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Scrap the digital workhouse. An open letter to Tony Burke.

We know you are new in your job, Tony and face not only the huge demands of your portfolio but a backlog of catastrophic ineptitude and deceit left you by a Morrison government whose criminal negligence of health and welfare was rivalled only by its pandering to corporate oligarchs and its bent for wholesale corruption, but can you, please, reconsider Pbas?

Pbas is the points-based system that the Coalition was keen to inflict on job-seekers, a jobactive revamp it promoted as “more flexible” than mandatory job application. It’s not. It’s Liberal propaganda designed to pillory job seekers for being out of work. Lazy dole-bludgers. Political point-scoring. Baked into it is unconscionable, sadistic cruelty and victim-blaming. It’s the antithesis of everything we’ve come to associate with Labor.

Above all, Pbas won’t work. It’s too complex. It’s discriminatory and opaque. Users are at the mercy of a computer that decides if they’ve earned enough points. Of course, there are numbers to ring and visits you can make but have you ever tried to visit or ring Centrelink? Now Services Australia, another brave new oxymoron, says it is cutting work to outsourced call centres by thirty per cent. It’s as if they’ve set up the new system and Labor to fail. It’s a $7 billion dollar booby trap. You don’t want to crash and burn so soon after winning office.

Clients also are set up to fail. 200,000 people every month had payments suspended in Jobactive. Who knows how they met their rent or bought their groceries? ACOSS warns that Pbas will replicate this cruelty. It takes the Jobactive debacle and makes it worse.

It’s cruel. Pbas will make it harder for the poor and needy to get support, in the same ways that Morrison’s regime restricted access to the NDIS and individuals had their funding cut. Liberals love to scare us into believing that welfare is a crippling financial liability. Yet corporate welfare is vital. Billions are blown in subsidies to wealthy corporate donors. But look after the aged, the disabled, the poor and the needy? A burden we can’t afford. Nonsense. In fact, there are huge economic benefits in being a responsible government supporting and empowering all Australians. Take the NDIS as an example.

The economic benefit of the NDIS in 2020/21 was $52.4 billion, according to Per Capita. It adds economic activity worth $29 billion to $23.3 billion in NDIS spending. $2.25 was delivered to the economy for every dollar spent, it calculates. Conversely, there are huge costs beyond every pension dollar withheld. Consider the harm Pbas does to a jobseeker’s self-esteem. Bad enough you’re between jobs – or that you can’t get enough hours. Now you’re going to incur demerits as you lose points on Pbas.

Imagine the emotional labour and frustration of having to navigate a system so absurdly arbitrary and punitive that it is dubbed “Hunger Games meets Black Mirror”.

No wonder job seekers sampled recently used the word “suicidal” in their responses to how the new scheme could make them feel. Surely Labor could heed the warnings. No-one has forgotten or forgiven Robodebt. Do you really want to go down this path?

Not only will many be set up to fail the test, which favours the more literate job-seeker with resources such as access to a digital device, internet and time, but Pbas fails us as a compassionate, civil society. It fails Labor, too. If Labor still believes in a fair go. Has Labor done any research? Monash University’s David O’Halloran has conducted an online survey. His 447 job seekers were not only worried about getting a hundred points, a key feature of the system, they were afraid they’d be penalised, another design highlight.

Best heed the early warnings. Listen, as the PM promised he would listen to all Australians. Do you really want to continue the welfare terrorism of Coalition governments?

O’Halloran reckons, “ … harm was actually being designed into the system”.

In his view it’s “still based on the assumption, if you’re unemployed, you don’t want to work”.

I know, Labor supported Pbas in the last government. It’s tricky. Small target strategy can mean you snooker yourself. But you are the government. You can scrap it tomorrow. I’ve read your press releases. You’ve “tweaked it”, you say. But you can’t polish a turd. Pbas is hurtful. It’s been designed that way.

The same crew who brought us Robodebt. presents, Robo Task. Ta-Da. Starring a nifty computer algorithm to cut off your funds. Pbas is not a humane welfare system – but a digital workhouse set up to brutalise people in desperate economic need and push them out of the system and onto the street,” warns The Unemployed Workers Union. Bill Shorten uses the same image.

You’ll need to be computer-savvy, too. As ACOSS helpfully points out. “Your payment may be suspended if you do not complete the report for your points at the end of your reporting period. You will need to report these points to stop your payment from being suspended.” But let’s say you get your hundred points. How helpful is the site?

