Berating the unemployed for their failure to find non-existent work

Written in 2002

The announcement by Mr. Larry Anthony Minister for Community Services that the unemployed are to have the number of jobs for which they must apply each fortnight doubled, coupled with the extension of the dole diary requirements makes little sense in the context of the Australian labour market. There are 8 to 10 people looking for work for each job vacancy. There are 800,000 Australian children living in homes where neither parent has paid employment. The 200,000 long term unemployed have not remained without work because of their failure to fill out dole diaries or apply for 10 jobs a fortnight.

The reason people become and remain unemployed has more to do with issues such as the demand for labour, the types of skills which are in demand, the preparedness of industry and government to create jobs than it has to do with personal failures of individual unemployed people. The reasons some people do not have the skills which are in demand at any particular point in history has little to do with unemployed people’s preparedness to work. Many older unemployed people have work skills which are no longer in demand precisely because they have been in continuous employment with employers who did not foresee the need to re-skill their workforce. Many younger unemployed people have not acquired the currently desired skills because they trained for or were skilled up for jobs which have now disappeared.

Why then would the Howard Government set out increase the job search and dole diary requirements forced on the unemployed? Do they believe the overwhelming majority of unemployed people have little interest in finding suitable employment?

Clearly they believe that some unemployed people need to be compelled to look for work. They believe that forcing people to fill out a dole diary somehow equips people to find and hold jobs. The Howard Government continues to believe that forcing people to work for the dole also has beneficial effects upon unemployed people’s capacity to get work. They believed that making it compulsory for young people with literacy and numeracy difficulties to attend training would increase their literacy and numeracy skills. The themes are remarkably constant; compulsion for the unemployed is good: and recent pronouncements indicate there is a feeling in this Government that it should be extended to people with disabilities and lone parents.

However this endorsement of compulsion for the marginalised, the unemployed, sole parents, people with disabilities is not a mindless endorsement of compulsion for everyone. The rich and the better off sections of the middle class are not to be coerced but rather encouraged via tax cuts, subsidies on their private health funds, incentives and so forth to increase their wealth. The Howard Government claims some historical connection with 19th century liberals like John Stuart Mills famous for his essay on liberty. Their desire to compel is not universal. They are not, in this instance, coming out as social bondage freaks.

It is the conservative rather than the liberal tradition which so distrusts the poor that it insists on compulsion of those who seek assistance is necessary not only for the maintenance of good order but also for the salvation of the poor themselves.

There are some problems which the latest increased compulsion of unemployed creates for our society. No matter how the compliance with the new regime is implemented it denigrates all unemployed people simply because it implies that within the reserve army of labour there are some who, are not only a drain on the economy by applying for the job search pittance, but also some are not meeting their obligation to seek work. Mr. Anthony’s statement is an admission that this Government, though on a life long search for dole cheats, is incapable of ensuring that it has eliminated all dole bludgers from amongst those unemployed people lucky enough to be paid the Job Search allowance.

Assuming that the Government is correct and that some unemployed people are not “genuine job seekers” then the overwhelming bulk of the unemployed are “genuine job seekers”. The “non-genuine” are not likely to be offended by the denigration of all unemployed people – nor are they likely to caught by such crass compliance techniques. However many of those who are desperately seeking work will be deeply offended by the suggestion they are dole cheats.

There will be an increase in violence as a result of this announcement. Firstly this will be the final straw of some unemployed who don’t have stomach for the increased indignity which the Howard Government is heaping on them. Some of them will suicide – creating a short term saving for this Government. Still others, unable to confront their real oppressor, will lash out at members of their family.

Some, at the point where they are “breached” for failing to meet the latest compulsion whim of the Howard Government, will lash out at the officer who interviews them and may assault that or several officers. They will not then be paid benefits – resulting in a short term saving to this Government. Of course the “offending non-complier” will be jailed at 10 times the cost of unemployment benefit but that cost or a lot of it will be transferred to some state government treasury. Other unemployed people, who are struck off Job Search or New Start, will have no other option but to try to survive through illegal activity.

It is however possible that some of the unemployed will do the analysis. They will realise who their real oppressors are. They will realise that the members of this government, who support increasing the indignity inflicted on unemployed people, are the direct oppressors of the unemployed. They might act unilaterally or they might join with others in a concerted attack on those who would oppress them.