Long queues outside a Centrelink office in March 2020. (Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

Effectively doubling the JobSeeker rate from about $565 to $1115 per fortnight was both Scott Morrison’s smartest and dumbest move during the pandemic.

It was smart because it helped keep millions out of poverty — defined as $1100 per the Henderson rate or $816 by ANU — which in turn kept the economy from tanking. Deloitte estimates that winding down and removing the $550 coronavirus supplement would reduce government spending by $23 billion over two years but shrink the broader economy by a whopping $31.3 billion.

It was dumb because it proved beyond all doubt that impoverishing Australians is and always has been a political choice. It’s a choice apparently made on the belief that feeling entitled to survival while un/underemployed is a moral failing.

“In this new normal that we’re living in, it’s no longer about entitlement. It’s about need,” Morrison said when announcing a related policy, temporary free childcare.

Of course it had been obvious for some time that JobSeeker (formerly Newstart) is not designed to be able to live on. A good chunk of the Coalition either actively despises the unemployed (see: robodebt) or believes poverty is genuinely the best catalyst for seeking employment (see: the maze of horrifically-funded bureaucracy at Centrelink; the massively-over-funded, punitive and privatised jobactive scheme).

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has recently been scolding unemployed people to “turn off Netflix” and take up fruit picking. Weirdly, the prospect of $3 an hour and complete travel/housing dependency doesn’t have poor people rushing out the door to leave home for weeks or months at a time.

But the current plan to send 740,000 Australians into poverty amid a global pandemic (at a net loss to our still-recovering economy) provides an opportunity for what can generously be described as a flaccid opposition.

Both the pandemic and residual trauma from the 2019 election loss have, somewhat understandably, turned Anthony Albanese into a quiet reactionary. Other than complaining, Labor’s only action under Albo has been pitching a wage subsidy it’s doomed to never receive credit for, ditching a (vital) franking credits policy, and managing a very loud climate denialist worried about losing his daddy’s seat.

However as Guy Rundle put it after Morrison’s Australia Day comments, merely criticising the Coalition’s failings paints the left as impotent.

Look at Albo’s Twitter account and it’s nothing but complaints and cringeworthy “jobs jobs jobs” memes.

You know what would upend that perception? Promising voters that, unlike the current government, Labor will end poverty for a good chunk of Australia.

Unlike Bill Shorten, Albanese has at least committed to raising JobSeeker. But, frustratingly, he refuses to name a rate. This has led to an “opposition” strategy played entirely on the government’s terms.

“We want the government to actually move on this,” Albanese told The New Daily. “On a range of policy issues, us announcing something that we can’t implement before the election doesn’t advance the change.”

When, in any part of human history, has this worked for an opposition party?

Either Morrison makes some slight rate increase in the months ahead and takes all the credit (which, according to murmorings today, seems likely), or he doesn’t and Labor keeps telling us to just give him space.

This isn’t to say Labor isn’t still pushing the issue. Just yesterday, Jim Chalmers leapt at Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe’s latest call for an increase. But literally no voter will remember this when the election rolls around.

Albo needs to name and campaign on a JobSeeker rate above $816 if he is to make any headwind with voters. It would be a simple, digestible (at least relative to franking credits) and deeply humane message.

Sure, there’ll be the McCormacks and News Corp hacks of the world crying about dole bludgers, but what even remotely possible Labor voter could fall for that right now? After everything Australia has just been through?

There is nigh-unanimous support from business for a higher rate and the economic benefits are undeniable. Even before the pandemic, an increase was supported by the Business Council of Australia and John Howard.

Besides, look to the US’ recent, vital run-offs in January: the Democrats pushed for $2000 survival cheques and, against the odds, won both seats in Georgia after falling behind on primary votes in 2020.

Voters like being told their leaders want to keep them alive. It’s not only morally right, but an easy, fiscally responsible, and time-limited way to win an election.

Peter Fray

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