I just did a search on your new Jobactive 2.0 website. Guess what? As with everything else Morrison, it’s a dud. There’s not a single job in our regional town of around 9,000 people. Petrol is up to $2.20 a litre in town but there are a few jobs if you travel an hour each day. That’s just if you are lucky enough to get an interview. The bigger centres have plenty of locals on their books and an industry of job agencies. But PBAS is more than a website, of course, it’s a points system masquerading as self-help in that unctuous, patronising, condescending tone trademark of the Morrison horror-show.

Here’s a sample.

“Do you want to improve your English, reading and writing skills? Improving these skills could help you find a job or lead to other study or employment opportunities. The Skills for Education and Employment program is a free program that can provide you with training to improve your reading, writing, maths and digital skills.” Of course, it will. It will also improve the bottom line of the Pbas tutorial agencies that will pullulate, like mushrooms in the dark, all over the country, overnight.

The SEE program will help you overcome obstacles and achieve your career goals. You’ll gain new skills and confidence and learn alongside others with similar experience. The training is flexible to suit you, so you can do full or part-time, in a classroom or at home. You can even gain a certificate-level qualification through the SEE program. To see if you can join, contact your Employment Services Provider or Centrelink.”

Life’s hard enough if you’re one of the 1,360,100, the ABS reckons are unemployed, underemployed or unlucky enough to be retired but too young to go on the pension. You must make do on a pittance that is below the poverty line.

There is a full-blown crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of Australians who face vegetable price rises of 27% annually, pro-rata over the first three months of this year. Basics such as baked beans and sausages are up 20%-30%.

The penurious amount paid to Centrelink pensioners is a national scandal that governments are able to ignore because they are marginalised and voiceless. Helping is a Murdoch-led media which is keen to scapegoat those out of work as bludgers. Yet steep rises in the cost of food, rent, power and fuel are turning crisis into catastrophe. You own five houses, Tony, You enjoy a high salary, generous allowances, a top superannuation scheme and you’ve just had a 2.75 per cent pay rise. Can you even begin to imagine what it’s like to have to get by on fifty-four dollars a day? (With rental assistance.)

We have a clear idea because our wonderful 37-year-old daughter has to do just that. Matilda’s degenerative bone disease means she’s in continuous pain. She’ll need two new hip replacements shortly. It’s seven months to see a pain specialist.

Centrelink puts hurdles in her way. Her pain can only get worse yet Matilda must continuously get certificates from a GP to be exempt from applying for jobs she’s got no show of ever getting, let alone doing and which are scarce enough in a regional town. Fifty-four dollars if you qualify for rent assistance looks pitiful against the $291 per day that you can claim for accommodation in Canberra. It’s more if you have to stay in other cities. Unlike your job, Tony, with your accommodation and your travel allowances, there’s no fringe benefits in Matilda’s job. Matilda doesn’t get enough hours at her workplace where she’s worked for seven years without sick leave or benefits because she’s a “permanent casual”, an oxymoronic term embracing up to a quarter of the workforce.

The way workplaces are run these days means that more and more Australians are working casual shifts. It saves the boss a fortune but work itself becomes ever more precarious. And stressful. Along with many other young workers with special needs, our daughter has difficulty coping with change. I’m our daughter’s nominee in dealing with Centrelink but there’s been no warning of the change. It starts July 1st. Granted, no-one will be penalised in the first month but it will take all of that to get over the shock of having the rules changed so suddenly and without any consultation, whatsoever, with prospective users. The PM promises a government that will listen. How hard would it be to consult those vulnerable men and women who must suffer your grand design? At $7 billion dollars, Pbas is an unwarranted extravagance for any government let alone a Labor government which has its origins in looking after workers and their families. It’s just another costly way to punish the 548,100 unemployed and the 821,000 the ABS tells us are underemployed. (It’s far more than these statistics show given the way data is collected.)

You are not unemployed for example if you live on a family farm or are part of a family business and do one hour’s work a week unpaid. You do not enter unemployment statistics if you have given up looking for work. Or if you have given up on the system altogether because it’s all too hard. Is that your aim, Tony? Save the welfare spend by getting the poor job-seeker to drop out? We hope not. But if you continue with Pbas that’s what will happen. Not to mention the confusion, suffering and distress you will inflict on some of our most vulnerable by proceeding with a points-based system that is unworkable, unfair and downright cruel.

A society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members. So far, Labor is breaking its election promise to be a government for all Australians by proceeding with a job-seeker system that discriminates against the powerless, poor and marginalised worker who has too few hours or who, increasingly, may be unable to find work. Would the women and the young people who voted for you, have done so had they known you were simply going down the Morrison government’s road of punishing the poor and vulnerable? You say it’s too late to change. It’s not. You’re in government. You can halt Pbas immediately. Dismantle the digital workhouse. Jobseekers, the aged and the disabled don’t need more ways to make them feel they are a burden. Take the $37 billion you are going to give to the rich. Use it to help create fair and liveable pensions instead.

