It’s the same the whole world over

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate
Posted Monday, 23 January 2012

The law locks up the men and women
Who steal the goose from off the common
But leaves the larger villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

The above was written by that little known (but oft quoted) poet Anonymous at the time of the “Enclosures” in Britain and describes the process whereby village land which had hitherto been available to everyone to graze their livestock was acquired by one person to the detriment of all others.

When the British came to Australia they “acquired” which had, until then, been communally owned by members of various Aboriginal language groups. With the exception of a few trinkets handed over by John Batman in Victoria the rights of the existing owners were entirely ignored. Various devices were put in place to give the appearance of civility to this brutal dispossession. Myths about Australia being “terra nullius” – a land belonging to no one – gained ascendency by the 20th century. The High Court’s Mabo judgements put a bit of a spike in that hoary one but politicians rushed through legislation cunningly called the Native Title Act to “legitimate” all prior alienation of Indigenous land and to legalise ways by which future governments could continue to acquire land.

Judges were able to find that “the tide of history had washed away” the Yorta Yorta people’s claim to Native Title. The High Court’s Wik judgement found to the dismay of the Howard Government that Native Title had not been totally extinguished on pastoral leases. Where the leases specified a pastoralist was entitled to do certain things on his or her property they were still able to carry out such activities but if they wished to extend the activities then Native Title considerations might apply. The Government legislated to “provide certainty” to pastoralists and delivered, in the words of Tim Fisher (the then Deputy Prime Minister), “bucket loads of extinguishment.” This Howard Government could not bring itself to acknowledge the reality of Aboriginal prior ownership; preferring instead to speak about Indigenous “custodianship” of the country.

David Marr, in his 2011 book Panic, points to the non-Indigenous response to Aboriginal land ownership as a primal panic – just one of the panics that the citizens of this nation embrace when they think about gays, asylum seekers arriving by boat, terrorism and drugs. He could equally have pointed to the hysterical downward envy that the Howard Government had been able to induce in the populace when they thought about those who were unemployed (read young dole bludgers), single parents (read young immoral unmarried mothers), disability support pensioners (read malingerers), Aborigines living on outstations in remote regions such as the Northern Territory (read drunks feeding on the public teat who abuse their children).

Getting here from there

This is the land where in the 1960s and 70s people talked about giving everyone a fair go, where people fought for and expected a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work where social security was accepted as part of the social support system which assisted the elderly, widows, the sick or disabled and those down on their luck. People generally saw unions as the mechanism by which the abuses of the industrial system were controlled. And by 1972 there was a realisation that we had to improve the position in which we had placed Aborigines. It was a time when the Whitlam Government talked about introducing Aboriginal land rights. In 1976, the Fraser Government succeeded in passing the Northern Territory Land Rights Act.

The wealth of Australia and Australians has increased enormously since 1960, yet Australians are now less generous and more suspicious of people who are forced to rely on social security. We really need to ask why it is that clever politicians can induce in us such dark fears that we turn on our neighbours and exhibit so little trust in those our economic system has made redundant. We are hourly bombarded by economic statistics yet most Australians are economically illiterate. So what might seem an “economic” justification for a reluctance to increase the level of benefits paid to those who are unemployed, is not economics rather it is an ideological smokescreen.

Nobel laureate in economics, Joseph Stiglitz, claims that what is prolonging the economic downturn in western developed countries is a failure to solve some of the long term problems such as increasing inequality, unemployment and environmental threats. He suggests that increased taxation at the top income levels coupled with distribution downward whilst at the same time addressing climate change would lift the world out of recession.

Australia had a Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) from 1947 until 1988 when it was replaced by a private job finding service made up of a number of for-profit and non-profit agencies. This service conglomerate is supposedly monitored by a Commonwealth Department. The Sydney Morning Herald in December 2011 exposed several of these private and church providers defrauding the Commonwealth.

These same agencies daily recommend to Centrelink that unemployed people have their benefits stopped or suspended. One law for the agencies another for the unemployed.

Lowering unemployment, narrowing income inequality, enhancing the dignity of low-income earners and providing socially meaningful occupations to those without employment are challenging tasks for any government. But they are not insignificant responsibilities, something that can be brushed aside because they are difficult to achieve. It may be that those forced out of the labour market by a downturn in the economy have little individual political pull but governments that ignore their obligation to those without employment can, as we saw in Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring, be brought to their knees.

Unemployment can be a devastating experience exacerbating mental health, personality and identity issues. Even short-term unemployment challenges the way those thrown out of work see themselves and those around them. Deborah Padfield, who has experienced long term mental health difficulties, writing about the cost that flexible labour markets inflict on vulnerable workers notes that:

Income and self-respect matters hugely; employment can represent structure, an outlet for energies, hope of a future, colleagueship. You no longer have to fudge answers to “what do you do?”, let alone “What are you?”

But there is work and work. Insecure, low-paid work means none of these things.

In many countries, including Australia, unemployment benefit schemes require those out of work to take any job irrespective of how demeaning it is or how unsuited to a particular applicant. Such short-sighted policies seldom provide the first step on the ladder of opportunity. For many, such policies result in their being deskilled and living an increasingly precarious existence in an ever increasingly flexible sector of the labour market. Lost is their sense of occupation or trade or profession.

In a seven-year longditudional study, Peter Butterworth (from the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University) found that generally “being employed was better for mental health than being unemployed” but “moving from unemployment to a poor quality job was actually associated with a significant decline in those people’s mental health and well being.” Butterworth also found that there was no evidence that moving into one of these poor quality jobs led to an increased likelihood of moving into a higher quality job” over the 7 year period.

Why have we become meaner?

The accepted wisdom, at least on the left, is that when John Howard came to power in 1996 he set out with alacrity to win the culture wars in relation to winding back workers rights, ending the Black armband view of Australian history, lessening welfare generosity and stopping asylum seekers arriving by boat. However, this is only a part of the story. From at least 1987, Brian Howe was ranting about the surge in “welfare dependency”. Even in the Whitlam Government there were ministers rabbiting on about the ranks of the unemployed being swelled by “work-shy lion tamers”. This was years before Peter Costello warned against allowing the unemployed to become “job snobs”. It was Howe who started increasing the obligations the unemployed had to meet before they would be paid benefits.

It was in 1992 that the Keating Government introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat. It too was the government that drafted the Native Title Act. Keating increased the requirements forced upon the unemployed, which he called “Reciprocal Obligations”. Howard may have won the culture wars but he was greatly helped by many in the Labor Party.

Mal Brough may have been the one to introduce the Northern Territory Intervention but it has been continued and extended by Rudd, Gillard and Macklin. Macklin has even gone so far as to use the Aboriginal Benefit Account (into which mining royalties owed to Aboriginal communities are paid) as her own little slush fund.

She has been criticised by the Auditor General for this. She even used the Aboriginal Benefit Account to pay $9.5 million to communities whose town leases she has seized. Aboriginal people are incarcerated for petty theft in disproportionate numbers whilst nothing happens to this minister.

Yes, “It’s the same the whole world over.
Ain’t it all a blooming shame.
It’s the rich what lives on clover
and the poor what gets the blame.”