the meeting and we left with similar promises to previous officers, with no clear pathway to resolution.

You will have no doubt heard about, or maybe even received a Centrelink debt notice. It’s been levelled at Centrelink that at least a third of these notices have been sent erroneously. However, the onus is on the customer to prove that it is a mistake. Ok fair enough, however, according to a leaked internal memo and a whistle blowers account, when customers approach staff to work through the issue they have been instructed not to fix it even if they can see where the error has occurred. Instead they are instructed to send people to an online portal, back into the very system that caused the error in the first place.

A further example of systemic injustice; I’ve been working with a couple of colleagues on a research project looking at pathways out of marginalization. The research is going to include a look at how the system traumatizes those in it and exacerbates homelessness and other issues around marginalization. You may have seen recent reports coming out of the ‘world’s most livable city,’ Melbourne about rough sleepers on Flinders St and plans to ban homelessness in the city. I don’t normally like to payout on the media however they have added plenty of fuel to the fire of discontent around these people, leading to a reactive plan by the Lord Mayor to introduce a local law banning rough sleeping in the city. Many come to the city because of its services, meals and the support of a homeless community, making an already traumatizing experience that little more livable. The ban would effectively scatter a community and leave people with the potential of incurring fines and greater debt, adding to trauma and the length of their journey out of marginalization.

As people of goodwill and compassion, how are we to respond to unjust, impersonal, stigmatizing and traumatic systems that leave people feeling dehumanized and abandoned? I haven’t got a quick fix answer, I don’t think there is one. However, we can cultivate empathy in ourselves and others. We can learn to be less dismissive and more open to the other. We can advocate, lending our voice and ideas to change unjust systems. If we are in positions of influence we can plan and strategise new approaches that value ‘consumers’ as people of worth, value and so much untapped potential. Let us commit to working towards a system with these things at its core.