March 2023


Three dollars, 25 years and three conversations

By Elliot Perlman
The author on the inspiration behind his novel ‘Three Dollars’, and the reception of its neoliberalism critiques by prominent figures

It was a late Saturday morning in the winter of 1995. I had gone to the supermarket nearest my flat in inner south-eastern suburban Melbourne to buy a version of the single man’s standard weekly groceries. What the various items I put in the supermarket trolley had in common was that they were all chosen, consciously or otherwise, because they could be consumed without much preparation. Living alone, the last thing I wanted was to spend time in the evening preparing batches of food that I knew in advance – because I had eaten my own cooking before – were going to taste awful.

I was half asleep, my trolley and I trapped incongruously in the pet-food aisle – I did not have a pet – when I thought I saw, mirage-like, an extremely attractive young woman in the distance who might or might not have been the adult version of a special friend I’d had in primary school when I was about 10.

Immaculately dressed in a pleated skirt and perfectly groomed right down to her tastefully painted weapons-grade fingernails, she looked as though life had been kind to her, as though her parents had her airlifted at the end of Year 6 on a jet stream of their own deep aspirations from our crowded little state primary school to a high-walled leafy green private school for young ladies, where she had survived a superficially elegant girls-only re-enactment of Lord of the Flies. From here I imagined her going to university, enrolling in a liberal arts degree and swallowing a haphazardly manicured version of Western Civilisation seasoned with disconcertingly jagged flakes of Deconstruction. After this I envisioned her marrying “well” to a young man from a well-to-do family, who at that very moment was nonchalantly double-parking his imported car containing their two adorable children.

I wondered if that really was her and was about to test my speculations by reintroducing myself when I caught my unshaven reflection in the chrome of the dairy cabinet. Counting the circles around my eyes like someone trying to calculate the age of a felled tree, I thought better of it. She might not remember me or, far worse, she might.

At the front of the checkout aisle, I handed over my credit card. The teenager working the checkout swiped my card quite a few times before eventually saying, “Sorry, there seems to be something wrong with your card.” By this stage, people in other faster moving aisles were starting to look at our aisle, at the ever-lengthening queue behind me, at the checkout worker, and particularly at me. I suggested there had to be something wrong with the scanner or the supermarket’s computer. I asked her with a hint of Raymond Carveresque desperation in my voice to “please swipe my credit card again, please”. I could pay for these measly groceries. I had a job. I had two university degrees designed by society to prevent scenes like the one I was living through from happening. Yes, the pay was appalling but it was regular and even the bank respected that. This problem simply had to reside on the other side of the transaction.

As the checkout operator tried swiping my card again, I turned briefly to assess just how many were watching the melodrama I was starring in. Two places in the queue behind me, with a magnificent view of the whole thing, was the perfectly groomed friend from my past. When the next attempt to debit my credit card also failed, the operator said, sufficiently audibly to not disappoint all those forced to gather around who had earned a right to see my embarrassment, “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t let you take the groceries. There seems to be something wrong with your credit card.” With more than 50 eyes fixed on me I took the card and fled the supermarket empty-handed without checking who was looking.

I headed to my bank’s nearest ATM to check my balance. I had three dollars.

If I, a single, tertiary-educated man with a job, had felt embarrassed, even humiliated, how much worse would it be for a family with children to be in this position? How much worse if the mother or father, or worse still, a single parent, lost their job? What were the pressures on them to keep their jobs and how easily could the unscrupulous exploit an employee in a time of ever-increasing economic disenfranchisement? How would that affect the view they had of themselves and of each other? I could see it, see how this trivial event – a microcosm of the uneasy marriage of the personal and the socioeconomic – could tell a much bigger story, the story of everything that was going on around me.

I went to my desk, sat down and wrote by hand the opening lines, “Every nine and a half years I see Amanda … Most recently was today. I had three dollars.”

Inspiration. If it alights on you there’s no telling where it will take you. But in the case of my first novel, Three Dollars, published 25 years ago this month, it was not only inspiration that took me to it. The supermarket incident, the seed if you like, for my novel had fallen on soil tilled long before I was born.

