When the Government chooses not to participate in active job creation, the expectation on people seeking employment to engage in active participation welfare programs, is unfair, burdensome, stigmatising, demoralising and counterproductive. Mutual Obligation under the Keating Government was developed based on the notion that the Government would also commit to job creation and increase vocational training. This is not the case today, nor has it been for some time. The Government is not investing in job creation and vocational education has been largely privatised and is predominantly inaccessible and unaffordable to those who most need it. Active Participation welfare programs are punitive and are underpinned by the assumption that the jobseeker is lazy and needs motivation by a paternalistic guiding hand to participate in society as a full human being. It is time for a new narrative and a new solution.
The latest narrative – The Taxed Nots. Who are they?
They are bludgers, rorters, welfare cheats, the undeserving poor, the drug addled, leaners not lifters, people with their hand out, a hindrance to the ‘national interest’, people who don’t try hard enough, job refusers, taking loans from the tax-payer, won’t get off the couch, lack participation, who go from the school gate to Centrelink’s front door, self-entitled, sitting at home playing X-box and eating cheezels and now the latest….The Taxed Nots.
The Taxed Nots – what should we do with them?
We need to drug test them, force them into unpaid labour, manage their income, give them a card to label them and not trust them with cash, push the welfare cops after them, get them moving, force them to live 45% below the poverty line and if they are poverty line newbie, we should starve them for six months whist the Government simultaneously breaches its human rights obligations. .
With the exception of John Howard’s gem, “the undeserving poor” and Amanda Vanstone’s “Don’t try hard enough and refuse jobs”, these are just some of the labels the Australian Liberal Party has given to those seeking employment and just some of the ‘solutions’ to assist the jobless to find employment, since 2013. Pretty confronting when it is wrapped up in neat little paragraphs, isn’t it?
The dehumanisation and the stigmatisation of those seeking employment must cease immediately and a new narrative and new solutions need to start today.
A little history
Mutual obligation has always existed within the jobseeker framework. However, mutual obligation penalties were discretionary and mostly non financial (ie write on your dole form where you looked for work this week). However, postponement of payment could occur for up to two weeks. This was dropped in 1984 as it was causing hardship, but reinstated in 1987. The widening of activity based breaches will be discussed in the next section. Active Labor Market Participation (ALMP) programs were the shift towards paternalistic and punitive measures and financial penalties for the unemployed.
Active Labor Market Participation (ALMP) programs commenced under the Hawke/Keating Government. The original intention of the ALMP programs was to manage retraining and to assist new workers to move across industries in the new globalisation and at a time where long time unemployment was the new reality and had shifted from a long period of relatively low unemployment.
Zigarus ¹ (2004) sums up another driver as, “In essence, this approach holds that the unemployment rate is influenced by how actively the unemployed search for work. The more effort people make to find jobs, and the less choosy they are about what jobs they will take, the lower the overall unemployment.”
Regardless of how well intentioned ALMP programs were when they were introduced, the very essence of these programs are driven by the notion that the unemployed do not have the same desires to achieve a full life as the employed do and they are inherently lazy. Paternalistic and punitive welfare measures are also the antecedents to enabling the stigmatisation of the unemployed. The era of the ALMP programs were the beginning of segregating the unemployed as separate citizens from those who are employed – the bludgers and the workers. Even within the cohort of the unemployed, the narrative was able to change from discussing welfare as a necessity for those out of work to those who deserved assistance and those who did not. Those who needed a hand up and those who just wanted a hand out. This narrative continues today and it has become increasingly more comfortable for politicians to use this stigmatising rhetoric with conviction.
Punitive measures intensified under Howard
The shift in ALMP programs under John Howard introduced the concept that unpaid labour should be imposed on those seeking employment. Howard’s notion was to deserve a hand out, the recipient must give back to the community. This adds the public’s scrutinisation of the intentions of the jobseeker to the mix. Work for the Dole and similar unpaid labour programs normalised the perception that jobseekers had to be forced to work, as they were not motivated to do so; and if they were working as unpaid labour, this would be the impetus to force them to look for paid labour.
Financial Penalties under Howard
The Howard Government dismantled Keating’s Working Nation (job creation, increased Labor market programs and training and mutual obligation, including breaching penalties). Financial penalties increased and the activity for which you could be breached significantly widened under the Liberals “Australian’s Working Together” policy. The other notable shift from Keating’s policy to Howard’s policy was that financial penalties moved from discretionary to enforced by legislation and contractual obligation on the jobsearch provider.
The initial extremely punitive measures are outlined by Eardley et. al ² as:
The initial legislation proposed to strengthen breaching arrangements by extending the activity test non-payment period to six weeks for the first breach and 13 weeks for all subsequent breaches, while all administrative breaches would incur rate reductions of 25 per cent for eight weeks.
Welfare groups successfully lobbied and this initial bill was defeated in Parliament. However, less severe penalties were adopted. This included an 8 week breach of 100% loss of benefit after the third breach. The Abbott Government put up a bill in 2013 which sought to exempt new Newstart recipients from payment for six months. This has been defeated/taken off the table and a bill for Newstart recipients to be exempt for six weeks, is still progressing though today’s parliament. This shows the long standing determination of the Liberal Party to impose harsh and extreme measures on the unemployed. This also shows the shift from welfare as a human right to dignity, to one of targeting the disadvantaged as a means for budget savings.
