A funny thing happened on Wednesday night. Julia Gillard gave a speech on jobs at the Sydney Institute, which almost everyone only heard what they wanted to hear. And what they seemed to want to hear was that Julia Gillard was beating up on unemployed.

Here’s the coverage in the media:

Wow. Talk about ball-bustingly evil. She must have been going in hard and with intent to wound and kill.

Except, actually she didn’t.

Before she gave the speech a partial transcript was released, soon after a friend sent me a message saying:

Gillard’s speech is interesting — looks like she’s trying to take on welfare with language of the right, but rhetoric of the left.

He was exactly right.

Many on the left used to hate it when Howard would take traditionally working-class phrases (such as “mateship”) and make them his own. He did it so well, many voted for him thinking he was the one to best represent the working class (Howard’s battlers, if you will). Well, on a topic that Howard would have thought he would have owned, Gillard used phrases that Howard would have used (e.g. “hard work” and “fair go” — which are actually working-class phrases lost to the ALP for 12 years), but the points she was actually making would have been completely foreign to him.

She actually gave a speech straight out of the ALP handbook. A speech which, contrary to what some commentators and people from the left were saying, would not have been given by Howard, but instead, is one that would have fit easily within the Paul Keating oeuvre.

We have for so long now suckered ourselves into watching for any words or phrases to detect the underlying message. It’s that search for the “dog whistle”. Oh he’s mentioning terrorism, but we know what he’s really talking about etc. The media fall head first into this every time — it’s easy, and means they don’t need to bother with analysis or details. A word is said — and we all rush to assume we know that word is code for something else.

Last night the word was “idleness”.

In a 3,500 word speech, this was apparently the only thing that mattered:

“The party of work not welfare, the party of opportunity not exclusion, the party of responsibility not idleness.”

I know. The shock.

How dare she articulate that the Australian Labor Party stands for getting people working. Let’s hear some more of the horrors (you know – the “war on the idle”):

“I want young people to have a fair go, to have an opportunity in life, never to be held back by economic circumstance or social expectation. I’ve worked to ensure this in education.

“Our reforms have been founded on high expectations.

“That all children can learn.

“That you don’t settle for failure or disguise failure with low expectations. That there is no one who cannot benefit from new skills.

“I have fought the prejudice that said some kids can’t learn, that they are better off at the back of the room doing busy work and being passed on up to the next grade. That fight goes on.

“And I am extending this campaign of high expectations to welfare as well.

“Our reforms are founded on high expectations.

“That everyone who can work should work.”

I know. What a betrayal of Ben Chifley. How un-Labor like, Hawke and Keating must be shaking their heads in disgust. I mean look at what the Labor platform says on this issue:

“Labor believes that every Australian should have the opportunity to reach their potential and to participate fully in the economic and social life of the nation.

“Today, building a fairer Australia means working actively to overcome disadvantage and social exclusion. This is not only an important moral objective, it is a crucial economic objective, because as our population ages, Australia cannot afford to have a high proportion of its population excluded from employment, dependent upon transfer payments and unable to contribute to future wealth creation.

“During tough economic times, governments must take every possible step to prevent higher unemployment leading to long-term exclusion from the workforce, de-skilling, family breakdown and social isolation.

“Labor recognises the need for programs designed to enhance the skills of people of working age and assist them to join the workforce. In providing income support during periods of unemployment it is essential to ensure that financial barriers to work are removed and that incentives to participate in the workforce are enhanced.”

Oh woops.

Everything Gillard said last night could have come straight out of the ALP platform — it was Labor to the core.

It was also Gillard to the core. Ever since she became leader (and even before) she has repeated again and again her line that work is vital, and the best way to get into the workforce is through education.

Here she was last night:

“The Salisbury teenager who has drifted from education. He could get a job if he got a trade.

“The Blacktown twenty-something who left school at 16. He needs to get his foundation skills right – to be able to read, write and do maths.

