“There aren’t many groups as pilloried as dole bludgers and welfare cheats so when the Turnbull Government announced a major crackdown in 2016 most Australians were happy to see it.  That move has relied heavily on automation to pursue suspected rorters.“

This was Leigh Sales’ gentle introduction to a story about Robodebt and the victimisation of people on unemployment benefits. The program introduced us to a couple of people who may have been treated harshly but there are always exceptions. This segment was unlikely to shake the standard pejorative view of the unemployed. The majority of these 400,000 Robodebt targets still have the bailiffs at the door.

How did we get to the point where we wake up dilating on those lazy, dole bludging tax sucking low-lifes? How did we decide that these were the appropriate adjectives to describe someone who is unemployed?  If we love our job, shouldn’t we feel sorry for those that don’t have our sense of fulfillment. Shouldn’t we pity those who lack the purpose we enjoy secure in the pay of a loving employer.  Shouldn’t we pity someone living on NewStart? What am I missing?

Unemployment: the Facts

According to the latest ABS statistics for May 2019, Australia has 1,160,700 people who are underemployed. We have 704,000 unemployed so that is just under 2 million people or 13.7% of Australians of working age seeking more hours of work.  Further, from ABS figures shown here on the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) website, the ratio of workers to jobs is around 15 to 1. That ratio would be even higher for people without the requisite skills that the market needs. A reasonable person should conclude that unemployment is not a choice. It is certainly not a lifestyle.  If you disagree, try it.

Another excellent data source on unemployment analysis is Bill Mitchell’s monthly analysis of the labour market.   For Bill, unemployment is one of the great political failures of the last forty years. His Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), out of Newcastle University, has forensically dissected the causes and possible solutions to the problem. His work has inspired my interest in this subject.

We haven’t always hated the unemployed

Australians once recognised unemployment as a systemic problem.  This is how we viewed it following the Second World War:

“Unemployment is an evil from the effects of which no class in the community and no State in the Commonwealth can hope to escape, unless concerted action is taken.”

The post Second World War politicians and bureaucrats who made this statement believed it to be true. They promised the Australian public they’d use all of the country’s resources to remove this evil.  This commitment, explained in the Dedman White Paper, ran from 1945 -1974 or according to labour market historian, Dr Victor Quirk, starting from mid-war in 1942.    

Throughout this period, full employment remained a very popular policy with the Australian public.  The fear of electoral backlash and becoming “the Opposition” prevented Menzies and Liberal Party Governments from walking away from it over 23 years, from 1949.   No doubt the poverty and hardship that accompanied 25% unemployment during the depression gave people a treasured education.  It is also unlikely that people who came back hardened by war were going to accept the market’s need for servility or a belief in its innate generosity.  

Brainwashing begins

It would take time for us to forget these lessons.  It would also require a massive propaganda campaign to assist the Australian public to forget the systemic nature of unemployment. To achieve this we needed help.

One of the key reasons for this change was a business rebellion.  As ever through history, business and financial interests have always been an enemy of full employment.

“Unemployment is not a mere accidental blemish in a private enterprise economy. On the contrary, it is part of the essential mechanism of the system, and has a definite function to fulfill. The first function of unemployment (which has always existed in open or disguised form) is that it maintains the authority of master over man. The master has normally been in a position to say: ‘If you do not want the job, there are plenty of others who do’. When the man can say: ‘If you do not want to employ me, there are plenty of others who will,’ the situation is radically altered.’
Quote from: The Great Trough in Unemployment by Walter Korpi of Stockholm University.

Business Goes on Strike

In the early 1970s, business decided it had had enough of competing with decent public sector base wages which were a central element of full employment.  They also resented having to match the related benefits such as sick leave, holidays, overtime and unsocial hours loadings. 

So the question was what to do about it. According to Dr Quirk, this required the collaboration of business, media and government to help us forget government’s capacity to control unemployment. The Packer and Murdoch empires were set the task of presenting unemployment as a personal failure, not a system one.

The result over the last 40 years has been the gradual winding back of once accepted labour norms.  Now, penalty rates can be taken from hospitality and retail workers without much fuss. And there are plenty of people to despise and dismiss the concerns of the unemployed.   This is supported by the media lie that there are plenty of jobs if you want one.

A Current Affair

I have watched over the last forty years as our commercial media has demonised the unemployed. One of the leading program’s in this regard has always been “A Current Affair” (see related story on Peter Meakin).  The Murdoch press has also been particularly savage but it’s hard to single out any one organisation. To use a basketball term, it has been a full court press. 

Inconveniently for Labor tribe members, the abandonment of full employment took place under the Whitlam Government (search Hansard record text “Employment in Australia” for a very interesting 1974 debate). Since that time it has been standard practice to attack the unemployed as wastrels and thieves of your tax money.

Central to this campaign was convincing people that the money to address unemployment comes out of our own pockets. Are you really the source of money? Is Government really reliant on you to fund its spending? If you believe this perhaps you could tell me where YOU get it from. This lie is applied persistently and strategically to compound our resentment.

