Eva Cox | Making a Society More Fragile

The primary and secondary purpose of Gillard’s first budget as PM appears to be economic growth for its own sake. It fails to deliver any new equity policies that could contribute to good social outcomes. The nearest it comes to social policies is a range of mainly coercive measures to ‘improve’ the supply of low-paid workers. The opportunity to be a paid worker is touted as the ultimate Labor value, but I question whether the measures introduced in the budget adequately help the long term unemployed back into the workforce. The Budget speech failed to provide recognition of the structural or social barriers that many jobseekers face, nor the value of other unpaid contributions that people make to our social well being.

Since Budget night, Wayne Swan has been on the airwaves saying this budget is all about jobs and pushing a form of civilian conscription by coercing people receiving income support into more job seeking. His claim that all of those out of the workforce should be able to find paid work is both unfair and not true, despite the type of assistance on offer.

At any one time there are about 250,000 vacancies, and according to DEEWR’s own figures,most of these employers want good qualifications and, most likely, recent experience. Currently there are at least 1.5 million Australians who are either looking for work or looking for more work. Those left to line up in the Centrelink queues may include many with limited qualifications but among them you will find there are many with skills and credentials. These are the unemployed who may have spent time out of the workforce but are rejected by employers because of age, parental responsibilities, ethnic or other out-group membership.

So is more training the solution? Already many long-term beneficiaries are being pushed into training but, because they have little work experience, they continue to miss out. They are being compelled to jump through further hoops to prove they are prepared to take on paid work despite being unlikely to score one of the few available jobs for the unskilled. The barriers they face are often on the other side of the interview table. There is, interestingly, little in the budget for changing employer attitudes to people with disabilities, sole parents and other stigmatised groups.

And the government knows that even with subsidies, it will be hard to place these groups. Their funding of 10,000 Newstart level subsidies to employers will make hardly a dent on the 230,000 long-term unemployed. Those who will experience jobs growth will be those hired as the trainers and paid invigilators to carry out and enforce the hoop jumping.

This Government is particularly culpable in its continued stereotyping of the unemployed as unwilling workers – leaving the tabloids to rest of the dirty work and translate their rhetoric into phrases like dole ‘bludgers’ and ‘war on the idle’. It is no surprise then that we see them as needing paternalistic coercion. The Treasurer’s tough sounding language in promoting this budget is potentially unfair and seriously damaging to both social trust and the community ethos. Voters who get sucked in by the deliberate stereotyping of sole parents, the unemployed and other out groups are more likely to see others people as not to be trusted. This makes them less likely to manifest political goodwill and social generosity.

The current low levels of political debate and apparent turn off by many voters from optimism about futures suggests that there are serious questions about our levels of social cohesion and resilience.

Yet almost all the political debate is focused economic management which puts up a false view that both the mining boom benefits and the economy will solve all our social problems. The basic assumption is if you have a job, that will solve everything and if not, the government will pressure you into one. The social fabric is not even recognized, let alone mended.

This viewpoint was always going to make a bad budget for those unfortunate Australians who are not contributing their time and efforts in approved Gillard style of hard working early risers. Citizen should make their ‘choices’ as informed but individualised consumers of services, not citizens. The role of government is defined as supporting such choices with a range of sometimes not very useful  payments.

The grossest targeting is moving  ‘grandfathered’ sole parents, whose children turn 12, off parenting payments onto Newstart. They lose up to $57 a week, though now all sole parents on Newstart can keep more of their extra earnings. Presumably, this change is to pressure them into full time work, despite their parenting responsibilities for older children who need supervision.

Interestingly this cut has received much less media attention than the pegging of family payments for some high-income earners. One parent families, whether teens or older, are generally suitable targets for political opprobrium and scapegoating. ‘Tough love’ is persecution when applied coercively to vulnerable groups.

The introduction of income management in some designated areas is further evidence of this punitive attitude. There is no evidence that the NT version actually does improve lives. This less universal WA version, focuses on ‘vulnerable people’, and voluntary sign-ons. It is not clear from the brief limited evaluation whether it is effective,. However, the government is funding extra bureaucrats to control spending with no extra financial resources for the clients.

The coercive approach in all these areas ignores cultural and social disadvantages and differences. It reduces the complex lives in Aboriginal communities, of those with disabilities, or those who care for children into a caricature of a sloth-driven sinner.

There is little in the budget that addresses other inequalities or unfairness. The other offers on the table don’t add to up to a coherent overall plan. Some competing teachers will receive a bonus after stiff assessments but not yet, and the program may not improve standards. Some parents, who keep their late teen children in education will be helped, as long as they are not too well off, and other low income workers may get some of their payments sooner.

Tradies and other small business will get cheaper vehicles but hopefully may have to pay a fairer share of FBT. Pensioners will get a set top box and help installing it (I did my own!) at great expense. There are a few other extra payments for school uniforms, completed apprenticeships and other costs. There are a few obviously good news bits: some extra money for children with disabilities and ageing ex-prisoners of war. There is a hit on presumed higher income parents who fund their children’s HECS and a cut in the Dependent Spouse Rebate for those under 40, which are somewhat redistributive in the right direction. These may add to some perceptions of fairness but there are many other bigger unfair rorts that were not tackled, like superannuation tax concessions.

Overall the budget fails to fulfill its function of making wise decisions on behalf of the people. There is no mention of a good society, based on principles of equity and ethics or interest in the social cohesion that makes democracies resilient.

It fails to show goodwill towards the less politically powerful, or a reasonable balance between interest groups. The budget should have explicit social goals and the economic means to fund these. The government could have used the money in the budget to fund non-existent services for the willing participants:

a network of special education services for those with young children that offer both on site care and flexibility. Then they would have seen whether the mothers they want there would come without coercion. There are few such places now and no ongoing funding.

Instead of forcing work for the dole, some funded community employment places could offer serious work experiences and fill gaps in the social system.

Some tough work on employers who discriminate would get more jobs for those with disability and redesign of jobs to make them work.

A return of CDEP in Indigenous communities and others with some decent capital funding and training would make a lot of sense and empower local communities to act on their problems and needs.

Instead, the budget uses social stereotyping to show the Government as tough. Calculations about GDP and deficits take the place of any overarching vision of the good society that can meet social and economic needs and share collective risks. Unfortunately, creating social fairness that leads to well being is definitely not on the agenda of either major political party.