“The girl in Woodridge, south of Brisbane, who didn’t fit in at school, now she’s alone with a baby of her own. She needs more education and so will her child.

“The mature aged man in Dandenong who lost his job and lost his way. He can’t lift and carry like he’s twenty but it doesn’t mean he never wants to work again.”

This is getting tough with these dole bludgers?

If she wants to get in good with Alan Jones and co, what the hell is she doing being nice about some girl who if you mentioned her circumstances on right-wing talk back would probably be reported that she got knocked up just to get the child care payments?

She’s talking about education, and about skills?! Bloody hell, where are the cuts?!

She goes on:

“The Government’s approach to this is practical and realistic.

“We know that not everyone on a welfare benefit can work.

“Some bear disabilities or caring responsibilities that mean paid work is impossible. These Australians deserve our greatest respect and ongoing support.

“Others on a benefit can work but not right away. Some need practical help to overcome ill-health or meet family responsibilities.”

Oh bloody hell! I thought she was bashing up on those on welfare? What the hell is this understanding that not everyone on welfare can work business? Can you hear Howard or Abbott saying that?

“Some should take up obligations which may not involve working now but will prepare them for work in the future.

“Things as simple as learning to read and write at a higher level.”

Wait — she’s still talking about people who can’t read or write? Get nasty, Julia!

“The right mix of incentives is vital to all.

“Relying on welfare to provide opportunity is no longer the right focus for our times.

“Our strong economy gives us a real chance to create opportunity from the cradle to the grave.”

Incentives? Opportunity? “Cradle to grave”? (A gold standard ALP phrase by the way.) But the papers and Greens are talking about cuts, where are the cuts? C’mon hurt them, Julia!

“The old way saw a victim, the old way offered an excuse. Some today see a problem, they offer blame.

“I see a person, a person who can work.

“I offer only opportunity, I ask only responsibility in return.

“Give a chance, take a chance.

“It’s the only way it can work.”

Wait… that’s it? Mutual responsibility? Oh hell. Howard would have choked on his own spleen before talking about these ‘bludgers’ without throwing in a few heavy sticks. This has been all carrot — bloody “incentives” — and the stick is you have to be prepared to “take a chance”. Bloody hell.

Oh wait there’s more:

“Australia says to those who are out of work: we believe you are entitled to the benefits of recovery and a chance to contribute to it. If you do not have the appropriate skills, we will help you get them. If you are young, we will see that you are trained. If you have been a long time out of work, we will offer you employment and training, if that is what you need. It says we will do all we can to help make you ready for a job.”

Again with the training and education — it’s a bloody obsession with her!

“Large numbers of long-term unemployed people demand large outlays on social security and other assistance. Furthermore, having so many people effectively disqualified from the work force reduces the efficiency of the labour market. In this recovery the complement to skill formation in the labour market is not going to come from migration. This time it has to come from training our own people, including those who are presently unemployed.”

Geez, she’s all economics and number isn’t she — “efficiency of the labour market” — they’re people Julia! And more worrying about the cost of social security (it’s always about the budget isn’t it!). And again with the training!

“Central to the government’s strategy for getting the long-term unemployed back into work is the job compact. The job compact puts new obligations on both the government and those receiving unemployment benefits.”

Sigh, more mutual responsibility.

Well except, those with long memories would realise that those parts did not come from Gillard’s speech last night, they were said by Paul Keating in parliament on May 4, 1994 when introducing “Working Nation”.

What was the crux of his message that day?

“The objective is to make long-term unemployed people ready for a job, and break forever the pattern in which the long-term unemployed become steadily more dispirited and unqualified for employment.”

And that is exactly what Gillard was talking about last night. No difference: one Labor PM, talking like another Labor PM.

Now I have heard people say that Keating was all about “compassion” for the unemployed, whereas Gillard was sticking it to them (you know, she said “idleness”). But here’s the thing: in May 1994 the unemployment rate was 9.6% (I know, because I was one of them). When you have an unemployment level that high, you bloody well better show them some compassion. Different language is required between the unemployment rate of 9.6 and 4.9.

