Editorial Bruce Duncan
5 March 2021
Business leaders, economists, and social agencies were stunned and appalled by the recent refusal of the Morrison government to lift unemployment by more than a measly $3.57 a week, amounting to a grand total of $44.35 a day on which to live. The increase will go to nearly two million people, including those on Austudy, Youth Allowance, and parenting payments. The rate of Newstart had not increased since the early 1990s, after allowing for inflation. Cassandra Goldie called the decision “a heartless betrayal of millions of people with the least”. It showed this “cruel decision” showed “a complete lack of humanity and empathy”.
Joshua Lourensz, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria, the peak body for 40 organisations servicing 200,000 Victorians, said they were “shocked and dismayed” when the number of people on unemployment payments in January reached 371,000 in Victoria, an increase of 300,000 over pre-COVID figures. Unable to pay for food, rent, or medical bills, many were relying on overwhelmed social agencies like Vinnies and the Salvos. The mutual obligation requirements added further burdens, and were an actual obstacle for many to finding work. Job seekers will need to apply for 15 jobs a month (20 jobs from July).
The Coronavirus Supplement of $275 a week augmented the JobSeeker payment, but the supplement was cut to $125 in September, and to $75 a week until it expires at the end of March. From 1 April, however, the increase to JobSeeker of a mere $25 a week puts it on a par with the level back in 2007, 41 percent of the current minimum wage. Including the energy supplement, JobSeeker will be at $312 a week, $138 below the relative poverty line, or two-thirds of the age pension, according to Brendan Coates and Matt Cowgill at the Grattan Institute. The maximum rent assistance for a single person is $140 per fortnight if they have to pay $310 per fortnight in rent.
Unemployment in January 2021 was still high, nevertheless, at 877,000 people, or 6.4 percent, and one in five of these people has been out of work for at least a year. Underemployment was 8.1%.
The reaction from the welfare sector was one of complete dismay. St Vincent de Paul’s national president, Claire Victory, said the Society was “dumbfounded” by the government’s slashing support for the unemployed, especially since a substantial increase was widely expected. She said the increase to Newstart should have been $370 a fortnight, not $50. And the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, Ursula Stephens, called the decision “mean-spirited and shortsighted”, “a betrayal of trust” to people trying to build their lives.
Mission Australia’s James Toomey said the new rate was ‘unfathomable’ and would plunge many people into ‘immense distress and insecurity’. Kasy Chambers from Anglicare Australia was amazed that unemployment benefits would be cut to nearly half the poverty line.
What is absolutely unacceptable about the political failure adequately to support unemployed people is that such punitive hardship is quite unnecessary. As various economists are saying, the money can readily be found to help them through such a stressful time of life.
The March Newsletter
In this Social Policy Connections newsletter, Major Jenny Begent, National Head of Social Policy for The Salvation Army in Australia, explains her shock at the JobSeeker cuts. “This JobSeeker announcement fails miserably in ensuring fair outcomes for those most in need.”
Prominent economist Ross Garnaut argues that the government has to act vigorously to cut unemployment from its current 6.4 percent to at least 3.5 per cent, and hopefully much lower than that. He deplores the stagnation in the Australian economy, the ‘dog days’ since 2013, and growing inequality. He urges expansive economic policies to lift wages and living standards.
Noel Turnbull in How good is Morrison’s Australia? warns that the decline in real wages has increased work insecurity and inequality. Australia now ranks behind most Western and Northern European countries in terms of inequality. He notes that the combined wealth of Australian billionaires had increased 54.4% by December 2020 compared to the previous year.
Sr Patty Fawkner invites our self-reflection in her reaction to the shocking events in storming the US Capitol building last January in her article In an age of cancel culture can I find room in my heart for empathy?
Hal Pawson deplores the fact that Canberra refused to develop a strong social housing stimulus as part of economic recovery after Covid. In States housed 40,000 people for the Covid emergency. Now rough sleeper numbers are back on the up, he writes that the Commonwealth, with its access to cheap funding, needs to resolve the housing crisis, one of the major causes of poverty and social distress.
Greg Lockhart laments the intelligence failures that have resulted in much misadventure in Australian military ventures overseas at the beck of the United States. In Not knowing one‘s enemy: fundamental intelligence failures in Australia’s Afghanistan and Vietnam, he examines how the ‘wrong people’ have sometimes been killed.
Tess Hardy, in Low wage, low growth: Porter’s industrial relations bill is only good in parts, examines problems in the government’s Fair Work Amendment Bill. She argues that it is weighted in favour of employers, and will not just suppress wage growth, but will also entrench casual employment, just at a time when Australia desperately needs strong wage growth.
Finally, we have a review of Sean McDonagh’s book, Robots, Ethics, & the Future of Jobs. McDonagh is a Columban priest, who taught in Sydney and worked in the Philippines, before returning to Ireland. The book foreshadows the critical issues of ensuring everyone has decent work in the coming new technology era.
Photo Homeless man. Flightlog, flickr cc.