Month: January 2014

Australia 2035 – a glimpse into our privatised future

You wake with that falling sensation and the feeling something is wrong.  Taking a few seconds for your brain to engage, you realise the light coming through the blinds is a little too bright.  You glance at the bedside clock to see the digits flashing 3:13. You didn’t get to bed until after 2:00am, working on that project for the boss.

3:13 flashes 3:13 – Damn, the power went off again last night, you just knew you should have set the alarm on the MFD.  You call “time” and the MFD display lights-up “8:11”. “Shit!”.  Leaping from bed you race to the shower, yelling to the kids to get up.

You decide for 60 degrees 2 minutes.  The readout tells you they cost of the water and power will be $4.80.  You stop and think for a second, reducing the water temp to 50, the display changes to $4.35.  30 seconds shorter and the cost comes down to $3:60 – good enough.  You step into the shower and start lathering-up.

Almost too soon, the water stops.  You still fully haven’t washed all the soap out of your hair or eyes. You consider another 10 second burst, but can’t justify the $2.00 flag-fall.  You step from the shower remembering to set the child-lock this time “Can’t afford $45 showers – sorry kids” you think to yourself as you rapidly towel yourself dry.  Racing back to the bedroom to get changed, on the way yelling at the kids; “I told you to get up.  We’re late!”.

You hear the kids getting-up as the MFD projects traffic conditions onto your wall.  Traffic volume already approaching 88% arterial, with 22kph speed instruction already being broadcast across the network.  The bike trip is out once volume exceeds 70% – don’t know why some people bother between the traffic, road rage and pollution.

Too late to catch the bus – yet another $18 since it was privatised, so your only option is driving.  Even then you’re looking at a 90 min trip, which will make you late by 25 mins, that’s another $8.00 in lost wages.  MFD says fast toll lanes are running at only 21%, averaging 90kph, but even at that speed you’d still be up for $32 for the 10km trip.  Sure you may just make it to work on-time but the cost of the toll outweighs the wages loss – the boss won’t be happy but she’ll survive.

Dressing, you hear the shower running along with the usual complaining from the kids about a lack of time to wash.  “Stop whining.  You know we can’t afford longer showers any more with the aquifers gone and all the water coming from desal.  Just get on with it, we’re running late”.

In the background you hear the familiar chime of the fridge yelling you to select power reduction mode before the the higher tariff changes kick-in.  Cursing and half-dressed, you run to the fridge, arriving 2 seconds too late.  The fridge has switched over to $6kwh.  Even if you stop it now, the contract states you’ll still be charged for a whole day, so you decide to leave it running, but vow to turn it off again tomorrow morning, the thermal mass should keep the food cold enough, you hope.

15 mins later, hair still wet, kids partially dressed, you bundle the kids into the car.  The GPS HUD prompts you for a destination.  School and work you enter in quick succession.  The HUD splashes the route across the windscreen highlighting bottlecks and average traffic volumes/speed for various routes.  Average speed is now reduced to 16kpm and volume over 90%.  “Shit!”  Tolling prices increase corresponding to traffic volume, to account for the supposed “wear and tear” on the privatised roads.  Thanks to time of day tolling, if you’d started your tip on time it would have cost $21 and taken 40 mins, but thanks to the extra traffic congestion caused by lanes now being used as private PAYG toll lanes, the HUD is now presenting several options – 116 mins / $35 in usage tolls or 21 mins / $52.

You decide for the slower, cheaper option because you can’t justify the expense.  The car starts itself and turns left out of the driveway toward the slow road and all the traffic.  “Dad!” come two cries in unison from the back seat.  “Why can’t we ever take the fast lane?  Henry’s mum always…”

“Enough!  Please.  I’m sick of hearing about Henry and how lucky he is!  You both know he has a mum and a dad and they have enough money to afford proper Internet and can both work from home.  You know we don’t have as much money now your mum’s gone.  I have to to travel work every day.  Be thankful we can afford a car.” (for now, you think to yourself)

“But it’s not fair.  I’d like just once to be able to afford proper Internet”.  Cries Elle, your eldest.

“So do I dear, so do I.  But life isn’t fair.  Some people have money and it allows them to make more money.  When I was a kid we used to have lots of things.  We used to own most of these things.  Roads were free to use, there were public schools that offered an education to everyone…”

“But you used to pay for everyone else, didn’t you?” William (your youngest) chimes in.  “That’s Socialism and that’s bad – my teacher Mr Franks said so.”

“Yep Will, that’s Socialism and many people will tell you it is bad to pay have to for other people, for the things they do.  To pay for resources and stuff you don’t use.  But you know, looking back now, it did seem to work.”.  The HUD is displaying an average speed of 14kph now and a cost of $45, thanks to the extra congestion tax.  You’re ruing the decision not to take the privatised fast lane now – the HUD reminds you you could be at work in just 18 mins for only $49.

“Oh c’mon Dad!  States Elle firmly.  “You can’t tell me paying over a quarter of your wages in tax to the government was a good thing?  What did they ever do with it?  Squandered it on dole bludgers and refugees!  Surely life is much better now you don’t have to pay from everyone else and especially now you don’t have to pay any tax?”

Still contemplating the time-saving lane change, you turn to face Elle; “Of course life is better now in many ways.  We only pay for what we use – everyone does.  Those who work hardest and get ahead get the rewards for their effort, so they can afford to not sit in this traffic, they can afford to use the private fast lanes or if they’re really fortunate – work from home on the Internet.”

“They must be lucky” claims William.

“No Will, they work very hard, and that hard work affords them those kinds of benefits”.