Other notable changes
Structural changes jobseeker programs to note (but not limited to) are:
- The inclusion and shift from other benefits to jobseeker associated benefits (Single Parents and Disability recipients shifted to jobsearch programs.)
- The increase in mutual obligation age brackets from 17-18 years, to 18-30 years to 18-49 years and now 18-60 years and over
- Intensive case management
- Enforceable preparing for work agreements
- Increased obligation to search for more jobs, or a breach is imposed
- The length of time travelled to search for job, or a breach is imposed
- Relocation expectation
- Implementation of Government approved doctors only (not jobseeker’s own doctor)
- Shift to a jobsearch payment from Disability pension if you can work 30 hours per week down to 15 hours per week
- Shift from Government provider to private contracted providers
- Obligation to jobsearch if not employed for more than 70 hours per fortnight (jobsearch is a requirement although you have gained employment)
- Income Management (Basic’s Card – non-cash component imposed)
The jobseeker’s positioning in Australia.
The reality for the availability of a jobseeker securing work in Australia, is that there are 19 jobseekers for every job available in Australia (as of May, 2016). That is however, not a true figure, as it needs to be considered that not all jobseekers are equally qualified for all jobs. Therefore, for some the jobseeker to job vacancy ratio is much higher. In addition, vocational education and training has become less available and less accessible for those seeking employment; particularly in lower income brackets. Changes to eligibility for vocational training (ie The Certificate 3 Guarantee is for any eligible Queensland resident who does not already hold and is not currently enrolled into, a post-school Certificate III or higher qualification.) Therefore if you hold a cert III in one vocational area, for example beauty, you are not eligible to undertake vocational training at cert 3 level in business administration.
In addition, specialised services such as JPET (Job placement, employment and training for homeless and disadvantaged young people) have ceased and are now replaced with a one-stop-shop model of ‘streams’ of unemployment.
The Liberal Party’s small government, free market mindset, is an inherent propensity to shy away from job creation and allow the free market to ‘sort out the jobs’, rather than the socialisation of job creation projects. Government’s who do not commit to job creation are not complying with their mutual obligation to the nation’s unemployed citizens. The onus is completely on the jobseeker and the framework within the jobseeker must search for jobs, is unrealistic; secure full time jobs and skills development get increasingly more difficult to obtain.
It should also be noted that barriers to employment and the adverse outcomes of financial and other punitive measures are more severe for (but not limited to); Indigenous Australians, single parents, jobseekers with a disability, youth and homeless and disadvantaged jobseekers.
The new narrative and the new solutions
To achieve the re-humanisation and the de-stigmatisation of those seeking employment; the jobsearch model must shift to a jobseeker-centric framework and away from a budget savings measures framework where jobseekers are currently seen as a strain on the public purse and a dehumanised as a target for savings measures.
Therefore, the jobsearch framework needs to shift from one of mandatory participation to one of voluntary participation.
Jobseekers need to be allowed free agency to participate freely in jobsearch activities. To do this, the narrative needs to shift from the stigmatising rhetoric outlined in the beginning of this article to a more supportive narrative. Jobseekers should be given the support and recognition by Government that they have the same hopes, dreams and aims as the employed and are actively participating in job search to improve their life circumstance.
This then shifts the narrative away from the current underpinning assumption that jobseekers need a paternalistic guiding hand to motivate them; to a narrative that has the underpinning assumption that jobseekers are intrinsically motivated to seek employment.
This then shifts the onus for outcomes from the jobseeker and the public expectation to punish them for non-achievement to the public expectation that the Government of the day has an obligation to perform and enable an environment conducive to an expectation that secure employment can be achieved.
This should put pressure on the Government of the day to engage fully in job creation projects and the public less likely to accept the promises of a free market, small Government intervention model. This means that there would be an increase in the expectation that the Government would create jobs where it had the power to do so. This may include Government intervention to increase positions in all Government owned, operated and funded entities at local, state and federal level. This may also include Government intervention to make mandatory the requirement for quotas within Government funded infrastructure projects to achieve targets of employing those who are employed and underemployed.
This should also put pressure on the Government to ensure they meet the obligation of providing skills development opportunities for those seeking employment. This may mean the implementation of yearly quotas of trainees and apprentices for all Government owned and funded organisations. This would also place pressure on the Government to provide affordable access to TAFE and other training for all jobseekers, both under employed and unemployed.
In regional and rural areas where there is a higher concentration of unemployment; this should also put pressure on the Government to decentralise the public sector at state and federal level. In addition, pressure should be placed on the Government to provide attractive incentives for SME’s and large corporations to invest in relocations or start ups in regional and rural areas.
Government change to enhance the current model would also require the adoption of a basic wage, which will shift the public perception of one that jobseekers are welfare dependent, to a perception of a human right to a basic wage for all citizens. This will also enable the underemployed to be as competitive for jobs as the unemployed. Currently some incentives favour only the long term unemployed and lock the under employed out of the labour market. Punitive measures such as income management (basic card) and financial penalties would not longer need to exist.
The most critical shift that needs to occur is for citizens to reject the stigmatising narrative that currently exists around those seeking employment today, as this narrative is the antecedent for the entire burden of secure employment to fall on the jobseeker, rather than the onus of providing citizens with full, secure employment on the Government.
All of the above can be achieved and it can start with a rejection of the current dehumanising and stigmatising narrative surrounding jobseekers; and it should start with all of us today.
“Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.”