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  1. Shay

    The truth is if this new govt persists with policies akin to the shits that were booted out we are all stuffed. All those on jobseeker that live in poverty are yet again demonised. Tony Burke can scrap this immediately. He says he can’t and that’s rubbish. Oh well he owns five houses so he doesn’t have to worry. I’m pro Labor but Labor so far hasn’t demonstrated a willingness to help those in need the most. Takes time? Bullshit..can be done now.
    Then there is the Sri Lankan boats turn back. This country can afford to help them. They have been sent back to a living hell.

  2. Jackie

    I read that the new government cant actually just “scrap” this new system because the Morrison govt had already signed contracts with the “providers” (probably yet another bomb they were leaving behind for Labor to deal with.) Tony Burke came out this afternoon and said theyd made more changes and Sky News had an article about changes/exemptions to people who didnt fit the usual mould of unemployed, they were able to make that may well apply to David’s daughter. Lets hope so. Keep us posted David, you will be speaking for several others. If the contracts are watertight, there must be some other way Labor can cater for Matilda and others like her.

  3. Michael Taylor

    Jackie, assuming that the rules haven’t changed from my days in the department that awarded the contracts (under Rudd and Gillard), contracts were renewed on a annual basis.

    When the year is up, one would hope that Labor write a new set of terms of reference before the next round of contracts are up for grabs.

  4. RoadKillCafe

    Maybe they will, in the fullness of time, but when you have an environment minister that supports the Beetaloo Basin rape, plus other environmentally destructive issues, where is the confidence that this “government” is the real deal and not just more corrupt arseholes.

  5. David Tyler

    Jackie, will keep you posted. As Matilda’s nominee I can tell you that there’s been no communication whatsoever so far and the points system- albeit with Burke’s period of grace- starts tomorrow. I’ve also written both to the PM and Tony Burke.

    Michael, you’d hope so but Morrison’s a dab hand with closed tenders and other apparently non competitive tendering practices – so it’s difficult to have any confidence.

    RKC, you make your point well. I’m worried about the amount of neoliberalism in the composition of Labor’s policies so far. And utterly dismayed by the PMs choice of Glyn Davis as secretary of PMC. Davis was the author of the Melbourne Model of merchandising tertiary education, pricing out all but the rich.

  6. wam

    labor must find the evidence to publicly condemn robodebt and dismantle the non-human decisions. The money needed could come from subsidy reassessment?
    Churches could be prevented from sending money, earned here, to overseas sources and money spent here?

  7. David Tyler

    Wam, you make a good point. Fossil fuel subsidies cost Australians a staggering $11.6 billion in 2021-22, an increase of $1.3 billion in the last year, according to new Australia Institute research.

    The total value of future fossil fuel subsidies already committed in Federal, state and territory budgets is $55.3 billion – more than 10 times the balance of Australia’s Emergency Response Fund ($4.8 billion in Dec 2021), while $11.6 billion is 56 times the budget of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency.

    Redirecting this into our job seekers and our NDIS and renewables would be a much smarter and more prductive investment.

  8. Max Gross

    Stating the obvious gets so-ooo tedious but here I go again: there are more jobless Aussies than there are suitable job vacancies.

  9. Arnd

    So there are 548,100 unemployed in Australia, each of whom is meant to pump out 20 job applications per month, on pain of having their already way too meagre payments further curtailed? That’s … – that’s … – that’s A WHOLE LOT of job applications.

    Every month. And the next. And the next after that. And the one following that. And the one after that, too.

    Almost sounds like a work creation scheme in its own right. David Graeber, of Bullshit Jobs fame, would be so proud!

  10. David Tyler

    Arnd, thank you. I’ll follow up your reference. Our daughter, a permanent casual can get called in for a three hour shift. I doubt that her total hours will satisfy Robo Task, so her anxiety will not be helped by being offered a smorgasbord of BS training opportunities from which she must choose the least unpalatable. It doesn’t look promising.

  11. Fred

    Arnd: There were 480,100 job vacancies in May and with 548,100 unemployed, it would appear that some are going to miss out 🙂

    I’d venture the probability of the skill set and proximity of the unemployed matching the job vacancies to be well under 50%. Having to effectively submit a job application each working day is nonsense. Surely Minister Bourke has enough intelligence to see the stupidity of the requirements… ? Here we go again – we haven’t learned a thing about how Robo debt style disasters get started.