My grandparents came from Eastern Europe where, as Jews, they were subjected to anti-Semitic hostility and discrimination in relatively calm times, and to pogroms, massacres, spontaneous or organised by the state, and orgies of rape and violence in turbulent times. The perceived differentness of the Jews, their never-ending foreignness, despite having lived there for a thousand years, was driven home to them on a daily basis.

This was what led my grandparents to come to Australia almost exactly a century ago. Then came the largest massacre of them all, the Holocaust, in which they lost almost every member of the large families they had left behind. Aware of their vulnerability, they encouraged their offspring to obtain readily transportable university educations; my mother became an English, French and history teacher, my father a theoretical physicist.

The idea that changes in sociopolitical or economic circumstances could have incredibly far-reaching consequences was therefore not something I only vaguely intuited. It was openly discussed at our kitchen table in a house where I remember, at eight years old, two thick red wax candles, effigies of Henry Bolte and Billy McMahon, melting through the night long past Whitlam’s declaration of victory in November 1972, the election that ended 23 years of continuous rule of the Liberal–Country Party (as it was then) coalition.

During my final years of secondary school in the late 1970s and early ’80s there was a change in government in two countries that was to have enormous political, cultural, historical and economic consequences for Australia. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in the United Kingdom, and, in 1980, Ronald Reagan became president of the United States, each of them on the right of their respective country’s political spectrum. But this was not simply the passing of the baton from left-leaning centrist parties to right-leaning centrist parties along the lines of the previous 80 years of the 20th century. Thatcher and Reagan were not simply passing leaders, temporary placeholders in the history of their respective parties, but fierce devotees of the ideology now called neoliberalism (or, as it was called for a time in Australia, economic rationalism). And it wasn’t a temporary ascendancy in the battle of ideas. It was a thorough vanquishing that was to last at least 40 years.

The essence of the neoliberal revolution was a fetishisation of that place where demand and supply meet: the market. Society was replaced by the economy and the economy meant the market. The neoliberal economic and social policies instituted by Thatcher and Reagan included the freeing of trade between countries, that is, the abolition of protection, and the consequent flight of manufacturing jobs to low labour-cost countries, the reduction of the role of the state in society and the economy, and, as a corollary, deregulation, privatisation of public services and utilities, and a decrease in government spending. Neoliberalism was based on the underlying premise that the economic welfare of the individual, and, to the extent that this affects it, their social welfare, was the responsibility of that individual and not of the state. The result in Western countries has been a vast loss of full-time permanent, secure, manufacturing jobs and their partial replacement by a Darwinian jungle of temporary and part-time gig jobs, cuts in government spending in health and education, and an erosion of the social safety net.

This has led to levels of inequality in Australia not seen for about a century. In 2019, the wealthiest 10 per cent of households had a little under 50 per cent of all private wealth. The next wealthiest 30 per cent had a little under 40 per cent of all wealth, while the majority – the lowest 60 per cent of households by wealth – had just 17 per cent of all wealth.

By the time I got to university there was already a definite bias in the way my first degree – economics – was being taught. There seemed to be more time and certainly more vigorous emphasis on what was variously called free-market, supply side, or neo-classical economics than there was on Keynesian economics, the central tenet of which is that government intervention in the economy can stabilise the volatility inherent in capitalism, thereby protecting people and businesses from the most violent spasms of the market.

So successful was neoliberalism, not just electorally but in terms of its grip on the zeitgeist, that the social democratic parties of the world turned their backs nearly 180 degrees on their ideological heritage to become parties of neoliberal-lite in a shape-shifting movement known as “the Third Way”. In the US, its best known proponent was Bill Clinton. In the UK, the Third Way’s New Labour was the child of Tony Blair, who was influenced before coming into office by the Australian Labor Party’s eviscerating, charismatic king of the parliamentary put-down, Paul Keating. As treasurer and then prime minister, this Labor hero championed privatisation, free markets, globalisation and deregulation while slashing the public service and arguing for tax cuts and budget surpluses. Yes, you read correctly: he remains a Labor hero.

