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Carole Lander attended the recent FGFP (Fair Go For Pensioners) rally in Melbourne, where she encountered Anne Learmonth, a long-time campaigner for human rights and remarkably crafty woman…
While you would expect to see a crowd of older citizens at a rally organised by Fair Go for Pensioners Inc. (FGFP), on Wednesday 20 May, a group of all ages gathered on the Victorian State Library steps to protest the punitive measures served up by the Federal, and to some degree, the State budgets. The banners on display were a reminder that someone receiving a pension might well be unemployed or a single mother, as well those on the aged pension.
A closer inspection of those banners revealed the fine needlework of Anne Learmonth, a long-time campaigner for human rights and also a skilled craftsperson. Learmonth prefers to call herself a maker, not an artist, and what she makes (with fabric, wool and other threads) has been exhibited widely for four decades. In 1975, she was chosen to be in the first ever craft exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. “Yes, it was the seventies when macramé ruled, but I’m proud to say I’ve never made a string pot-holder!” Learmonth jokes.
Learmonth followed in the footsteps of parents who had a strong social conscience. She recalls joining in their discussions at the end of World War II about how to set up a United Nations. Her mother worked as a clerk to help support the family and send her two daughters to university in the 1960s. Even when Learmonth married and started her own family, she took it as a given that she too would pursue a career. Community arts became her choice of work, which enabled her to share her creativity with many community organisations. She has been a member of a variety of groups demanding social justice and now is treasurer of FGFP.
Standing under the FGFP banner that Learmonth created, Emma King, CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS), opened the rally, titled “Stop the war on the poor.” Under another of Learmonth’s banners, Kerry Davies expressed the view of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC). They are appalled that cuts to single income family payments mean that women parenting alone, who have absorbed successive budget cuts from both sides of government, stand to lose another $58 per week. Budget 2015’s childcare package relies on this cut to vulnerable families, reducing existing childcare entitlements and increasing out of pocket costs for low-income parents.
“This is shortsighted, cruel legislation, which effectively shuts more single-mother families out of the labour market and makes it easier for non-resident parents to dodge their financial responsibilities, leaving women and children in danger of greater poverty,” said Davies.
Learmonth’s two daughters are working adults, but she has plenty of experience of being a single mother. Living alone now and existing on a pension, Learmonth struggles to cover expenses. When asked to make a piece of craft for an exhibition she is always grateful if the cost of materials are paid by the organisers, as they were for a recent one at Gasworks Arts Park in South Melbourne (see image). As for housing, she bought an old shop with accommodation attached back in the day when inner-city suburb Northcote was definitely not popular and did not attract the high council rates of today. Learmonth is typical of many pensioners whose only assets are tied up in their dwelling. She empathises with Jeff Fiedler, Manager of Housing for the Aged Action Group Inc. (HAAG), who also spoke at the rally. He expressed gratitude that the Andrews State government has funded their Home at Last service for older people at risk of homelessness for another four years, but said, “Unfortunately the State budget did not provide any funding for urgently needed expansion of new public housing stock and the Federal government doesn’t even acknowledge that there’s a housing crisis!”
The Unemployment Union also stood under a banner created by Learmonth. Marilyn King, volunteer president of Willing Older Workers, commented, “Coming from a group who have members aged 50 and over, we find that being long-term unemployed has led to people becoming homeless and ill.”
Learmonth needs a regular therapeutic massage to alleviate her arthritis, but her private health insurer recently dropped its rebates for this service. When combined with budgets that make the future of the elderly even more bleak, this sort of cut makes people like Anne Learmonth feel very vulnerable. Despite this, she is determined to battle on, and marched determinedly (walking stick in hand) from the State Library to Fed Square to end the rally. People looked admiringly at the embroidered banners, a cut above the usual ones cobbled together on cardboard. But then, Learmonth has always produced craft of which she can be proud.