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The Tomatoes of Wrath

Opinion

When the pandemic fog lifts, will South Australians be prepared for an honest appraisement of our own realities? The tale of a $125 tomato has led Stephen Orr to ask some uncomfortable questions.

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You’d be a mug to write a column critical of the SA government now. You’d be a fool to suggest our ongoing “state of emergency” has anything to do with anything except the spread of this pernicious virus. After all, we beat it.

We triple-folded our toilet paper, tuned into Doomsday Preppers, drove past the $12-fiddy schniddy signs without becoming (overly) depressed or violent. And for this we have SA Health, the Professor, doctors, nurses and many others to thank. So it’d be utterly nuts for me to quote ex-Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel – you know, the line about never letting a serious crisis go to waste. It’d be equally stupid to suggest the newspaper puff pieces about our saint-like leaders have anything to do with an extended bask in the sun. And you’d be a drongo to suggest this Brigadoon-like dreamscape is, in our leaders’ eyes, preferable to dealing with lots of pre-COVID realities it’s been easier and more pleasant to ignore.

“We’re all in this together.” Well, perhaps. But wouldn’t that mean we’ve all lost work, or had our shifts cut back? That we’re all accumulating debt that, one day, will have to be repaid? That we’ve all had a chat to the bank about keeping our businesses open? Or that we all have safe, secure public service jobs?

Is SA different today than it was six months ago? I mean, actually different?

Cue harp, misty lens, and let’s flashback to January 2020,  me walking through what’s left of Rundle Mall’s Harris Scarfe, a closing down sale in the best tradition: mannequins (naked, the closest we get to truth), shelving and display units, a few sales assistants standing around talking. A down-at-heel zeitgeist – a mix of despair, of giving up after trying your best – leading us towards some minimum-wage, minimum-hours angst. A loop that seems to prefigure any virus, or bushfire. Economic bad news, the country’s worst employment figures, reliance on welfare and charity. None of which figure in tourism ads showing the “essence” of this state.

Cut to the South Australian border. Two 80-plus pensioners driving along, see a sign (‘have you got rid of your fruit?’), stop, ditch their apples and oranges, their few apricots, and approach a roadblock. The inspectors ask if they have any fruit, and my dad being my dad, having spent his life working, paying taxes, believing in doing the right thing, never lying or twisting the truth, says: “No, just three tomatoes.”

Eyes light up. Officer calls: “We’ve got one!” Like they’re fish. Ducks. The old people removed from their car (as it’s searched). Tomatoes gathered as evidence of this heinous crime. Then my parents are led into a room. the tomatoes placed before them as proof of how they, traitors to Australia, have set out to destroy our fruit industry. They’re told whatever they say can be used as evidence. Of what? A fruit-based jihad? These are old people – scared, treated like criminals. Still, when it comes to a government propping up a failing state with a raft of hundreds of taxes, fees and fines, nothing’s off, on or under the table.

The interrogation begins: Why did you bring these tomatoes into South Australia? My father: We weren’t sure if we were allowed, that’s why we told you.

Seems fair. Not like he rammed his Pajero through the roadblock in an attempt to hide his Camparis. My mother: Tomatoes are fruit? Now, whatever you make of the fine line between fruit and vegetable, I’m here to tell you that my parents didn’t know they were in the wrong. My mum walks miles across a hot car park to return her trolley. So, she misjudges, or to be clear, isn’t aware of the definition of fruit (“the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food”). Compared with the definition of a vegetable: “A plant, or part of a plant that can be eaten as food” (both my italics). See, the whole eating and food thing. Unfortunately, both of them are poor horticulturalists (and etymologists). My mother sees a “nice man” in the corner and asks, “Will we be fined?” He says, “No, don’t worry, she’ll be [$125] apples.”

Who are we? What are we good at? Shouldn’t we encourage the critical thinkers, the creatives?

What I’m talking about, I guess, is a (pre-COVID) loss of faith in government. The belief that if we do the right thing, they will. That if we pay our taxes there’ll be a hospital bed, not a ramped ambulance, when we need it. That Service SA provides what the name suggests. That, if the government benefits, financially, from allowing our city to stretch (endlessly) north-south, they might provide decent public transport. The idea that citizens and governments have rights and responsibilities (just like the dark days of COVID-19). That if my parents make a small error of age, there might be some understanding, some empathy from people who, I suspect, wouldn’t want their own parents treated this way.

