The Politics    Thursday, June 18, 2020

Dark times

By Paddy Manning

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time. Image © Sam Mooy / Getty Images

The PM loves jobs and hates welfare … but is pushing more people onto the dole

Prime Minister Scott Morrison found his inner evangelical preacher while discussing the grim May employment figures, which showed that 835,000 jobs have been lost over the past two months, one in five Australians is either unemployed or underemployed, and the participation rate (at 62.9 per cent) is its lowest since 2001, pointing to the fact that many people have given up looking for work. Morrison said the government had introduced “the biggest measure of income support the country has ever seen to cushion the blow, but the blow is still devastating and great”. He continued: “These are our dark times, but I can see that ray of light, and I’m sure Australians can see that too, but we have to keep moving towards it and work harder each and every day. We will not rest.” There are occasions when Morrison is convincing. On the floor in parliament recently, his voice cracked as he sympathised with grieving families who were restricted to funerals of 10 people, and his horror at the unemployment rate likewise feels genuine. Asked today about youth unemployment, for example, Morrison waxed lyrical about the risk that if people did not find work before they are aged 22 to 25, “that can lead to lifetime welfare dependency. Now, that is not just a sickening loss to the person themselves and a great waste of human capacity, but the long-term effects for the nation are significant”.

Fully 45 per cent of the 227,000 jobs lost in May were among young people, taking youth unemployment to a record 16.1 per cent. Morrison hoped that young workers, after being hit hardest in the COVID recession, would be the first hired as the economy reopened – a process that only began in June. He acknowledged that given the unprecedented drop in the participation rate – 3 percentage points in three months – the true unemployment rate is much higher, at 11.3 per cent, than the official rate of 7.1 per cent. 

Morrison’s focus on getting almost a million people back into jobs is irreproachable, so it is a mystery why so many of the government’s policy decisions seem to be forcing more people into unemployment right now. The PM dead-batted questions about his intentions with the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes ahead of a major update on July 23, but the AFR has reported that [$] the government’s preference is to end JobKeeper at the end of September as scheduled and move any workers still on the scheme by September onto the JobSeeker unemployment benefit. Asked about this report in Question Time, the Morrison gave a kind of non-denial denial, saying “the article the member refers to does not contain direct quotes from me so that’s an editorial position that’s been summarised by the Financial Review, but I’ll simply say this: the purposes when you go on to JobSeeker is that you get people back into a job”. Likewise The West Australian reported that [$] the treasurer was meeting with government backbenchers to identify which sectors would be kicked off JobKeeper early, and moved onto a raised JobSeeker. In response, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said: “It beggars belief, when faced with hundreds of thousands of job losses, that the government’s top priority is to find a way to end JobKeeper. They are talking about fast-forwarding people out of work and onto welfare.” 

So, not only has JobKeeper fallen spectacularly short of its estimated take-up and excluded millions of people unfairly (migrant workers, short-term casuals, arts and entertainment workers, and university staff), but the government is now proposing to kick more people off it ASAP and, when the September cliff approaches, dump everyone else on the dole. If that’s “cushioning the blow”, it’s a small cushion with a hole in it and not much stuffing. And, at the same time as the government is refusing to aid the arts industry, it is refusing to increase caps on domestic places at universities that might allow out-of-work people to study, forcing even more people onto the dole. Scott Morrison admitted today that the unemployment rate was going to get higher. He knows it, because he is making it happen. 

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The list
 

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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