It’s a bipartisan policy

The propaganda has worked so well that politicians dare not defend anyone receiving welfare.  Labor refused to promise an increase to “NewStart” during the recent election. It was obvious that pressure from its rank and file was forcing Shorten to at least present an intention to address the problem. Yet, they dare not make a clear commitment. Why? Because the public disdain of those on unemployment benefits has become so deeply ingrained.  This was confirmed this week when Labor Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, announced the abandonment of a NewStart review. Why pick a fight on behalf of a group that no-one cares about?

Former Prime Minister, John Howard, played a vital role in this game. In many ways, he was a genius; a genius in his capacity to re-shape Australian values or in finding people who could show him how to do it. 

As Marion Maddox explained in her wonderful book, “God Under Howard”, John had difficulties with the churches and other agencies in the early days of his incumbency.  They questioned his genius and his compassion.  There was resistance to his “never, ever” GST, the wisdom of privatisations, his robust industrial relations vision and a range of other anti-social targeted policies.  His solution was to put these charities on the Federal Government payroll.  This placed their desire for social justice in conflict with their funding and duty to government.  It worked beautifully. 

Howard made charities central to the job network. Their role was to help people find non-existent jobs. The lesson here was if you are unemployed then it is your own fault and the only agency appropriate to deal with you is a charity.  Another boon to government was that this made government services cheap.  Front line staff working in places like Mission Australia, accept part of their pay post-dated to the after-life.  It’s a form of salary sacrifice.

What are these charities really doing?

According to staff working for these charities, it is hard not to develop a somewhat demeaning view of your “client”. When your employer tells you every dollar you get comes out of the money to support your “client”, resentment can’t be far away. Breaching your client for minor infringements such as turning up late or some other triviality must also have sharpened this relationship.

From the unemployed person’s perspective, these are an additional punishment.  The plan of successive neoliberal governments has been to make unemployment such a humiliating experience that only the truly desperate stay there.  Robodebt, media attacks and public embarrassment add to the torture the economic system applies.

This morning when I opened the Australian Financial Review, there was a quarter page advertisement for The Smith Family. These are not cheap.  This follows ads earlier the week in other Fairfax / Channel 9 publications.  Advertisements for similar charities flood our social media pages while pretending to address the disadvantage and desperation that planned unemployment causes. They create the impression that someone is addressing the problem. Yet, these charities lack the financial and organisational means to address issues of this size. We left the charity model behind in the 19th century but can now thank Howard for resurrecting it.

[Following the 1890s depression] the increasing first-hand observation of working-class conditions led churches to revise many of their assumptions. The depression gave them a sharper view of the relationship between labour and capital, which led to stringent criticism of inequality. Consequently, some clergy began to rethink the basis of charitable welfare provision, coming to the conclusion, to quote one historian, that, in place of private philanthropy or church charity, it was for ‘the State itself . . . to direct and finance welfare work’. p232 God Under Howard

It’s a strange God

Sadly, the values and norms of business and finance have become our own. They’ve replaced a sense of our better, more compassionate selves. We have been socially conditioned not to care. We didn’t choose these values but they are now part of us.  

Meanwhile, we have regular print, radio and television stories dealing with the rise in mental illness, youth suicide and family  breakdown.  It is all such a mystery.  We ask each other “Are you OK”; give each other hugs; staff crisis lines; run telethons; and helpful governments offer innumerable sums to innumerable organisations. Yet, nothing seems to work.  

Even in the last few days Scott Morrison has been reinforcing the unemployed’s unworthiness. As Philip Mirowski said: “We are all neoliberals now”.  And what does it mean to be a neoliberal.  Under this belief system all success and failure is personal. The system is perfect.  The answer to every market created problem is another market. 

This world view sits comfortably with the American illness of Calvanist predestination.   This religious form reinforces the notion that life’s rewards go to the chosen and the good.  This is the religion our politicians are dog whistling when they celebrate their Christian values. These chosen are the ones the God of the Market favours. They are the “hardworking Australians”. These are Scott Morrison’s Chosen People. Are you one of those? Not if you’re unemployed. 

Warren Ross

15 thoughts on “Why Do We Hate the Unemployed?

  1. Fantastic to see this takedown of the religious attachment to unemployment being ones own fault. But it explains why this attitude is so stubborn in spite of all the evidence in front of us every day

    1. Yes, John, the way religion is being used to promote the neoliberal cause is one that could do with a great deal more analysis.

      1. Business basically demands that governments keep the unemployment rate high. That we they can stagnate wages.
        Governments do this by importing more people than is needed.
        I have no problem with immigration but we really do need to ensure that Australians who are able to work have the opportunity to do so without having the compete against immigrants who, desperate for a job, will take any job at a lower rate.
        But as I said business wants high immigration and high unemployment, it suits their financial purposes.

  2. Great article most of us are only 1 disaster away from poverty. That disaster could be losing your job. There is also an elephant in the room here- the new unemployed the corporate men and women in their laye 50s and 60s. Retrenched fired unable to find meaningful work as they are labelled too old. Unable to access any centrlink benefits because they have some savings in the bank. No longer a golden handshake. Can you be certain you will still have your job in 2 years? I taught unemployed for 5 years helping them to try to find work. Virtually impossible with their mental healt conditions lack of money. What had happenex to most of these good people to bring them to this state? A disaster.

