If Dole Bludgers Die, They Should Have Gotten A Job, Right?
There aren’t many groups in society with less political clout than the unemployed.
They’re dirt-poor, unorganised, and every politician in the land knows they can win brownie points with voters by bashing them. So the fact that there is a debate even going on about raising Newstart is, I suppose, practically a miracle in itself. But it’s not time to be celebrating, because this is a political debate, which means politicians are doing what they do best: trying to figure out how to outflank their enemies, rather than how to best address the issue.
That oldest of political catchphrases, “don’t play politics”, is a fairly tired one: politics is what politicians are employed for, and the means by which things get done. But when it comes to Newstart, it would be nice if our elected lords and masters could at least try to look at the issue as more than just an opportunity for triangulation. Because this isn’t a game, and it is urgent. Real, live human beings are in desperate straits.
This is life and death.
Nobody in power ever treats unemployment benefits as life and death, of course. They treat it as a budgetary matter, or a question of how to get people to work. But when you’re unemployed, Newstart is very much a matter of life and death, because that meagre government payment is how you stay alive.
Right now, there are a lot of Australians who are only just barely staying alive. Newstart is $277.85 a week. This is often supplemented by rent assistance, so assuming your rent is less than $100 a week, that princely $277.85 can all be spent on luxuries like food, electricity or clothing. And I do mean “or” -- if you’re on Newstart, you’re probably going to have to make some hard decisions, like should this week be a week where I get to eat, or a week where I can turn the lights on? Or, what can I use this month: the heater or the oven?
People are living in our wealthy, prosperous, self-satisfied nation right now, going without heat or power, surviving on two-minute noodles, sleeping on floors.
People are literally starving, because their country has determined that unemployment is a status that renders a person undeserving of the means to live.
There is a proposal, pushed currently by the Greens, to raise Newstart by $75 a week. This would make the payment nowhere near extravagant, it would not make the hardscrabble grind of life on unemployment anything but horrible -- but it might provide a tiny bit of relief to the poorest in our society. It might stave off starvation for a few.
This proposal, naturally, is being rejected by the government -- even if the odd MP admits that in principle the rate does need to rise. The government rejects the increase not because it can’t afford it -- the total cost of a $75 a week rise would be only a fraction of the revenue recently abandoned by their much-lauded tax cuts -- but because they know for a Liberal government, it would look bad to be kind to the unemployed.
The Liberals have established its brand as the party of hard-working Aussie battlers who have a go to get a go, and to be seen to give handouts to bludgers just wouldn’t do.
If the bludgers have to die to make that point, well, they should’ve gotten a job, am I right?
Labor, of course, would never be so heartless. Before the election, for example, it promised to hold a review into Newstart. Promised to raise it? Oh no -- just a review. As the party of the underprivileged, it is 100 percent committed to conducting a review into the question of whether starving people should be able to buy food. But at least Labor seems vaguely committed to the idea of change, so naturally when the Greens put forward a Senate motion calling for an increase in Newstart, they supported that.
Well, not so much.
Because a Senate motion can’t actually provide funding for anything, so according to Labor the Greens’ motion was just a “stunt”, and voted against it. Because meaningless stunts in Parliament are something that Labor would never ever do. Still, in principle, Labor totally believes in doing something about Newstart. It’s just that when the Greens proposed putting it on the record that in principle it wants to increase the payment, Labor said that in principle it opposed saying it supported it in principle.
Of course, Labor could propose a rise in Newstart itself. It could even do it in the House of Representatives, where it wouldn’t be a “stunt”. But no, that would be far too reckless a move. After all, what if it passed? Then Labor would lose a stick to hit their enemies with. Even worse, people might give the Greens some of the credit, and what is an Opposition for if not to oppose minor parties with all its might?
In fact, “what is the Opposition for?' isn’t a bad question to ask at this point.
Nobody would ever expect the Liberal Party to support assistance to society’s most vulnerable: it goes against its very raison d’etre. The Libs will always have to be dragged kicking and screaming to help the unemployed. But Labor? If it takes an issue like granting something approaching a living income to the country’s poorest people, and sees it only in terms of how it can use it to slam its enemies…well, genuinely, what is Labor for?
Is the Australian Labor Party’s purpose just to play me-too with the Liberals and bitch about the Greens? Certainly, the Newstart debate is throwing into stark relief the fact that, of the two major parties in this country, neither one of them seems to think their purpose is to help Australians -- even just to stay alive.
And so, the Newstart debate goes on, with both major parties treating it not as a matter of real-life people living on the edge of destruction, but as a matter of how it can be spun into an electoral advantage. Meanwhile for the people actually on Newstart, life keeps getting harder, hope keeps dwindling, and the message received from their country keeps getting louder: you are worthless.