By Loz Lawrey
Throughout the current Coalition government’s term in office, social activist groups and even business leaders have been calling for the abysmally low Newstart (now JobSeeker) payment of $565.70 per fortnight to be raised to at least a minimum level that affords recipients the ability to meet their basic needs: food, shelter and the necessities of life.
In real terms, the rate of Newstart has been frozen at its current punitive level since 1994, as this 2016 article in The Conversation explains.
For years, successive governments have allowed this social justice issue to fester as one of the elephants in Australia’s room (like climate change inaction, the inhumane treatment of indigenous Australians and asylum seekers in detention… etc… ).
A religious obsession with neoliberalism has always strangled the Coalition’s ability to acknowledge and respond effectively to the real-world issues that our nation confronts.
That cultish ideology reframes every debate in money market terms: the economy becomes pre-eminent and over-arching while society, where the actual real people reside with their very real need for assistance and support from a government that claims to govern in their name. Trickle down rules.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has, however, thrown the economic and social cards into the air and forced the Morrison government to deliver what society required: an immediate all-encompassing (more or less) protective response to both the pandemic itself and its resultant economic damage and unemployment.
Suddenly, the Coalition’s tiresome judgmental weasel statements such as “a fair go for those who have a go” sound like the screech of fingernails on blackboard.
At times like these, what choice do conservative governments have? Knocked off their ideological perches and pedestals, they embrace a form of socialism. And throw some money around in the public interest.
This irony has not escaped many, but what choice do they have? Australia is, after all, a social democracy and we expect our governments to step up and act to assist us all in times of crisis.
Although it has been widely reported that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic the Morrison government has “doubled” the fortnightly JobSeeker payment, this is in fact not the case. The payment remains at $565.70, or a mere $40.40 per day.
It is the provision of a separate additional “coronavirus supplement” of $550.00 per fortnight that has, for practical purposes, “doubled” the payment, bringing it to $1,115.70 or $79.69 per day.
Why not just increase the JobSeeker payment? Why the separate ”coronavirus supplement”? It’s simple. In September 2020, once eradication or sufficient suppression of the virus has been achieved and things return, to some extent at least, to “normal” (we hope), the Coalition intends to jettison the supplement and return JobSeeker payments to the previous punitive and insufficient Newstart level of a mere $40.40 per day.
Yes, they are indeed that bloody-minded.
What the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted is this: the government has only succeeded in keeping pre-pandemic unemployment payments at such a low level because charities have taken up the slack and unemployed Australians were an easily-disregarded minority.
Come September, those charities expect a surge in demand they will be unable to meet should payments revert to previous levels. Let’s not forget that vast numbers of newly unemployed Australians may never work again and may require ongoing assistance.
The arrival of the pandemic and the need for a Keynesian “pump-priming” response forced the Morrison government to raise the Jobseeker payment to a level that actually worked in the real world.
It’s one thing to demonise, marginalise and underpay unemployed Australians when they constitute a small percentage of the population, but quite another to treat the hordes of citizens who’ve lost their livelihoods in the past three months with similar contempt.
Under the Coalition, the JobSeeker payment has been kept deliberately low, an inadequate support payment deliberately designed to punish those unable (or, in the government’s twisted view, unwilling) to find employment.
When only a small percentage of the population is unemployed, they become easy targets for demonisation by others.
When most Australians are enjoying the good times provided by a healthy economy, for those left behind the “dole bludger” myth is easily maintained, stoked as it is by commercial media and conservative politicians. With the arrival of COVID-19 that myth collapsed.
The millions of working Australians who’ve lost their livelihoods due to the effects of the pandemic cannot be tarred with the brush of laziness that the Morrisons of this world have always applied to those in need.
In Australia in 2018-19, the “poverty line” (measured as 50% of median income) was $457.00 per week for a single adult or $65.28 per day.
The poverty line represents the income level below which an individual is considered “poor” and unable to provide for their daily needs. Clearly $40.40 per day represents a level of support that leaves recipients living in a state of constant stress and anxiety, struggling to pay for rent, bills and food.
It should be a given that, in a civilised society, even one suffering from the current pandemic-induced upheavals, that social support payments for the unemployed and disadvantaged should never be allowed to fall below the poverty line.
That line represents the cutoff point, the social Plimsoll line below which loss of dignity, misery and marginalisation become the lived experience of those forced to rely on welfare.
By adding a coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker, the government raised the payment to a level that sits just above the poverty line, a level at which the many recently unemployed could manage to pay their rent, feed their kids and survive these most difficult times.
Surely this is the level at which it should have already been set? The Coalition’s creation of the Corona virus supplement was a clear admission that payment levels to date had been woefully inadequate. It also helped them avoid howls of anger and outrage from the most recently unemployed.
So what will happen come September? Will the pandemic still be with us? Will the need for lockdowns and social distancing still be the dominant force?
Whatever the answer, the JobSeeker allowance must not be allowed to revert to pre-pandemic levels.
We must ensure that future governments focus on job creation rather than implementing a regime that punishes those with no job.
COVID-19 has taught many formerly working Australians a harsh lesson about unemployment: that dole bludger can easily be you. And you can find yourself in the dole queue overnight.
We can only hope that in the future our society and its governments will show more compassion and understanding to those of us who, at one time or another in their lives, need help.
Trade unionists, social activist groups, charities and individuals are now coming together to endorse the simple claim for a Living Income, in other words a minimum social support payment that allows recipients to provide for themselves and continue their quest for employment with the dignity that all members of society deserve.
The Living Incomes For Everyone (LIFE) campaign is organising via Facebook to ensure $1,100 per fortnight becomes the absolute minimum payment below which no-one should be forced to struggle for survival.
This national campaign is receiving more endorsements from groups and individuals each day as we head for the government’s cutoff date of 27 September. The list of participating organisations is growing longer and longer and is regularly updated here.
The grassroots LIFE campaign is people-driven.
You can find a summary of its demands here.
To participate, go to the Living Incomes For Everyone Facebook page.
To find out more and to hear speakers from some of the collaborating organisations, you can attend the official online launch of the LIFE campaign on 21 July at 7.30pm here.
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