By Warwick Smith
Punishing the unemployed in Australia for the lack of available jobs is not enough, Joe Hockey wants all of the G20 countries to adopt his cruel policies.
The Australian Government’s growth strategy prepared for this month’s G20 meeting in Brisbane insists that cutting benefits for the unemployed is an important tool for stimulating economic growth. The idea is that this will force more people off unemployment benefits and into work.
There are several unsupported assumptions that sit behind such measures. The biggest of these assumptions is that there are a lot of people out there who could find work but choose instead to live the high life on their $250 per week unemployment benefits. These are the worst of Hockey’s “leaners” who exist at the expense of the “lifters”.
The most obvious statistics that make a mockery of Hockey’s world view are the Australian unemployment and job statistics. There are currently around five unemployed people for every job vacancy. We know for a fact that there are many unemployed people who are desperate for work who cannot find work, particularly young and over 50s job seekers. So, even if we accept Hockey’s ridiculous assertion that there are a lot of bludgers out there who are intentionally unemployed, what good would it do if we motivated them to look for work when there aren’t enough jobs anyway? This is far from unique to Australia, we have relatively low unemployment compared to much of the G20.
I spent a while in the mid ‘90s supervising Jobskills teams. Jobskills was an early version of work for the dole targeted at the long-term unemployed. Most of the young people in these programs really wanted work. They weren’t disabled, didn’t have obvious mental illnesses nor obvious drug or alcohol problems but many of them would have really struggled to hold down a regular job. Some couldn’t keep a short series of instructions in their head long enough to complete the list. Some just didn’t seem to have a sense of time or struggled a bit with normal social interactions. They wanted to work and were capable of producing work but you wouldn’t employ them by choice if an efficient and independent worker was your priority.
People like this find employment through well targeted programs that support them, train then and match them with willing and understanding employers, not through being denied unemployment benefits. One certain consequence of Hockey’s proposal would be to dramatically increase the motivation to seek a disability pension. Those involved in making such assessments would likely feel more inclined to grant disability pensions for fear of what would otherwise befall such individuals.
There is another group of people on unemployment benefits who would qualify as bludgers in Hockey’s world. They rarely rate a mention. These are artists and other creative people of various types who are pursuing their passion and often giving generously to their community. Making a living from art is extremely difficult and few manage it to any reasonable standard of living but producing art and trying to make a living out of it is an artist’s version of job seeking. Comedian Will Anderson referred to his six month stint on the dole as an “unofficial arts grant” while he tried to make it as a stand-up.
I personally think that if an artist can survive on the meagre $250 a week unemployment benefits plus whatever they can make from their art then that’s a reasonable price for the community to pay for their contribution and for the potential to nurture the occasional great talent. A culture of art and music enriches all of our lives.
It is only through art that truly radical ideas can be expressed because the truly radical is often outside of our linguistic repertoire. Some of those who dwell on the edges of society, including many artists, musicians, writers, comedians and activists, serve as our jesters, oracles and social barometers. Somehow forcing them to get a “real job” would be a loss for us all, not least the other keen job seekers whose job they might get. In the absence of generous funding of the arts through other programs, unemployment benefits are more than a social safety net, they are also a creativity safety net.
Bear this in mind: by many measures Australia is the richest country in the world at the richest time in world history. In the 2012/13 financial year Australia spent only $8.5 billion on unemployment benefits (that’s Newstart plus Youth Allowance). It might seem like a lot but eight billion dollars is little more than pocket change for the federal government with total expenditure of around $400 billion. We’re giving nearly twice as much in tax breaks for the richest Australians’ superannuation this year as we spend in total on unemployment benefits. Don’t listen to Hockey when he says we can’t afford things, it’s just a matter of priorities.
One very important fact that you won’t hear Joe Hockey state is that inequality is bad for economic growth. He says he want’s growth but Hockey also wants to implement a whole raft of policies, including these harsh measures against the unemployed, which will increase inequality in Australia. Even the conservative International Monetary Fund is urging governments to reduce inequality because doing so will promote growth. Not only are Hockey’s policies inhumane and uncivilised but they are also counterproductive when it comes to his stated goals. It makes you wonder what his real goals are doesn’t it?