It was a time for people to be either winners or losers. Whichever you were, you deserved it. While my early youth might have been in the hopeful, brightly coloured Sesame Street, Life-Be-In-It Whitlam nation-building years, I had come of age, not merely as an adult but also as a reader and then an aspiring writer, in an era characterised by the triumph of neoliberalism. One by one, Clinton, Blair and Keating turned their backs on their ideological heritage – championing privatisation, free markets, globalisation and deregulation – to embrace their Third Way.

It was into this climate that I entered the workforce, initially as a junior solicitor in a couple of large commercial firms in Melbourne. I saw the best minds of my generation swallow neoliberalism unquestioningly; the cashed-up, freshly minted platoons of graduates, the Kennett boys and Keating girls trumpeting the free-market revolution with all the zeal of the young Bolsheviks falling in behind Lenin. Maybe for some of them, maybe for most of them, it was the desire to conform, more than any ideological commitment that led them to where they were – that and the thrill of finding that their education had “worked”.

To a friend, I had described my life in those law firms as “going to hell without the benefit of dying”, and I fled these firms for the Supreme Court, working as an associate for a magnificent judge and human being, Justice Geoff Eames – extremely bright, incredibly hard-working, intensely curious not only about the law but about people in all walks of life, highly ethical, moral in the best sense of the word and yet relaxed with a warm and generous sense of humour and a breadth of fascinating life experience. I got the job, not because of any particular legal brilliance, but rather, I suspect, because I made him laugh and perhaps also because we shared similar political views on nearly everything. For an aspiring one-time barrister this was a great place to land. The only problem was that the pay was appalling. I had put a deposit on a flat when still at a commercial law firm and interest rates were giving every third breath to the bank. It was at this time I experienced the supermarket incident that triggered the novel.

The conceit that had come to me in the wake of that incident was of a man in his thirties, Eddie – with a wife, Tanya, and little girl, Abby – who would by chance run into Amanda, his innocent primary-school crush, on average every nine and a half years. Each chance meeting would act as a barometer on Eddie’s progress through life, on the couple’s sense of each other, and on their respective self-esteem as they were battered repeatedly by circumstance. I would attempt to make it funny and, at least for Australian readers, relatable. By the fourth meeting it was looking like they were going to be tipped out of the middle class they’d so desperately tried to join.

Eddie was a chemical engineer working in a government department facing a choice between his integrity – recommending against a specific coastal development for environmental reasons (the bones of which are based on the true story of a real whistleblower in South Australia) – and his own job security. Tanya was tutoring at a university while writing a PhD thesis in politics. It was comforting to be able to articulate the concerns I’d been wrestling with since my mid-teens. While the novel isn’t autobiographical, it was truly cathartic to have characters in the novel – usually the feisty Tanya – say things like, “People’s fear of change and their despair at the lack of certainty in any area of their lives … with respect to their jobs and income, if it lasts long enough, will lead them to abandon reason, to be suspicious of it and to look for scapegoats and simplistic solutions.”

The economist Guy Standing, in his 2011 book The Precariat, claimed that consequent upon rampant free trade advocated by neoliberalism, the world’s labour supply had quadrupled, adding an extra two billion people to the labour market and putting many tens of millions out of work in developed countries, and thereby causing a huge downward pressure on wages.

This, Standing argued, had led to the existence of the following social hierarchy. At the top is a tiny plutocracy, perhaps 0.001 per cent of the population, an economic elite of oligarchs and people listed in Forbes, a group with vast power able to influence governments around the world. Underneath them, in terms of income, are those in managerial or proprietorial positions in medium to large corporations, government agencies and public administration including the civil service. Below them are the professionals, those with skills and expertise that they can market, earning high incomes on contract, as consultants or as independent own-account workers. Below them, in terms of income, is a shrinking “core” of manual employees, “the essence of the old ‘working class’”, the survivors from the “battalions of industrial labourers who formed the labour movements”, still in full-time employment.

