How can a Labor government promote itself as fair if it fails to take care of those excluded from the paid workforce? Even The Australian seems to be surprised at its attitude:

“New Employment Minister Bill Shorten has slapped down an unprecedented push by business, welfare groups and the union movement for a boost to the Newstart ‘dole’ allowance as part of root-and-branch reform of the welfare system.

“Mr Shorten said the dole, worth $243 a week, acted as a safety net and was deliberately set at a level that encouraged people to take up paid work.”

If the government thinks penury is an incentive, it fails to understand the difficulties facing the 600,000-plus people dependent on this payment. According to Shorten:

“Participation in the workforce is a priority the Gillard government is passionate about. Work is at the core of our beliefs.”

That sounds good when you say it quickly and appeals to the puritan core of prejudices the government often uses to justify such policies. What if the jobs are not there? Can we justify paying so little that even big business is backing a rise in payments? How can the government ignore its own statistics, which show that moving of the dole is not just a matter of will and commitment by the recipients?

Get a job may sound like a good slogan but tell that to the 334,884 long-term recipients of Newstart or the rest of the 540,527 on the lousy payment. Imagine spending more than 12 months on such a payment and being told it’s your fault, despite evidence that says those out of work for so long are increasingly unlikely to get a job. Only 300 long-time recipients went off the payment from the previous month — and probably went onto other payments.

Another interesting statistic (all from DEEWR’s own figures) is that only about half of the recipients of Newstart are officially looking for work. Others may be volunteering, incapacitated (57,000), or doing a course rather than applying for jobs they cannot get. The people in these situations also have to cover their costs on this inadequate income.

The recipients now include those with “lesser levels” of  disabilities as the DSP criteria tightens, which make it hard to find work. Others may be over 40 and seen as too old for many jobs (47% of male long-term recipients) or have other barriers not acceptable to employers. Many are sole parents transferred from parenting payments and pushed into finding jobs that fit around childcare. Most live in areas with high unemployment and few jobs.

That is part of the problem. The November 2011 ANZ job vacancies total was 181,461 advertisements and has been around that level for some months. The advertisements count usually mirrors the DEEWR job vacancies listings and both totals suggest there are far fewer jobs than the numbers of those officially seeking work on government payments. Many people also move from jobs to new jobs and are more likely to be successful than those out of work.

The other major factor is that most employers want qualifications and recent experiences and most of the long-term recipients of Newstart can’t offer these. The evidence is clear that the problem is on the demand side: there are not enough employers wanting the existing job seekers on Newstart. Punishing the supply side, the recipients of this appallingly low payment, is therefore neither fair nor effective.

There is more to life and Labor policies than just getting a job. This example of paternalism from the new minister is a further loss of commonsense, let alone compassion.

Capacity to find the odd available paid work requires confidence and costs money to pay for clothes, fares, etc. They should raise the level of Newstart instead of income management, which costs about $80 per week in the NT and is about to be extended. As there is no evidence it works, the program just wastes money that could be used to really help recipients.

Peter Fray

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