    1. Cathy, I am sure you could have written a better article. Please share your experiences. There must be a way of competing with the brain dead, callous story that is used the describe unemployment in Australia.

  3. Your article should be headline in every newspaper.
    Sadly Australia is a callous country, you can see it in the way many families treat their old people.
    The way you treat your handicapped and unemployed.

    1. Neoliberalism is at the core of government policy in Australia. Our alternative party, nominally named a Labor Party, shares the same values. We have no leadership. Even the Greens accede to the same neoliberal framework of balanced budgets.

      1. Oh my. Nail meet hammer head. It’s disgraceful the way which we so blithely think it shall never happen to us. Had a sick child and being in a regional area meant we had to travel to an unknown city. The whole experience cost us $20,000 in accommodation, new clothes (can’t take anything with you on a mercy flight) medications even through public system and lost wages for myself. We didn’t have that lying around. It was so hard and if we were poorer I’d hate to think. It could’ve ruined us and meant we had a bad year. Scobby is a mean miserly person and I hope one day he develops some empathy.

  4. Brilliantly insightful. Such enlightenment is desperately needed in this shameful recess of the Australian national psyche. Hopefully this article can be very widely disseminated.

  5. Brilliant article. But brilliant articles don’t change hearts and minds.

    We have the facts and they are indisputable. Any old fool can work out that if there are 100 jobs and 1000 unemployed, that 900 of that 1000 must remain unemployed. Any old fool could work out that the best stimulus to our economy would be an increase in benefits and pensions, as those living under the poverty line will spend 100% of the increase, mostly in their local economy – and that is what stimulus is – increased spending. The facts are all there about how it costs less to house someone who cannot afford open market rental, than it does to leave them homeless, destroy their physical and emotional health for good, and ensure they can never contribute to society again.

    Any old fool – who can be bothered to source and think about the facts – knows.

    So why is any old fool not bothering to access the facts, and if they do, why are they not convinced by the facts? We don’t even need to feel compassion, we only have to acquire and understand the facts.

    The new “public enemy number 1” is old women. Who cares if we have worked all our lives, one way or another, in unpaid or underpaid occupations? We have committed the ultimate crime. We failed to accumulate the wealth necessary to fund our own retirements. Hardworking, compassionate, caring, old women are now the new “leaners”. How did that happen? According to “them” we were not sufficiently “aspirational”. We committed the crime of caring. We committed the crime of taking underpaid and insecure “pink-collar” work. So who cares how many aging child care workers, nurses, teachers – are now homeless now because we were not aspirational enough and our safety net, the pension, does not pay for rent. But you know, no-one actually needs to “care” about us. They just have to access and understand the facts.

    Old women supply almost all the free labour in our economy that is exploited by the charities. Old women do almost all the charity work in our communities. Old women contribute more to charities than any other demographic, for little or no pay. It actually makes sense to keep us healthy enough to keep doing the vast majority of the unpaid work in this economy – work without which the economy would collapse. But how can we do that once we are sleeping in our cars at 70 years old and need that charity for ourselves. Yes, it actually makes financial sense to make sure that old women have enough money to live on, and a safe and secure home in our old age. Even if you don’t “care”. It still makes financial success. We are not useless. We are valuable. Even if we forget about our lifetime of service, we still add value, still, now, into our dotage.

    But a society that casts out it’s old women onto the streets, to live in our cars, or to pitch our tents in free campsites? What are we thinking? How do we reverse this utterly senseless and counterproductive hatred of those who choose not to be greedy?

    How do we drag our country back to sanity?

    1. My point in writing the article is to point out we were a kinder country 40 plus years ago. We had come out of a war and people has a stronger sense of solidarity. That has been actively undermined. I cannot disagree with anything you have stated Christine. Look at Howard’s and successive government’s role in the destruction of public housing and homelessness services; the appalling Prue Goward who appears regularly on the ABC to share her special breed of compassion. Her role in the reduction of homelessness services is well documented. https://www.realestate.com.au/news/homelessness-increase-not-helped-by-failure-to-provide-adequate-social-and-affordable-housing/

  6. A fantastic article,How are we going to solve this employment dilemma? Will it ever be solved? Does anybody in Government or opposition really care? let alone the Comfortable Classes? Compassion has flown out the window. It’s a case of, ‘I’m all right, Jack, and bugger the losers.’

  7. Society has become completely stratified.

    Amicable interaction between differing demographics is extremely limited: awkward at best, hostile at worst.

    The age old “divide and conquer” strategy has been successfully applied here, to the detriment of everyone, whether they are intelligent enough to realize it or not.

    It cannot be argued, factually, that the removal of Christian values from the education system has been to the benefit of Australian society, because quite clearly it hasn’t been.

    But logical and rational debate is impossible now that those with sub 80 IQ’s are allowed to hold their feelings up as facts, and intellectual integrity is virtually non existent; ideologies hold more weight in the minds of the willfully ignorant.

    This country has become of the Tower of Babel.

    And it’s time for the Tower to fall.

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