And beneath those four groups is an ever-growing precariat, the millions of people living without stable employment in a state of existential insecurity. It includes people, many with a university education, who are the first group in history to have attained an educational level higher than that needed by the work they can expect to get. They have to rely solely on wages without recourse to holiday pay, sick pay, maternity or paternity leave, hardship leave, long service leave or superannuation. Facing a precarious existence of tremendous economic uncertainty, they’re always on the verge of unsustainable debt. Should just one thing break, should they make one mistake, suffer one accident, one illness, make one bad decision, they could become homeless. Standing says that they don’t see politicians representing their interests and that many of the less educated in the precariat are susceptible to the simplistic solutions of neo-fascism, scapegoating, conspiracy theories and appeals to violence.

This is what Tanya warns against in the novel:

If we are to avoid the laissez-faire chaos we are rushing headlong into, the polarisation into the very wealthy and the very poor, the risk of complete social breakdown and the possible emergence from that wreckage of an oppressive and brutal neo-fascist regime … government policies need to be driven by a compassionate concern for the well-being of all the people.

Eddie and Tanya were in, or very close to being in the precariat, in Standing’s sense of the word.

As a writer and reader who found the thinking of the day economically flawed and morally repugnant, I had found in my novel and in my characters a way to tell that story. And it seemed to have struck a chord.

In 2007, nine years after the novel’s publication, the State Library of Victoria conducted a poll to determine library users’ favourite book set in Victoria. I was stunned to learn that Three Dollars won overwhelmingly. Who, then, were these Victorians voting for it? While there have been many books published here, even at the time let alone in the quarter century since, that way outsold Three Dollars, that won more prizes and got more people talking, I was always struck and, frankly, heartened by the passion exhibited by the readers it managed to find. It was their book – they would tell me at writers’ festivals. What was it that had made it their book? It is reasonable to speculate that they were a cohort of Standing’s precariat who apparently identified with Eddie and Tanya.

Also in the early 2000s, I was surprised to be approached by the talented producer-director Robert Connolly and his then production partner, John Maynard, to co-write with Rob a screenplay adaptation of Three Dollars. With a magnificent cast headlined by David Wenham as Eddie, Frances O’Connor as Tanya, and Sarah Wynter as Amanda, it was released in 2005. Once a story is made into a film, even an indie film, those involved in its making are sometimes given opportunities that its writer could not have imagined when he left the supermarket that morning in the winter of ’95.

That’s how it was that an agreement was reached for me and Rob to have a private meeting with the then leader of the ALP, Kim Beazley. Reading from a single sheet of paper pulled from my inside jacket pocket like a suddenly revealed smuggled weapon, I made a heartfelt presentation to the alternative prime minister. I pleaded that “the ALP has to first stand up boldly and proclaim, in a paradigm shift which would rank in vision with that of Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, that it is now opposed to economic rationalism and free trade. It has to explain loudly and often that millions of Australians are hurting because of the government’s furious implementation of economic rationalism.

“Economic rationalism advocates an ever-decreasing role for government in the economy and an ever-increasing role for the market and as a consequence, free trade and its implementation, is leading to the export of our jobs to low labour cost countries and as a result, massive unemployment and under-employment.”

Kim Beazley is an intelligent, wise and kind man. Some have said he was too kind for politics. He now understood why the production company had sought out this meeting and I somehow got the feeling that he was grateful for the effort I had gone to, perhaps even that he had appreciated my chutzpah, my audacity. But as the late afternoon autumn sun came through the upper-storey hotel suite window, he looked at me with a small smile mainly from his eyes, and replied simply, “I can’t do that.”

Later my sister, a politically like-minded criminal barrister who is, by disposition, a much more dogged interrogator than I, chastised me for not hammering him repeatedly with “Why not?” All I knew was that he wasn’t going to adopt any of what I had said. We shook hands, and Rob and I thanked him for his time. As I was walking out of the room, Beazley called out to me, “Would you mind leaving that sheet of paper with me?” I left it with him hoping something might come of it.

I went on to perfect the practice of meeting significant people with the capacity to bring about fundamental change and having absolutely no effect on anything of any consequence, not even for myself.

