By Warwick Smith
First published at The Age
The Turnbull government is peddling workforce participation nonsense.
Some things have changed under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull. Many things haven’t. When it comes to employment, the government continues to “push on the string” of workforce participation. Discussing proposed cuts to Family Tax Benefits affecting single parents and grandparents who are primary carers, new social services minister Christian Porter said the government was unequivocally trying to increase workforce participation.
I call this “pushing on a piece of string” for good reason. Unemployment in Australia is at 6.2 per cent. There are many more people looking for work than there are jobs. So, I’d be very keen to hear how pushing more single parents and grandparents into the job market is going to be a positive thing for this country or for the individuals concerned.
Taking away payments from everyone because of the actions of a tiny minority is the kind of collective punishment that society long ago abandoned in every other sphere of life.
There are two possible outcomes from such a move (if it was successful). Those individuals either get a job at the expense of one of the other job seekers or they join the ranks of the long-term unemployed, suffering all the indignities and deceptions that routinely go along with that.
Another insidious accusation sits behind these kinds of statements. Christian Porter is suggesting that there are a lot of single parents out there who could find work but choose not to because of government payments. I reckon Christian Porter doesn’t know many struggling single parents don’t you? The idea that they could just pop out and find a job that fits within school hours but they’re not because of $2000 a year in government payments is the kind of thing that only a politician could believe.
Of course, there will always be a small minority of people who play the system or who are just lazy, but taking away payments from everyone because of the actions of a tiny minority is the kind of collective punishment that society long ago abandoned in every other sphere of life.
There’s a discrimination present here of another kind as well. Couples with children, particularly well off couples, can choose to have one parent stay at home to care for the kids and keep the household running well. Single parents are being told this should not be an option for them and their children. Instead, they should be forced to run as fast as they can in the hamster wheel that is modern life.
As a society we need to take stock of what’s important. One of the most important things we can do is provide a stable and caring environment for our children. Yes, a 13-year-old is still a child. Pushing single parents into further financial and time stress is not a recipe for a better society.
If we want to improve workforce participation then we should focus on job creation. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that increasing jobs, not increasing the number of unemployed, is the way to improve workforce participation. I said earlier that only a politician could believe the opposite, but the sad fact is they don’t believe it either.
They know it’s nonsense, but it fits within the victim blaming narrative that allows those who are ideologically opposed to social welfare to cut government expenditure and reduce the comparative negotiating power of workers. The more desperate unemployed people there are the less upward pressure can be applied on wages and conditions.
Options for government policies that create jobs are too numerous to list. The problem is that most of these policies require increased government expenditure. Never mind that many would pay for themselves in the medium to long term; the bizarre obsession with budget deficits and budget balances means that such nuanced discussions cannot be had.
Implementing many of the recommendations of the highly regarded, but now buried, Henry Tax Review would create jobs; some without costing governments a cent. These are off the table because tax reform always creates losers, often wealthy losers, and they shout a lot louder than the winners. Instead of considering those recommendations Turnbull is launching his own tax reform process so that it can generate recommendations for some future government to ignore.
Instead of tackling real problems, like tax reform, or investigating novel solutions, like a job guarantee, it’s much easier to kick those who are already down. They’re too busy just trying to survive to fight back.
Warwick Smith is a research economist and writer. He blogs at reconstructingeconomics.com and tweets @RecoEco.