Monday, July 28, 2014

Last Drinks At The Empty Arms

So it’s the end of the age of entitlement... unless you’re a politician. While the Federal Government has revealed the details of its enhanced “work for the dole” arrangements, politicians are still claiming tens of thousands of dollars for study tours, book collections, and travel to sporting events.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Peter Slipper, who has today been found guilty of acting dishonestly over those cab charge vouchers he used to visit the wineries around Canberra in 2010. Mr Slipper will be sentenced in September, but in the meantime, there will be no action taken against all those senior Liberals who pinged the tax-payer for the cost of attending a wedding... Oh, but they paid it back so it’s all good.

It seems you can be forgiven your mistakes if you haven’t abandoned your own party.

It’s a little more difficult to work out just what unemployed people have done to upset the government. But it must have been sensational given the arrangements that have been wheeled out in the name of welfare “reform.”

We already know that unemployed people under the age of 30 will be expected to survive for six months from the time they apply for assistance before they receive any money at all. There will be reductions on that waiting period based on the length of time someone has been employed prior to the application.

So someone who has had a job for 5 years, and is then made redundant, will receive a 5 month remission, and be entitled to receive assistance after just one month.

But people generally don’t choose when they will become unemployed. If only I can last until the end of the year, I’ll get my dole money a month earlier....

However, the strangest element of the new arrangements, set to commence from the 1st of July next year, is the new improved version of mutual obligation.

Now, in principle, I can understand the argument in favour of mutual obligation. It only stands to reason that if the taxpayer is providing support to the unemployed, the unemployed might be obliged to do something in return. It seems not only sensible, it seems fair.

But the scheme outlined by the Government today is counterproductive, short-sighted, and driven by blind ideology. The people who designed it are safely ensconced within their own cocoon of entitlement, and have little understanding of the experience of the unemployed.

Astoundingly, the strictures of “mutual obligation” will apply to those people who have committed the crime of being under 30 and have been punished by having any payment withheld for six months.

Yes, that’s correct. As incredible as it seems, mutual obligation means that people receiving NO MONEY AT ALL for up to six months will be expected to jump through all the hoops anyway. There’s absolutely nothing “mutual” about that at all.

And even when your six months of fiscal imprisonment have been served, during which time you might well have turned to crime just to make ends meet, the rigors of mutual obligation are still designed to do you more harm than good.

Under the new regime of mutual obligation, unemployed people under 30 will be required to perform 25 hours per week community work and to prove that they have applied for a minimum of 40 jobs per month.

For sake of argument, let’s say there are four weeks in a month; that’s ten job applications per week, or two every working day. Now, if you live in a major city, you might be able to find 40 jobs a month  for which your qualifications are appropriate. But in regional towns? That’s a sick joke.

It was a long time ago, but I was unemployed in a country town in 1981. For 16 months, I filled out forms and attended job interviews. In that time, I spent a few weeks loading trucks and trains, and another week digging a trench. Thankfully, I was able to do some casual work on my uncle’s farm, which was a big help at the time.

Quite literally, I wasn’t qualified for anything else, except broadcasting... and getting back into the radio industry was not exactly easy.

After 26 rejection letters, I was finally offered a position doing the job I was actually trained for, and life was good again. But the point is that during those 16 months, there was no way I could have applied for 640 jobs. They simply didn’t exist.

Or perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps the Government expects people to apply for every advertised position, regardless of their qualifications, wasting the time of all those recruitment officers who will have to wade through pointless CVs from desperate but inappropriate applicants.

I know that sounds crazy, but it’s not as crazy as the other problem.

As I said, I get it that mutual obligation is supposed to provide the job-seeker with a sense of doing something in return for the money. Ideally, it should also provide them with useful experience, possibly some rudimentary training, and even just the opportunity  to interact with other people in a professional manner.

All of that is a worthwhile exercise.

However, requiring young people to report for duty for 25 hours a week is not only impractical, it’s downright exploitative. For starters, 25 hours is two thirds of the working week. It adds up to three-and-a-bit days. Surely the obvious question has to be: just when do you find the time to actually apply for those 40 jobs?

It’s not just a matter of sending out CVs. There’s all the time you need to spend combing through the classified ads. Writing the letters. Going to interviews. This business of looking for a job can be time consuming. That is, if you are serious about it. 25 hours a week is an enormous commitment, and leaves very little time for other responsibilities.

And on the subject of hours, consider this:

The current minimum wage is $640.90 per week, or $16.87 per hour. But if a young unemployed person is required to do community work for 25 hours that adds up to barely more than $10.00 per hour.

Even 18 year old junior employees are supposed to be entitled to a minimum wage of $11.52 per hour. It would appear that the Federal Government wants to force people to work at rates that would be illegal in business. If there is to be any kind of work demanded in return for the support of the taxpayer, it should at least be at a fair rate of pay.

The phrase “mutual obligation” is becoming increasingly Orwellian, with all the obligation weighing heavily on the shoulders of the un-empowered, and very little of it is in any way “mutual.”

It is, however, highly ideological.

The current Liberal Party Government has shown distinct signs of being driven more by the ideology of the hard core right, than by the principles of fairness and opportunity that most politicians claim. Certainly, all the guff about a “budget crisis” and an “economic emergency” is straight out of spin-doctor school.

It’s a time honoured tactic of declaring a crisis, or manufacturing one if a suitable crisis isn’t immediately handy, and then offering to provide the solution. All sides of politics have been guilty of something similar at one time or another. But that’s all OK if the tactic is used to push a policy that ultimately serves a greater good.

In this case, the supposed “greater good” is based on the notion that people who can’t find a job just aren’t trying hard enough, without any consideration of any other potential factors. Of course, that’s understandable given the massive problem Australia faces with unemployment...

Oh wait.

Unemployment is pretty stable at about 6 per cent, and has been for quite some time. Now, if you happen to be one of those people in the six per cent, you would indeed be confronting a crisis. But is the nation suffering an unemployment crisis?

No, it is not.

Obviously, lower unemployment is better. And equally obviously, Australia actually has a much more complex challenge with severe under-employment in many areas. The casualisation of the workforce has left too many people working in jobs with insufficient hours to make ends meet, and without the job security enjoyed by previous generations of full time workers.

But those challenges are not going to be addressed by a system that punishes people when they have been failed by that system. That’s because the fundamental flaw of “mutual obligation” is similar to the fundamental flaw of “user pays.”

It always sounds good in practice, but all too often is not necessarily the most efficient way to manage human affairs. All too often it is those who are least able to afford it who are left to pick up the tab. Whenever a politician tells you that a new proposal will be “better,’ your first question should always be “better for whom?”

Nine times out of ten, it’s not you. And even on the tenth time you would be wise to double check.

We are being told that the proposals put forward by the Government, not just for the unemployed, but for pensioners, for people who visit the doctor, for university students... the list goes on... are all “necessary” for the future prosperity of the nation.

But it’s not true. There are other options. The notion that it’s “my way or the highway” is nothing more than a bully boy tactic, employed to advance an ideological agenda. There are other ways to bring prosperity to the nation, that don’t involve punishing the weak for being weak.

What they have forgotten is the fact that the “nation” is us, including the poor, the weak, the aged, the unwell, the incompetent, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed. We are all in it together whether the Government likes it or not.

There are two reasons that this Government is unpopular. Firstly, it’s because some of their policies are hurting some of the people. But the second reason is the one doing the real damage.  It’s because they flat out said one thing, and then proceeded to do another, blatantly and deliberately.

They have opened their arms wide, and now that we have all had a good look, we can see that those arms are empty.