Sometime later, now a full-time writer and ex-barrister living in New York and researching what would become my novel The Street Sweeper, I was invited to the birthday party of Sarah Wynter (Amanda in the film of Three Dollars) in the penthouse of the newly built Time Warner Center in midtown Manhattan. I arrived embarrassingly precisely on time, holding a wrapped pile of some of my favourite novels as a birthday package for Sarah. Her fiancé, Dan, who was busy arranging the delivery of food and alcohol and advising a small army of waiters, suggested I go check out the view of Manhattan from the floor-to-ceiling windows. That’s how I found myself holding a pile of paperbacks and looking out at the lit-up Manhattan skyline in a vast, otherwise completely empty room alone with the one person who had joined me there: Lachlan Murdoch.

We introduced ourselves and he asked how I knew the birthday girl. I explained that I had written a novel and then co-written the screenplay based on that novel for a film Sarah had starred in. He asked what it was about.

I explained that it was about a man who finds himself at the age of 38 with a wife, a child and only three dollars, and that he had got that way by being completely honest. There was a pause in the conversation which Mr Murdoch was to break. Despite limited time in Australia during his formative years, his reply was delivered in a particularly Australian way, with a subtle hint of aggression burrowed into the tail of its upward inflection in a manner that only Australians can achieve, one that perfectly encapsulated, albeit with breathtaking economy, two responses: first, that it was hard for him to think of anything less interesting and, second, my total inconsequentiality. “Oh yeah,” said Lachlan Murdoch.

Then he turned around so that he had his back to me and began to walk out of the room. It was quite a long way from the window to the door, but his step never faltered. Not even my sister was to suggest later that I should have tried to convince him of the harm caused by the massive inequality that is a necessary consequence of neoliberalism.

Could he have been made to see that massive inequality unchecked for long enough will inevitably weaken, perhaps terminally, democracy itself? With a record number of threats to federal MPs last year from far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists reported to the Australian Federal Police, we cannot assume that Australia is immune to direct attacks on its democracy. ASIO chief Mike Burgess recently said: “As a nation, we need to reflect on why some teenagers are hanging Nazi flags and portraits of the Christchurch killer on their bedroom walls and why others are sharing beheading videos.”

To be clear, neoliberalism is not fascism. But it definitely leads to a rise in anger and dissatisfaction at democracy’s failure to give much of the population the necessary sense of a stake in the country’s fortunes and a chance at a fairer and better life for themselves and their children. If enough people feel for long enough that the system is rigged, stacked against them, that they are being discriminated against and dispossessed, there is every chance that the fabric of society will be torn apart and that there will be blood in the streets.

The publication of Three Dollars has led me to meet people I might not otherwise have met, some of whom, like Lachlan Murdoch, would have no memory whatsoever of meeting me. I was at a party a few years ago getting a drink at the bar when I recognised a man next to me doing the same. I smiled at him and told him that I had voted ALP all my life but that if he were to become leader I would make a point of getting to the polling booth that much faster.

His initial response when I started talking to him seemed to be to brace himself as though he were expecting me to say something negative. But when he realised that I was giving him the highest commendation a politician can get, he smiled almost with embarrassment, thanked me, and said he wished his wife had heard me say it. I laughed, thinking Anthony Albanese’s witty, self-deprecating deflection was the kind I hoped to be quick enough to give should someone ever praise my writing in a private social setting.

He doesn’t know me at all and wouldn’t remember the couple of times we have briefly met. But several times I have heard him speak publicly of the values that have fuelled his life and career. Gross inequality offends him, perhaps viscerally. Neither we nor he can know what’s in store for him and for us during his prime ministership. But if he doesn’t use his period in office to seriously address the inequality that globally still threatens democracy, no one will be more disappointed than him. It has been 25 years since the publication of Three Dollars. But how much longer has it been since we had a prime minister about whom we could say that?

Elliot Perlman

Elliot Perlman is a writer. His books include The Street Sweeper, Seven Types of Ambiguity and Maybe the Horse Will Talk.

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