withdrawing super unemployed
(Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

Though it is a miserable, insufficient, and manifestly inadequate amount of money, the $50 a fortnight rise in the JobSeeker payment will make a difference to a lot of people’s lives.

It’s a fuller grocery basket; an Uber or, hell, myki/Opal ride you can afford when you have to get somewhere; a pair of pants when the arse has come out of the ones you’re wearing.

But it’s a measure of how appallingly low the existing payment is that the new rise represents these things.

JobSeeker now covers more than 1.5 million Australians. Before the pandemic, the old Newstart covered about 900,000. A third of those on the lower figure were on it for no more than three months, half for a year, two-thirds for two years, 15% for five years or more, less than 4% — about 40,000 people — for 10 years or more.

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The payment is linked to the Consumer Price Index, which is an economist’s measure of inflation not a genuine cost-of-living as experienced, and includes a rental supplement that is vastly inadequate next to rental rises over the past decade or so.

Everyone agrees that the payment has become penurious, has plunged hundreds of thousands into misery, is responsible for entrenching poor nutrition, educational backwardness, stigma and depression and other mental illnesses.

Yet there has been deep political resistance to changing it. The Coalition has wanted to hold on to punitive notions of work-shyness and individual dysfunction as part of its brand. Labor is wary of advocating a specific raise in the payment, because as soon as it does the Coalition will cost it, and hang it on them as the “$20 billion giveaway” — a sort of ballpark cost of raising the payment from $40 to $80 a day — and make it symbolic of a philosophical difference.

Yet it’s difficult to tell whether employed resentment at the long-term unemployed is a real political factor or a phantom from an earlier era, the figure of the “dole bludger” arising in the wake of the 1960s.

Politicians of both stripes believe that’s still a real issue, that there is residual resentment at someone busking it on the dole for five years, etc, even when that figure is someone remembered from youth, or heard of second-hand.

In a country where work, especially full-time work, is in short supply, how is it that the figure of the dole bludger still stalks the political imagination? The answer seems both proximate and deeper set.

Proximate in that our long boom created fundamental social divisions that did not occur in the same way elsewhere. The long absence of recession, the resources boom, the dismantling of manufacturing, the expansion of service and retail was not accompanied by a substantial investment in retraining or the creation of new sectors of skilled employment.

In the ’90s, Paul Keating argued that the shock of reconstruction would create “better jobs … more interesting jobs” than working in a car factory. Well it did for some, but for others the offer just became a new set of precarious and boring jobs.

The division between those who were never unemployed — save for a few weeks in job transitions — and those continually falling in and out of it — or never out of it — appears to have solidified.

At the same time, under the Howard government retraining was further reduced, employment services privatised and unemployment redefined as an individual problem to be addressed by the psychological refashioning of the mid-term — one to three years — unemployed. The mid-term unemployed became the social enemy.

The system was designed to be so unpleasant and soul-crushing — capricious breaches, sadistic “counselling” — so as to push people out of the system into the plentiful jobs supposedly there. Yet at the same time immigration levels had been kept high and from new sources, so that there was no incentive for capital to invest in retraining.

For most of the past 25 years under Coalition rule we have had “Dutch disease” as conscious policy: systemic underinvestment of resources-boom profits, a lag in tech and infrastructure development and attendant training that has become a persistent underemployment problem.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made that suddenly, unarguably visible. The shift from Newstart to JobSeeker and the doubled payment at the start of the pandemic had a clear message: only those becoming unemployed due to the pandemic were unemployed through no fault of their own.

They could not be expected to suffer the horrors of Newstart penury, which was designed to terrorise the pre-COVID mid-term unemployed. This paradox drew on the particular form of Australian social democracy, its emphasis on work, the living wage, the single (male, white) breadwinner supporting a family.

Where European social democracy founded its politics on the universal rights of citizens to the means of life, Australia has always had a sharp division between work and non-work — and the latter has mostly been served in piecemeal, ad hoc fashion.

Sadly this has been true of Labor for much of its history. The Whitlam-onward period saw it remedy that. In recent decades it has started to backslide.

How else to explain a woman Labor prime minister pushing single mothers off a specific benefit and on to the wildly inadequate general unemployment payment? Only by a residual attitude that can’t see single motherhood as a real and distinct life situation from a work-centric point of view.

Labor does have a real political problem in giving a new figure for Newstart/JobSeeker because in isolation it will breed resentment the Coalition can harvest.

But that is only because there is an absence of a wider policy vision that Labor needs to push if it truly believes it is fighting for a better society, beyond the ramshackle one we have today, where life is perpetually squeezed for many of the middle class and is hand-to-mouth for about 20% of the population.

That would involve a universal work or training guarantee oriented towards both a green new deal and a greater flexibility of working life, so that more people had the capacity to choose three- or four-day working weeks, with supplemental payments and no plunge into precarious or deprival of rights at work.

Quite a few long-term Newstart/JobSeeker recipients can be taken off the books by simple reclassification (simultaneous with a genuine rise), as people who are “outside of the zone of work”: post 50-year-olds with few trained skills; remote area inhabitants; the socially and neurally divergent, and so on.

A change like that would not only recognise that a payment designed for short-term unemployment cover is de facto being used for structural social support. It would solve a lot of the political problem; no one would notice them being moved off the books.

Hell, if you set up an “artist’s payment” for those doing their graphic novel or EDM opera on the dole, with some minimal standards of talent and application, you’d get another 20,000 or so off the books and a lot of good work (and a lot of awful stuff).

Yes it’s a hard sell for progressives and a lot of it has to be done by stealth if we are ever regain power again.

But it is the deification of work that is no longer there that guarantees the continued role of the unemployed as political fetish objects. For progressive politics, something new and more radical is needed, ‘cos the old deal — well the arse is out of the pants.