This week Employment Minister Eric Abetz boldly advanced, then meekly retreated from, a controversial plan compelling job seekers to apply for 40 jobs a month in return for their unemployment benefits. The public backlash against the plan highlighted a government more concerned about punishment than ‘solving’ unemployment.
Common sense says that quality, not quantity, of applications increases a person’s chance of getting a job; that one targeted and well-prepared application is more likely to succeed than 40 random applications prepared for the sake of doing so.
Senator Abetz could provide no evidence that his policy would lead to better outcomes for job seekers. In fact, the move was symptomatic of a government that can’t bear the thought that somebody, somewhere might not be looking hard enough for work to justify being supported from the public purse. It’s the kind of punitive thinking that characterises western neo-conservative governments, a perpetuation of the concept of lifters and leaners: those who contribute to society and those who, through willful indolence, do not.
Of course it’s nonsense to frame discussions about unemployment in this way. We must take a step back and examine how we have collectively created the circumstances in which job seekers find themselves today.
It began in the 1980s with the Button Plan, which set in train a process that would ultimately kill car manufacturing in Australia. This cascaded onto the steel industry and associated sectors. Although blessed with an abundance of natural resources, Australia has a diminishing ability to transform them into items of value.
We privatised our public assets and now watch as the new owners become highly profitable, trimming away the fat and taking the jobs along with it.
We dismantled TAFE and handed the profitable parts to the private sector. The high-cost courses, those requiring specialised machinery and equipment for trades, were left behind to compete for a shrinking pool of public money.
When the skill gaps emerged, we plugged them with 457 visas. This ensured business did not invest in training and development, opting instead for quick-fix solutions from overseas.
We have witnessed multinationals outsource work to low-cost countries, revelling in cheap prices while occasionally bemoaning the loss of Australian jobs as they disappear offshore taking essential skills with them. Even Qantas, our national carrier, can barely say that it still calls Australia home.
We have signed free-trade agreements to export our raw materials to overseas countries. Our trading partners transform those materials into cheap consumer goods and kindly sell them back to us. Buying an Australian made product is no longer an option in many product categories.
Of course, each of these actions makes sense in isolation, and Australians enjoy a high standard of living as a result. However it’s important to note that each of these actions came with a cost – a human cost – that has made the transition to employment and re-employment extremely difficult for disciplined and committed workers in this country.
Many of the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs that once provided families with security have gone. Without re-education and experience, the nature of work available to Australians has become increasingly uncertain. Our large casual and contract labour force, up to 35% of the workforce, masks the real nature of unemployment and under-utilisation of Australia’s talent.
It’s too easy for political powerbrokers obsessed with numbers and slogans to label job-seekers as lazy. Instead they, and we, must accept that we have created a system whereby the odds are now stacked against the unemployed.
Senator Abetz’s reprehensible thinking further punishes job seekers with indignity. The reality, as he is no doubt well aware, is that today’s job seekers are victims of our prosperity.
Perhaps it is too much to ask from this government that they genuinely help job seekers – not invent new ways to punish them?