Do you remember the days when better systems were in place to help the unemployed? Loz Lawrey reflects on those better days, and where the system started to go wrong.
Ah, the seventies. Heady days of my youth. I remember them well. A healthy job market full of “opportunities” for those who wanted them, and a social security system which really was a safety net providing help to those who needed it and benefiting our broader society as well.
In those days, crime was for the greedy, because the system actually provided a financial support allowance to people who, for one reason or another, couldn’t or didn’t work. No need to mug people to survive back then.
Unemployment Benefit (UB) (as it was called before the name was changed to the weasel-term “Newstart Allowance” in 1991) was paid to individuals who were “out of work, were capable and willing to undertake suitable work and had taken reasonable steps to obtain work.” Period. End of story. No further questions asked.
Still less than a living wage, it was enough to get by on for those prepared to live more communally by sharing housing and resources.
For those motivated in directions other than jobseeking, the Unemployment Benefit (fondly known as the Dole) offered a means of survival which bought them time to think, to seek, to create or simply waste their lives in ways inoffensive to society at large.
For some, the Dole was their arts grant, their opportunity to “have a go” in their chosen medium. Musicians, visual artists, writers and thespians abounded in a social environment which openly supported their antics, assisted by a system which indulged and tolerated them by providing meal money.
How friendly the system seemed back then. So many of my friends would move to Bellingen, Nimbin or other northern Shangri-La, then remember they had to notify Social Security that they had relocated. “Could you send my cheque to Seaview St, Coff’s Harbour, please? Oh, and in a month I’ll be moving to Fun Valley, Northern NSW.” No problem. Just send your form in . . .
There was no nasty requirement to “only move to areas of high employment” or to remain within city limits. In those days, the provision of welfare was a service to the community provided by our federal government for the benefit of all. Funded by citizens fortunate enough to be earning taxable incomes, those in need among us were held aloft by the welfare state, by our ‘Common Wealth’.
As a client of the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) and the Department of Social Security (DSS), every citizen was treated with respect and most definitely given the “benefit of the doubt” with regard to the validity of their claim for assistance.
The CES was a long way from the $1.3 billion privatised Job Network case-management industry it has morphed into over time. It was a free taxpayer-funded service.
In those days life was simple. If you sought work, you checked “positions vacant” in the newspaper or you wandered down to the CES.
You checked the job-board notices and you had a brief interview with a case manager who would assess your suitability as a candidate for whatever vacancy was open.
If nothing was available at the time, the case manager would hand you a stamped, endorsed Unemployment Benefit form to “take down to Social Security”.
From that day on, until you found employment, a benefit cheque from the DSS would arrive every fourteen days.
Perhaps my memories of those times are rose-coloured, a soft-focus hippie-eyed view that leaves out the bad bits. But this is how I remember our social safety net, without the meanness, the uncaring sociopathic detachment of today’s system. Now, people are treated as cattle to be herded and criminals to be punished, easily manipulated by a “tick-the-boxes” profit-driven case management system where real-world outcomes for clients are of least and last concern.
Today, in an environment where 780,000 jobseekers are competing for some150,000 vacancies it is clear that people who can’t find employment aren’t lazy “leaners”. They are individuals who can’t find jobs because there simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone.
Sadly, the system as it’s currently structured is at worst badly broken, dysfunctional at best.
Privatising government services benefits no one but the private sector providers who fall over each other in the scramble to collect the golden eggs laid by the government goose.
Privatisation is the inevitable outcome of handing power to politicians who have lost sight of the public interest and view society as an economic business model, rather than an organic collective of Great Apes.
In such a model service provision becomes user-pays and profit-driven. The concept of “service” becomes subsumed by the quest for ever greater profits. Boxes are ticked, not to chart measurable positive outcomes for clients but to ensure the funding cash-cow can be milked into the future.
The privatisation of services and the selling-off of publicly-owned assets purchased over years by Australian taxpayers are not decisions which short-term governments should be empowered to make.
Surely governments of all stripes bear a responsibility to act as stewards of the public estate as well as responsible managers of our public accounts.
Selling state-owned assets to would-be oligarchs is a form of theft, a blatant betrayal of all Australians and their right to a share in the Common Wealth. A double betrayal in fact, because a profit margin is tacked onto the cost of services which were once delivered for free.
Privatisation is generally sold to voters with the hollow promise that competition among providers will lower costs. That promise however, is never fulfilled. Privatisation invariably inflates the cost and customers pay more.
At the end of the day, privatisation of government services is symptomatic of a culture of neoliberalism, a culture in which governments become too lazy to manage the services and infrastructure the electorate expect them to maintain.
Under a neoliberal regime, assets owned by the people are handed over to rich elites at bargain-basement prices. Wealth flows upwards, away from the majority and never trickles back down. The poor are made poorer.
The recent publicity around the dysfunctional privatised JobNetwork has exposed a fraud-riddled system in which profiteer contractors ride roughshod over the very clients they should be serving, with the sole aim of maximising their own business turnover.
Individuals are treated as grist to the job-mill, pawns in a game where the odds are stacked against them.
A common practice, known as “parking” in the job business, is to ignore the needs of clients seen as less employable, or perhaps older or requiring a greater investment of time and resources.
Thus the lives of many are violated, disrupted and put on hold by a corrupt system with skewed priorities which serves its own ends before those of its clients.
We’re a long way from the seventies. In those days we had a social democracy and it worked. Our society felt secure.
Today we have a Prime Minister who blatantly sows the seeds of fear and division. A Fearmonger-General.
With the Abbott government’s budgetary attacks on so many sectors of our society, life in Oz has never felt less secure.
Tony Abbott does not offer us a vision of unity and hope for the future. Instead he tries to drag us into his xenophobic, conservative and fearful mindset from the past. He doesn’t lead us forward, he takes us backward.
Sadly, we seem to have chosen (or allowed to be chosen for us) something lesser than we once had.
We’ve chosen privatisation, corruption, selfishness, fear, meanness and lack of empathy over the fair go.
Why would we do that?