We are now almost at full employment — in fact look at this graph, where we are at is historically stunning (especially given there’s just been a global recession).

If Gillard were to talk explicitly about “compassion” for the unemployed, her use of that word would have been as badly misreported as was her use of “idleness” – in fact worse, because I have no doubt that she does not mind the media talking about her being “tough on welfare” – such thing always plays well on talk back.

But when you look at what she was saying (and this was picked up in her interview on Radio National with Fran Kelly) she must actually be talking about spending money on unemployed — spending money training them. Fran Kelly noted this and asked about the costs, and Gillard at no stage tried to correct her and say she is talking cuts (you know all that “tough on welfare cheats” bull).

So badly misreported was her speech that Tony Abbott in a doorstop interview today was given this question by some journo who I can only presume only read the headlines and not the actual speech:

“On the welfare policy, would you support Labor’s proposals to cut welfare? I mean, it is a conservative approach, something [inaudible] the Coalition would go for.”

Tony Abbott for once got it right when he replied:

“But there are no proposals.”

Last week I had a go at the media for reporting implied statements as “said”; today we’ve moved to the Government announcing policy on the basis of one word!

So perfectly did that one word do its job on the lazy media that we had this type of reporting:

“Mr Abbott says he supports the Prime Minister’s sentiments on welfare reform”

I’d love to know if he is supporting what she said, or what it is reported that she implied.

Abbott also came out with this response:

“The Liberal leader said Ms Gillard’s belief in hard work and education was shared by all.

‘Tell me someone who doesn’t believe in hard work and the value of education.'”

Well it may be true that we all share a belief in hard work and education, but we sure as hell know that Tony Abbott does not see a link between education and getting people into work. How do we know this? Well in his speech a couple weeks ago on welfare not once did he mention education, or training or skills. When he mentions the need for skilled labour that was where he left it. He certainly then didn’t talk about getting Australian unemployed skilled. But what did we get? Try this:

“A further measure that the government should consider is to suspend unemployment benefits for people under 30 in areas where there are shortages of unskilled labour.”

No mention of the fact that those unemployed are not skilled; just a “move or get cut off the dole” solution. How wonderful.

Or how about his big positive policy:

“Another important policy that the Liberal and National parties took to the election was an incentive payment for employers who hired welfare dependent people aged over 50.”

Well that’s nice, but the unemployment rate for 45-54 year olds is currently 3.5% and for 55-64 year olds it is 3.4%. That is below the national average. The unemployment rate for 15-19 year olds? Try 22.9%. For 20- 24 year olds it is 9.8%. These are the people who need training, and they are also the people about whom Gillard was talking in her speech.

Now is the policy out yet? No — we must wait for the budget. But those who are leaping to attack her for mean spiritedness need to step back from the lazy headlines, and read the speech again. She may not use the word “compassion”, but her rhetoric is replete with it — unless you think wanting to improve the lot of people who can’t read and write is wrong.

And to all those who think the speech was just about the unemployed, for me the most overlooked part of the speech was this part:

“If government doesn’t step back when the private sector employs more people, spends more money and builds more projects, we will be chasing the same scarce resources, driving up prices and adding to the inflationary pressures arising from the investment boom.

“The time for government to step back is in this Budget.

“If we defer these decisions, as the Howard Government did in the middle years of the last decade, we will make the inflationary pressures in our economy worse for millions of Australians.”

As a snug middle-class welfare recipient, that last sentence gave me little chills, because when I think of Howard and inflationary pressures I think of two things: lack of infrastructure spending, and middle-class welfare. Will the budget cut that area of welfare? I have no idea, but she must be smiling to herself when she thinks that line (which is much more politically troubling) went through to the keeper, while everyone jumped over themselves to try and catch the idle dole bludgers.

This post first appeared at Grog’s Gamut.

Peter Fray

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