“But you work hard too Dad.  You sometimes don’t come home until 8 o’clock and I often hear you using the MFD late at night talking to your boss.  Surely with you working so hard, you should be making lots of money?”, questions Elle.

The HUD now flashes a red warning – a minor collision ahead caused by a software glitch.  The vehicle is stopped while the company installs a patch.  Average speed is dropping and congestion fees hiking by the minute, “Car – fast lane authorisation”.  The HUD acknowledges the instruction, changing to green as your car slides smoothly into the fast lane. Amazingly, you feel much more relaxed in the fast lane, even the road feels smoother.

“Yay!  Go Dad!”, yell the kids.  You smile but in the back our your mind you’re seeing the price register.  $72 for that lane change, yet it was only $48 a few seconds before that.  Then you remember the company uses real-time traffic monitoring and demand-driven pricing.  As soon as the algorithms became aware of the hold-up the demand for the fast lane increased, so they could jack the price up because commuters would pay it.  “Clever bastards”, you think.

Turning back to the kids, “True, I do work hard and I am trying to get ahead, but finding and keeping a job is getting harder. More and more jobs are being automated, the price of everything keeps going-up.  Even this trip – back when I was young a trip like this used to take around 10-15 mins and all it would cost me was the petrol I used.  Or I could catch public transport for around $3 and it would take 25 mins.”

“Public Transport!?!” both kids blurt-out simultaneously.  “Talk about the olden days!” says Will.

“Showing your age Dad”, laughs Elle.

Before you can object the car decelerates and pulls from the line of traffic. Cars in the general toll lanes slow to give you priority access.  You get a warm feeling of superiority but you can’t help seeing the glares of resentment from some of the other drivers.  You feel the car bump across the lanes toward the school “Ahh… so the fast lane is smoother! you think to yourself as the car slides to the front of the kid’s private school.

The door opens and the kids both leap out, “Seeya Dad!” they both yell.  Elle turns and fixes you with a stare, “Not too late tonight please Dad.  I know how much this trip cost, but it would be nice to see you for dinner, for a change”.

You manage to squeeze out “I’ll see what I can do, love” just before the door closes itself and they car glides back into traffic again.  You catch the look from the drivers in the slow lanes again; envy, contempt, disgust.

The car reaches the fast lane and starts to accelerate, the HUD says 12 mins to work and $69 for the journey, you’ll make it to work on time today.  The company policy is that you must be at work on time or you are docked.  Slowly it occurs to you how unfair this policy is.  If you’re late you get docked, but they don’t pay you extra for all the work you do after hours or late at night – that’s kinda expected by the company, and of course you do it because you can’t survive without a job.

Sitting back, the image of your daughter’s face replays in your mind “I know how much this trip cost…”.  You realise that the whole exercise of waking-up and going to work has so far cost you over $100.  That equates to more than 5 hours work and you still haven’t travelled home yet.  No lunch again for you today – can’t afford it.  Still, you consider yourself a lot more fortunate that many others who are out of work, especially since the government stopped paying the dole.

Elle’s face again – “Showing your age Dad”.

“Yes I’m afraid I am”, you say to yourself aloud.  The towers of the CBD loom visible now through the haze of pollution surrounding the city, growing larger with each second.  You recall when those towers were half the size, when you could see the towers from 50 kilometres away, before they deregulated away all the green tape.  You remember riding public bus to work just for a few bucks, or even driving on roads without regulated fast and slow lanes – you laugh now at the freedom of a road with no congestion surcharge being paid to the owner of the road.  Remember when you never had to negotiate your wage, it was done for you by a union and they fought for things like weekends off and penalty rates for working long of unsociable hours.

Ahh… a pipe dream, if only you could telecommute – you start to reminisce, to a time when the Internet cheap and was affordable for most people, when kids were able to go to public school for free, when the government somehow provided things for everyone to use; hospitals, police, emergency services, public facilities.  Back in the days before it was all privatised, when tax was abolished and everyone decided it would be more efficient to pay only for the things you use, rather than paying for everyone else.  What a great bonus that would be, reduced taxes means freedom for businesses to create more jobs, freedom and flexibility for workers, you could choose where to spend your own money rather than a government dictating or spending it on bludgers and welfare cheats.  All this would naturally enhance economic growth – a win/win situation in which everyone benefits.

The MFD shocks you from your reverie with the ringtone your wife always loved.  It’s your boss calling.  You’re 2 mins away from the office, do you answer it or you you take a few more mins to relax?  You decide to cancel the call and relax, but a few seconds later you receive a priority vid message from your boss.

“Hi Greg.  I thought I should call you and advise you not to bother coming-in to the office today.  Just between you and me, the company believes your salary is too high and they want to review it.  Take the day off mate, oh… without pay of course, and think about whether you can afford to reduce $4 per hour from your wage or increase your productivity up to the standard 60 hours per week for your current salary.  Thanks mate, I’ll expect your answer later tonight.”.

“Car.  Turn around and go home.”  The HUD acknowledges your instruction and displays several routes on the windscreen, you choose the longest and the cheapest, knowing you’re in no rush and not knowing when you’ll be in a position to pay the next bill – $26 on top of the $70 you’ve already paid to get to work.  Oh well, at least you won’t have to pay the $45 parking today.

You lean back in the seat to ponder whether you can work more hours or take the pay cut instead.  Sleep creeps upon you slowly with Will’s words reverberating inside your head; “That’s Socialism and that’s bad”.

As you drift off to sleep you start to question, for the first time in many years – if that statement was ever true, or whether it was simply a lie.