Why U.S. anti-poverty campaigner Linda Tirado is worried about Australia

Linda Tirado had to travel to Ohio to have an abortion.

Linda Tirado had to travel to Ohio to have an abortion. Photo: Scott Suchman

Linda Tirado is in the green room of the ABC on Monday night during the broadcast of Q&A and she is getting madder and madder; and it's not just from hearing #IStandWithDuncan Duncan Storrar be real in the audience that evening.

Tirado, a US anti-poverty campaigner (a job we should all do), is overwhelmed by what Storrar, the 45 year-old Geelong father of two and part-time truck driver had to say about the federal government's planned tax cuts.

"You're gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people. Why don't I get it? Why do they get it?" he asked assistant treasurer Kelly O'Dwyer.

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"I've got a disability and a low education - that means I've spent my whole life working off a minimum wage. You're gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people. If you lift my tax-free threshold, that changes my life. That means that I get to say to my little girls, 'Daddy's not broke this weekend, we can go to the pictures.' Rich people don't even notice their tax-free threshold lift."

So, Duncan Storrar is talking, Kelly O'Dwyer is responding and Tirado is sitting in the green room, furious. She's wondering exactly what's been happening to Australia over the last 12 months.

"Obviously I cannot tell you what a hero he is and what a sacrifice he made. To say something like that in public, to say you don't make enough to make ends meet, that is incredibly brave."

But she fears the change she has seen in the Australian political landscape since she was last here. She's here as part of the Anti-Poverty Network's conference but is keen to stay a little longer and cover the Australian election from the eyes of a survivor of the US class war.

Yes, Tirado is wondering how quickly the Australia she loves is turning into America. Not the good bits of America. The Trump bits of America. Or the Bush bits of America. Even the Romney parts of America.

The advice from Malcolm Turnbull that parents should shell out to buy their children a house? That, she says, is straight from the Mitt Romney handbook, when he told college students in Ohio: "We've always encouraged young people: take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business."

And Hockey's lifters and leaners? That's matched only by US Republican Paul Ryan's makers and takers although, as Tirado admits, Ryan's having to backtrack these days.

Tirado was repelled by the way that Kelly O'Dwyer and Innes Willox, of the Australian Industry Group, spoke to Duncan Storrar. Heartless, thoughtless, harsh, lacking in respect.

And as she points out, it might be more appropriate to raise the taxes of the very wealthy to fund welfare: "Gina Rinehart will keep her homes and her cars even if Newstart is raised."

Her point about respect? She first made it in Australia when she was the Q&A hotseat herself and that night it certainly was damn hot. Zaky Mallah – found not guilty of terrorism charges levelled against him – was in the audience asking questions and Australian politicians were overwrought.

As Tirado said then: "In America, we have this idea of meritocracy. If you deserve it, you will have it. If you don't have it, it is because you don't deserve it and the fact remains 45 million Americans are living in poverty, most of those people are in work. They're holding down multiple jobs and we call them lazy. By definition anybody who works three jobs is not lazy and if you think so I dare you to get out of your air conditioned office and try it for yourself."

That's the kind of conversation she fears is creeping into Australian political discourse.

Then Tirado was just 32 and freshly in the public eye. In 2013, she'd written a comment on an online forum, answering one of those patronising questions: Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?

You know those forums which ask questions that make you want to lose your mind? She went much better and wrote an essay in response: 'Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts'. Read by eight million people. Republished everywhere. A few months later, she was meeting Barack Obama, she was writing Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. She was still working two poorly-paid jobs in hospitality in Ohio while supporting her family, husband Tom and two children.

Tirado knows what Duncan's life is like because she's lived it.

As she wrote in her essay:

"Rest is a luxury for the rich. I get up at 6AM, go to school (I have a full courseload, but I only have to go to two in-person classes) then work, then I get the kids, then I pick up my husband, then I have half an hour to change and go to Job 2.

"I get home from that at around 1230AM, then I have the rest of my classes and work to tend to. I'm in bed by 3. This isn't every day, I have two days off a week from each of my obligations. I use that time to clean the house and soothe Mr. Martini and see the kids for longer than an hour and catch up on schoolwork.

"Those nights I'm in bed by midnight, but if I go to bed too early I won't be able to stay up the other nights because I'll fuck my pattern up, and I drive an hour home from Job 2 so I can't afford to be sleepy."

That post and her book brought her attention and now fame but Tirado is still getting used to her new life as writer, advocate, campaigner, speaker.

"I worked at Burger King and Hungry Jack's. To go from a nightcook in backwoods Utah to having opinions on superannuation and tax, my life's been a bit of a ride."

Now we just have to find someone who can find her a ride along the campaign trail.

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