As I write this, I'm very much aware that Monday was the first operational day of Workforce Australia. The irony is also not lost on me that on the day our friends in the US celebrate "Independence Day" so many in Australia are thinking of Monday as "Dependence Day" and worrying about how this change to the system they are dependent on will affect their lives.
But let's step back for a moment and look at the policy that underpins all of these "programs" we've endured over the decades.
The concept of "mutual obligations" is not new: it was an idea that took root under the Hawke-Keating government and is based on the principle of fairness and reasonableness regarding the expectation of people experiencing unemployment and receiving a "participation payment" to "do their best to find work". Seems sensible enough. After all you can't get something for nothing. Not in this world.
Social services policy since the 1970s has been predicated on the idea that the government had to "motivate" those experiencing unemployment to look for work; that without that "motivation" those who were jobless would remain so. Thus, payments remain unliveable, treatment remains punitive, and social status is negatively stereotyped to motivate them to find work.
The stigma attached to experiencing unemployment has been crafted. Conservative social policy writers such as Lawrence Mead (1986) and Charles Murray (1994) connect "the seriously poor" with a "passivity ... in seizing the opportunities that apparently exist for them". They consider deficits of morality, values, and self-efficacy as the underlying issue because "poverty is rooted in the character of behavioural problems of the poor".
This extreme, elitist and socially-blind view had to be radically (if temporarily) sidelined during COVID, when "normal people" found themselves on the end of the Centrelink queue. Suddenly, Jobseeker was doubled, mutual obligations were shelved and those new to the system wanted to know why those already receiving JobSeeker were able to access the increased funds as well, when "it wasn't their fault" that they were jobless. No kidding.
Instead of creating greater social understanding and compassion about the now shared lived experience, it created a class system within the Centrelink queue.
Fast forward to today, and we have Workforce Australia rolling out - the latest iteration of the same demoralising program. Sure, it's better for some, with the digital option for those short-term jobseekers, but for the majority of them, who are long-term unemployed, it's the same pair of pants, different pocket. And this one's turned out empty too.
Why are we, as a society, so hellbent on demanding people work, when it's to their detriment? When we have people who are caring for children or infirm/elderly family; or who are so deep into depression it's all they can do to get out of bed in the morning; or who have chronic conditions that aren't sufficient to meet the incredibly high threshold that Disability Support demands; why does the system require partial capacity to work, rather than support them to take care of themselves (and others)?
When the average amount of time jobseekers spend on unemployment benefits is more than three years, surely it's time to acknowledge that motivation isn't the problem. After all, if three years under the thumb of Centrelink, living below the poverty line with an ever-increasing cost of living can't "motivate" a person to find work, what can?
I'm glad you asked.
Let's scrap mutual obligations. Let's scrap punitive penalty "zones". Let's scrap demeaning, ineffective employment services that are just focused on numbers.
Let's build a labour market that is adaptable to, and accepting of, individual's flexible working needs. Let's talk to the participants to understand their unique support requirements and ensure that they have the healthcare, emotional support and mental space to be in a good place to look for work. Let's build confidence through genuinely qualified, and optional work with a careers consultant when they are ready.
Let's take care of those who need it most, and invest in their future as our own. Wouldn't that be the moral, values-based approach to nurturing a society? Unless the government models morality and values, how can anyone expect the people to act so?
Can you imagine a world where the government acknowledges that the worst thing that can come from such a policy standpoint is people being fed and cared for?
Only in my dreams.
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