Opinion: Morrison government punishes jobseekers and students
Words by Tom Wood
The government’s approach to JobSeeker demonstrates nothing less than a contempt of the poor, writes Tom Wood
On Friday March 19, on the steps of Parliament House, a broad alliance of the unemployed, students, unionists, migrants, and low-income workers rallied together to say no to the federal government’s latest round of welfare cuts.
The Morrison government has made a big deal with what it describes as a permanent raise to JobSeeker. Welfare recipients on JobSeeker will receive an extra $25 per week from April.
However, they will receive less money overall due to the end of the coronavirus supplement, a top-up payment for more than a million welfare recipients. This decreased from $125 per week to $75 on January 1. It will disappear entirely on March 31. This is an attack on welfare recipients’ livelihoods, most of whom are already struggling to make ends meet.
I helped organise a rally with Anti-Poverty Network SA as part of a national week of action coordinated by LIFE (Living Incomes For Everyone), GetUp! and the AUWU (Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union). We gathered under the banner of a “A Living Income for All”. That it is even necessary to make this demand in a rich country like Australia in 2021 speaks volumes about the extent of systematic inequality in Australian society, and the failure of government to devise a long-term strategy to end poverty.
A strong contingent of Adelaide University students attended the rally. Arabella Wauchope, the National Welfare Officer for the National Union of Students (NUS), spoke of her campaign with the NUS to lower the Centrelink age of independence from 22 to 18. This will give thousands of young Australians access to Youth Allowance support, which they are now denied. Even though there are many valid reasons why they live independently, such as an abusive home environment or estranged family ties, the government still recognises them as dependents.
Nix Herriot, a member of the Student Representative Council, condemned the cruelty of Australia’s punitive welfare system and reflected on its capitalistic motives. In particular, it supports bosses’ interests by forcing jobseekers to live in poverty unless they compete intensely with thousands of others for the chance of getting a job with the worst possible pay and conditions. He also criticised the weakness of the Labor Party opposition, who have supported raising the rate but nonetheless refused to give jobseekers certainty by committing to a dollar figure.
The JobSeeker payment is now at 41 per cent of minimum wage, the same level that it was during the Howard government’s reign (1996–2007). JobSeeker has been falling further behind relative poverty lines for the past two decades. In fact, the last time it was raised in real, adjusted-for-inflation terms (with the exception of the short-lived coronavirus supplement) was in 1994.
An image I won’t forget soon is that at the rally, sixty attendees, representing jobseekers, formed an orderly queue across the Parliament House steps with their CVs in hand. This action represented the shocking fact that there are sixty people competing for every entry level job in Australia.
Australia’s unemployment crisis is compounded by a global economic downturn, sluggish wage growth, and growing underemployment. There simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone who wants one. Despite this, the government’s policy has been to punish jobseekers for being in poverty
With the pitiful base rate increase comes an increase in “mutual obligations”. Face-to-face appointments with job services providers, which were paused during the pandemic, will once again be required. Plus, from April, people on the payments will need to look for at least 15 jobs a month, up from 8. In July, that will rise again to 20.
The government also announced it would launch “an employer reporting line” to “refer jobseekers who are not genuine about their job search or decline the offer of a job”. Business leaders and welfare advocates alike have blasted this policy, calling the measure out of touch with small business owners who believe that “most unemployed people are not dole bludgers”.
Unions have been even more critical of what they see as a “dangerous” hotline, warning it could force women into accepting jobs from employers who treat them poorly or who make “sleazy propositions” to them in an interview. The Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Michele O’Neil, suggested it could lead to women accepting jobs they feel unsafe in, referencing the multiple workplace sexual assault allegations that have dominated political discourse recently.
The Australian Council of Social Services chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, said the hotline “is about the tired, old politics of demonising people simply because they’re not able to find paid work. We already have one of the strictest systems of income support compliance among comparable countries. Tougher mutual obligation requirements will just make life even harder for millions of people without improving their job prospects.”
None of these new punishments for the unemployed are a fair trade-off for the government’s pathetic $25 a week raise. Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said the raise was not enough. “It’s a complete and utter joke. It makes a mockery of the government saying that they care about those that are doing it tough in this country.”
Scrapping the coronavirus supplement also means that there will be a net decrease of $100 to students’ fortnightly welfare payments. In a recent statement, the NUS said “it is clear that this so-called new chapter is one of renewed disregard for students and young people. There are eight Australians on JobSeeker for every job vacancy. Effectively, the Government is ensuring that 243,770 people are institutionally kept in poverty.” Not raising the rate to $80 a day is not just appalling, it’s dehumanizing. It is the bare minimum that students and others need to not have to forego food, medication, or rent.
In a rich country like Australia, no one should have to live in poverty. No one should have to skip meals or medicines. If we raise the corporate tax rate, we can return jobseekers, students, and others to the COVID rate of $80 a day ($550 a week) and lift them out of poverty. This figure is in line with the AUWU’s #80aDay campaign, which seeks to raise unemployment payments above the poverty line.
The Morrison government showed last year how easily it can eliminate poverty. There’s no going back from that realization. Now it is throwing people back into the gutter. What this shows is that the ball is in their court. Poverty is ultimately a political choice, and the LNP have made their’s crystal clear.