  12. Harry Lime

    The only thing seemingly lacking in some of these non-decisions is the will.If the government is serious about making OZ a place for everyone,and is fair dinkum about egalitarianism, they CAN do it.Burke Bowen ,etc have to stop dipping the lid to Fossil Fuel wallahs and screaming media fuckwits. Never mind about our “election promises”, now you’re the government,do what is required. Half measures won’t cut the mustard.We’ve just had a decade of this spurious bullshit.The afterglow of the drubbing of our worst ever government is starting to wear off.The last thing we need is business as usual with a spit and polish. When Albo completes his global laps(good job Albo),there’s a mountain of work to do at home.Have a couple of days off,get around a couple of neck oils to get over the jetlag,then head down and arse up.A lot of us are counting on you.And ditch the neoliberal’s a proven failure and society destroyer. Sorry about the rant,still recovering from a camera crew up the Khyber this morning.

  13. leefe

    I’m so glad to be off that treaqdmill. Having my DSP appplication finally granted was one of the best days not spent out bush. I would not survive this new system – assuming I’d made it this far.

    With any luck, the new government will bring a liittle commonesense to the DSP and NDIS so Matilda can take it a little easier.

  14. RoadKillCafe

    As a bye the bye, Thankyou David Tyler, you write a good yarn and, as always, Harry Lime on the money — “now you’re the government, do what is required. Half measures won’t cut the mustard . . .”
    In my fantasy world we have a government of good hearted, honest and committed politicians willing and able to speak truth, fuck that evil old scroat, Murdoch. Seriously, there is much more at stake than your ideology, your me too, get up, fucking stand up, tell it like it is, no more spin, no more bullshit, you are the government, not the fucking thieving, rotten multi nationals, you fucking tell them, FFS, come on, you fuckers, enough.

  15. RoadKillCafe

    Really, Labor, you are aware, surely, how badly independents monstered high profile Libs, all campaigning on environmental issues and integrity, read the signs, we are, some of us, at least, not completely brain dead, we know we are in deep shit, forget your egos, stop trying to prepare the way for another term.
    You don’t wish to scare the horses, well, go look in the stables, horses bolted long ago, time to stand up, if you are able.
    News flash, climate change is real, global warming is real, destruction of the ecosystem is real, all happening now and, for fuck sake, subsidies to fossil fuel.
    Fuck me.

  16. David Tyler

    Harry, you are spot on about the will. If Labor is not resolute now when the new government still enjoys the afterglow, then Murdoch and his minions will take it to the cleaners. Before the Coalition’s election rout, Andrew Bolt was working up the lie … “what makes Albanese a risk is his judgment.” Bolt worries that the PM will be guided by his “warm fuzzies” and not “cool reason”.

    Leefe, a little commonsense would be welcome. Common courtesy and respect would help, too. We need an inquiry into the utter disdain, if not sheer contempt, distrust and suspicion shown to pensioners by those employed by or contracted to the government to help. It’s not all bad, but in general, those seeking help feel belittled, doubted, ignored rather than supported.

    RKC, thank you. Speaking the truth now is vital to Labor’s chances of success, later when recession hits and the going gets really tough. MPs can truthfully say that Labor can’t afford to continue the previous government’s middle-class welfare and that the third round of tax cuts is cancelled. The Liberals would have no hesitation in walking back any or all of their campaign pledges if they could even pretend that a policy wasn’t funded. Look at how they carried on about the NDIS.

  17. RoadKillCafe

    Yes, David, a bloody horrible situation, hoping all goes well for and your family and all the many that have been bastardised by these, cruel, callous, corrupt and exceedingly incompetent mongrels. We help those in need, or at least that was once the theory, we don’t belittle, we help, don’t we, shouldn’t we? Ultimately that will be all of us, the ecosystem is crashing. What has happened to us that we accept these inequities, this cruelty to those in need. Time to put up or shut up, Labor.

  18. Trev

    David, the potential for misuse by bad actors of Pbas really is ‘Hunger Games meets Black Mirror’. Govt reactions to the ‘pandemic’ this last 2 years resulted in the destruction of many small businesses. The govt Pbas plan will further replace real jobs with lifelong training. Participants will be online much of the day and at some point in the future trainees will be wired up to haptic suits as some kind of digital twin tech to drive what is left of real production. This is all done under the pretense there’s meaningful work just over the horizon.
    The real reason of making increasing numbers of job seekers jump through digital-training hoops is not to train job seekers. It is to train AI. Job seekers caught in this Hunger Games Black Mirror nightmare are having their capacitant attributes picked over for the benefit of AI depth of learning. This is the trap of technology. Making much of humankind irrelevant is the reason for the 5G rollout. Much of humanity is destined to fill the role of servidor for the Internet of Things. The IoT, driven by AI algos written by a tech class on behalf of the super wealthy, is anti-human. Alison McDowell has a lot of background on this topic.

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