Paul Bongiorno: Cruel stereotypes won’t help a broken jobs market

Dog whistling about ‘dole bludgers’ is no answer to a broken jobs market.

One of the most enduring myths propagated over the years is the ‘dole bludger’ – the person who plays the system because they prefer to take the meagre money on offer from the government benefit than actually work.

The term may have been avoided recently, but the underlying prejudice has not.

At face value it is enticingly attractive when you have about 560,000 unemployed, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and 430,000 job vacancies.

However, complicating the picture are the 850,000 on the JobSeeker payment – the Morrison era rebadging of the unemployment benefit.

Clearly JobSeeker is being used for something else more akin to income support for those who are unemployable.

The Opposition, though, believes these bald numbers prove the point: The jobs are there if only the bludgers (wink wink, nudge nudge) would step up.

Peter Dutton was only slightly more subtle about it when he drew the figures together to criticise the $40-a-fortnight boost to the pitifully low JobSeeker payment.

The Opposition Leader said: “The government’s proposing support to make it more attractive to stay in unemployment.”

He says it’s the wrong time to be forking out a billion dollars a year when “if you allow people to work five or 10 hours a fortnight to get $150 or $300” before they lose their benefit then it will be “much better than the $40 outcome”.

The consequences are the Opposition won’t be supporting the $40 boost if the government rejects their proposal that at best would apply only to a quarter of people on the benefit – 75 per cent of people currently don’t earn anything on JobSeeker.

The Prime Minister supports his Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth’s view that Mr Dutton’s “thought bubble” is a long way from the answer.

Mr Albanese points out there is already a taper that allows people to earn more, but lose some of the benefits when they do.

He says the issue here is of more significance: “How do we get people into work?”

“Clearly, employment services aren’t working to the extent that they should when you have an unemployment rate of just 3.5 per cent, a historic low, but you still have people looking for work,” Mr Albanese said.

disability service probe

Amanda Rishworth said Mr Dutton’s “thought bubble” was not a solution. Photo: AAP

The government has established a House of Representatives Select Committee of Inquiry to forensically examine “workforce Australia employment services,” the $3 billion privatised, job-finding industry.

‘Based on a flawed theory’

Its chair, Victorian Labor MP Julian Hill, and deputy chair, Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, have been mightily disturbed by the evidence already presented to them.

Mr Hill told Parliament last week: “There are a lot of curious and very peculiar aspects to Australia’s employment services system. It’s based on a flawed theory.”

He said for a couple of decades the accepted view was “that unemployment is always an individual choice, an individual failing, and if we push the individual somehow, they’ll magically get a job”.

In some cases this is true, though the evidence on the extent of the deliberate job shirker suggests they are about only 5 per cent of the unemployed.

Hill says for the rest of the unemployed there are structural factors: “The labour market you live in; because of your physical disabilities; because of your health; mental health; family circumstances or caring circumstances”.

Most significantly – and after a decade when $3 billion was ripped out of technical and further education – cutting courses and seeing campuses close around the country has meant “you’ve never been able to invest in skills or had society invest in you”, he said.

It’s hard to avoid Hill’s conclusion that the system based on a work test is designed around “the very worst people in society, the ones who cheat the system and the very worst providers, the ones who try and rip off the government”.

A more global view of what a publicly funded employment service could do would achieve much more for the nation: “A labour market exchange, human capital development, addressing skills shortages, helping business and industry.”

The select committee has had its report back to Parliament extended until the end of the year; employment service providers are on notice that their riding orders face a radical overhaul.

No less urgent is a rethink from politicians seeking to make capital from old and cruel stereotypes of the unemployed.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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