Ben Eltham | Hard Work PM Goes Hard On Battlers

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A new report by Skills Australia shows the strange disconnects in the Gillard Government’s welfare, education and training policies, writes Ben Eltham

First published in New Matilda here

If there’s one thing we know about Julia Gillard, it’s how much she values hard work.

Our Prime Minister seems to have a disciplinarian streak. “Setting the alarm clock early” has become an enduring theme of her speeches, like this one to the Sydney Institute entitled “The Dignity of Work”.

And while she admires hard work, the Prime Minister is not such a big fan of welfare. For reasons that are reported to baffle some Labor backbenchers, Gillard has made welfare reform the topic of a number of announcements and media appearance in recent months.

Just this week, the Prime Minister has been at it again, announcing a new pilot program that will force single mothers to accept tough new conditions on their welfare payments. From the start of 2012, teenage parents will be required to attend “compulsory support and engagement interviews with Centrelink” until they complete Year 12, or until their youngest child turns six.

Welfare groups slammed the announcement. ACOSS’s Cassandra Goldie pointed out that the announcement reinforced negative stereotypes and argued that “we should be in there providing positive supports and not developing policy on a presumption that you don’t want to be a good parent.”

Eva Cox pointed to the disconnect between the new policy and Labor’s introduction of paid parental leave.

“This is the year Families Minister Jenny Macklin brought in parental leave payments to allow mothers to spend more time with their children,” she wrote. “Yet here we have another initiative that suggests that some mothers should spend less time with their children because they are young, poor and need income support.”

The new announcement seems to be part of a developing pattern for the government, in which certain groups in the community appear to be more deserving of support than others. Welfare quarantining, for instance, continues in the Northern Territory, but does not apply to most welfare recipients. Similarly, Gillard was this week trumpeting extra Family Tax Benefits money for families with children aged 16-19 and still studying, at the same time she was announcing the tough love for teenage mums.

Gillard has some high expectations of welfare recipients. As she explained in her Sydney Institute speech:

“I will fight the prejudice that says some people’s lot is drawing a fortnightly cheque, that we shouldn’t expect anything more of them and it doesn’t matter if they are forgotten by policy makers and the society around them.

“The social and economic reality of our country is that there are people who can work who do not.”

It’s a sad indictment of the Prime Minister’s rapidly developing sense of paternalist social values that we never hear this sort of rhetoric about self-funded retirees, for instance, many of whom could also work if they so chose, and who enjoy significant taxpayer support through the tax concessions on their investments. Nor, I’m sure, will there be any tough new requirements for ex-Prisoners of War, who this week received a fillip in the form of an extra $500 in government benefits.

The point is not that ex-POW’s don’t deserve their extra pension money. It’s that the government is playing politics with welfare, singling out some groups for special praise and while others are denigrated for their supposed failures.

Many welfare groups have also pointed out that one of the key barriers preventing single parents from going back to school or work is a lack of affordable child care. Nor would some mothers necessarily want to send their child into care at six months, which is very young for childcare by anyone’s definition.

Even more pernicious is the Prime Minister’s apparent inability to understand that raising a child is pretty laborious in and of itself.

“Dole-bludgers” and “welfare mums” are not the real issues in the welfare-to-work transition. The problems of finding a job are more likely to be related to the skills of job-seekers, rather than their willingness to work. At the same time that the Prime Minister is advocating tough welfare reforms, a new report by Skills Australia has established just how under-funded Australia’s TAFE and vocational training system remains.

Our economy is adding jobs in resource-rich regions like the Pilbara and Queensland’s Bowen Basin. But there are also huge pockets of structural disadvantage in Australia’s workforce. It’s not just a shortage of mining engineers or skilled tradespeople. There are big shortfalls in literacy and numeracy across the workforce. According to the peak bodies for training, Australia’s Industry Skills Councils, perhaps 8 million Australians don’t have sufficient skills for training or their work.

“We are in danger of [a] structural mismatch in the Australian labour force persisting”, the Skills Australia report argues, “unless the skills of those who are underemployed or unemployed increase to take advantage of the growth in job opportunities that will open up over the next decade through economic growth and workforce retirements.”

The Skills Australia report takes a long, hard look at Australia’s vocational education and training sector. It finds a sector that is badly under-funded and in need of serious reform. Just to take one obvious example, the fees and incentives structure is complex, opaque and increasingly inaccessible to students and learners. In most states, for instance, vocational qualifications are paid for by students with upfront fees, while the costs of going to uni can be deferred from the HECS system.

In response, the report recommends making training for qualifications up to Certificate III level completely free for students, and making higher qualifications eligible for HECS. Importantly, the authors argue this measure should be uncapped, effectively putting no limit on the number of student places for these foundation-level skills courses. Skills Australia also wants more scholarships and more public funding for TAFEs.

The report says the system should be simplified and different funding streams consolidated, so that apprenticeships and other enterprise-level programs are treated in the same way — and are oriented in the same policy direction.

There’s been no formal response from the government yet, but more investment in skills and training surely represents a better investment of the government’s fast-eroding political capital than another round of meaningless welfare-bashing.

It’s also important for the economy. As the economy begins to grow again, the skills shortages last seen in 2007 will return with a vengeance. There are enough Australians who want to work and enough jobs being created to find work for them. But if the government can’t find a way to match them, then wages will explode on construction and resource projects, and interest rates will keep pushing up.

Interest rates going up quickly won’t be welcomed out in western Sydney. And if there’s one thing this government cares about, it’s the voters of western Sydney.

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