I am not sure what infuriated me more. Hearing that the Liberal Party politicians asked each other how the nation would pay for the miserly increase to JobSeeker - or the news that Canberra's per capita illicit drug consumption is among the highest in the country.
How much fun to be able to spend disposable income on recreation! How much fun. Apparently cocaine is $300 a gram and even cheaper if you buy in bulk, an eight-ball. As Peter Brewer wrote this week, Canberra's estimated cocaine consumption exceeded 880 milligrams per 1000 people per day. A lot. Apparently drug distributors took advantage of the population's "fierce appetite for the product" and the wealth of the locals.
I'm told you can buy a cap of cocaine for about $40. Which is what JobSeeker used to be per day. In a minute it will be $45 a day, including the energy supplement and consumer price indexation.
When the Coalition decided to raise the rate during the pandemic, I figured its longtime hard heart had softened. Somehow the arguments about funding people out of poverty had worked, and sustained political pressure had made it recognise the inadequacy of the social safety net.
That its members realised you can't get a job if you can't look after your health, pay for public transport, dress like an employee, eat enough so you don't faint.
Nope. Nope. Nope. I could not have been more wrong.
The $3.57 per day increase won only lukewarm backing in the Coalition party room. According to the Financial Review, Nationals backbenchers Matt Canavan and Pat Conaghan raised objections to an increase because of the impact it would have on the debt and deficit. Conaghan said he could not support the package, but Canavan said he would not block it. Eighteen MPs and senators spoke about the package during the meeting.
Not one of these pissants said the increase was too low. Not one. These folks earn a couple of hundred grand a year plus various allowances and benefits.
I am sick to death of those who say the pandemic has been good for policy change - and that if we can get increases in the rate of JobSeeker, we are on the right track. Yet every single social security change has been rolled back: decent increases to welfare, free childcare, no punitive mutual obligation. The government is again talking debt and deficit, fiscal responsibility and crime and punishment. Imagine installing a DobSeeker hotline so employers can report someone who has declined a job. As Alison Pennington of the Centre for Future Work explains, mostly people who knock back jobs are doing so because not enough hours are being offered.
"Employers have been continuously breaking down full-time jobs into smaller part-time jobs," she says. Now the government's decision to allow people on unemployment benefits to earn up to $150 before payments are affected will put additional pressure on this trend.
Perhaps we could also have a Dob-in-a-boss hotline, run by the ACTU, which would report poor pay, conditions and hours. And then just livestream all the reports.
Bruce Bradbury, an economist at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, says the government is concerned about whether these payments will take away the incentive to work.
"Right now, we have many more people looking for work than there are jobs available, so even if a few people decide they would rather live on JobSeeker, that would not have any significant impact on the economy," he says.
The economy would have to recover first, and we are a long way from that, he says. There are also more important concerns - will this payment alleviate poverty? The answer is definitely not.
"Parliamentarians are out of touch with what it is like to live on these incomes. They are right at the top of income distribution, the 97th percentile of adult income in Australia."
He is also surprised by the tiny increase, particularly since, even in Morrison's electorate, there will be many people forced onto this reduced payment. It won't only be in those areas stereotypically identified with receiving benefits.
"There are pilots and flight attendants who live in Cronulla. I am a little bit surprised that doesn't have more political weight."
Although who knows what will happen at the next election (which, after a horrorshow couple of weeks for the government, is now a lot further away than we all thought, despite the Prime Minister's own high approval ratings)?
There are no fairness effects in this tiny increase. The government legislated $300 billion in tax cuts and that's all to those who already have plenty of money. Those tax cuts don't end up being circulated into the economy. Instead, they go into savings or houses.
While the government calculates that money will create jobs, the Reserve Bank reported this month that we are, indeed, salting our money away. Mortgage borrowers have made substantial payments into offset and redraw accounts since March last year, "likely to reflect a combination of reduced opportunities for spending, mortgage holders saving for precautionary reasons, and some borrowers depositing cash received from early release superannuation and fiscal payments into these accounts".
And those on JobSeeker don't get that. Mostly they don't have homes. They don't have jobs. They have $45 a day. Just enough for a cap of coke. But that's not what they are spending their money on. Even if the rate was raised to an extra $185 a week, as recommended by the Australian Council of Social Service two years ago, it still wouldn't be enough for recreation.
As independent economist Nicki Hutley says: "Six months ago we were saying 'Build back better, greener, smarter, fairer', but there have been no significant changes on the policy front."
Yep. Still unfair to those who need fairness most.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.