Which brings me to Gilles Plains Primary School. Of course, it’s not called that any more. It’s not called anything any more. That’s because it sits, along Beatty Avenue, Hillcrest, locked up, an empty car park, a (lack of) tribute to the 100+ years it served the community. Meanwhile, the students have been moved to the nearby Avenues College (or their parents have seen the writing on the wall, and moved them to other schools). Not unusual. Between 2009 and 2013 SA school closures represented 40% of the national total. These 80 schools had to go to fund the upkeep of other schools, or build (a few) new schools. All the time, the idea of economising, saving, closing, like we’re the children of some Depression-era parents. This terrifying lack of vision that’s defined South Australia for decades. Who are we? What are we good at? Shouldn’t we encourage the critical thinkers, the creatives? Shouldn’t we give the tens of thousands of kids who head east some reason to stay here? Or alternatively, should we just fine old people, and shut down the critics?

So my parents are released from their roadside incarceration. Thinking, “We should be okay.” The inevitable follows (strange, how fast the wheels turn, when you owe them money). $375. Three tomatoes. $125 each. Now, you’ve probably guessed. I’m not really talking about tomatoes. I’m talking about the stamp duty, the transfer fees, the ESL, the payroll tax, the quick fixes (considering the state’s loss of $517 million GST revenue in the 2019/20 financial year). But I’m also talking about the citizens, squeezed for everything they’ve got. At which point we put our hand in our pocket, and it stays there, and the government gets creative.

But worse. My parents (indignant, but not pushovers) refuse to pay the money. They write a letter (which was never going to work) to the department explaining they’re old, a history of poor health, re-explaining the situation, stating, simply, they don’t have the money. They wait on an appeal (ie while the department waits them out). Weeks, months, constant phone calls, the department keeping notes (the veiled threats always useful), telling them to be patient, before they get a letter saying to pay up.

Meanwhile, back at Gilles Plains Primary (the gate swinging in the breeze), I contact the principal of the newly-formed Avenues College and ask, “Don’t you think we (including me, past scholars) should have some acknowledgement of a school that taught tens of thousands of kids over more than a hundred years?” Yes, good idea, I’m told. Then I wait, and wait, and ask again, and receive no reply. No idea that real people make communities, and their blood, sweat, tears and shared histories count for something. All I said was a cup of tea, a sausage sizzle, a chance for young and old to return to see what’s left, before it (like the mannequins at Harris Scarfe) is sold off. A letter from Education Minster full of the usual motherhood statements such as “delivering many benefits for the local community”, ending with the inevitable “a real estate agent will be appointed”.

In other words, tough. In other words, we decide. Signed, sealed and delivered in less than four years. Easy. Just ask the ex-kids at Enfield High, Gepps Cross, Northfield. Or dozens of others. Or (projecting a few years into the future), Springbank Secondary College. This, according to the playbook, is called a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Leaving us here. A state slowly closing down, the life-support (federal road-building funds?) switched to comatose, for now. As we elect drongos who have no ambition beyond party lines. As we, the tomato people, are left with the legacy of privatised infrastructure, low wages, never-enough-hours at work, an outer ring of social dysfunction that’s never been fixed. Meanwhile, the deck-chair shufflers seem obsessed with following rules, falling in line with workplace censorship designed to minimise dissent. In short, defining ourselves through limits instead of possibilities. All knit with a strange nineteenth-century obsession with class that makes us a function of our suburb, our school, our connections in the public service or within a small, ever-diminishing private realm (hence the need to send the kids east). Leaving, some of us, feeling like life in South Australia is Groundhog Day as a Harris Scarfe fire-sale, standing wondering if tomorrow will be any different.

And where, in all of this, is the vision? Some way to break out of the small-town mindset we can’t shake. And no, tall buildings, Lot 14 and freeways don’t make cities. They’re made from creative, risk-taking, trouble-making, question-asking people we do our best to shut down. Rewarding the second-rate while ignoring the talent, daring them to leave, go on, no-one will miss you. Making SA, and Adelaide, Australia’s Great Disappointment. A pity, really, because the joint started with so much promise.

And in the end, all we’re left with is a $125 tomato. Thousands of ranch-style boxes in which we can sit and watch the achievements, the cultural triumphs of other people and places.

So what will be left when the fog of war clears? When there are no more political photo ops with footballers, honouring our leaders for organising (in the midst of less important things) another cardboard cut-out Showdown?

Will we be ready to re-engage with the old world? The world of mannequins, tomatoes, and dysfunction? Maybe Rahm Emanuel was onto something? Maybe we’ll learn, as America is learning now, that the social contract and its rules, fail unless it (and they) are concerned with the truth, with the lives, the wellbeing of people beyond a crisis.

Stephen Orr is an Adelaide writer. His latest novel, This Excellent Machine, is a coming-of-age novel in the most fibro tradition.

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