‘Poor people’ issue Australia can’t ignore

 

COMMENT

If 2020 has taught us anything it is that everyone and everything is interconnected, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.

A family feast in Melbourne can shut down a border in Queensland; a lockdown in WA can bankrupt a business in Sydney. And where once it was theorised that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause chaos on the other side of the world we have now seen first-hand that's nothing compared to what a bat can do.

The infinitely messy and ubiquitous nature of the corona crisis means there have perhaps never been so many people to blame and yet we have never needed each other more, nor in such improbable ways.

As a result, things that were either an unthinkable nightmare or a pipe dream just a few short months ago are now both very real and very possible.

One of these is the campaign to raise the dole and other welfare benefits to a more liveable level - or perhaps "survivable" is a better description.

All of a sudden, unemployment is a mainstream problem. Picture: Che Chorley
All of a sudden, unemployment is a mainstream problem. Picture: Che Chorley

Even just a few years ago this was a Quixotic lost cause that seemed forever doomed to political Hades. For the major parties there was barely a single vote in it. Safe Liberal electorates typically had minuscule levels of unemployed people, the unemployed in safe Labor seats would always vote Labor over the Libs anyway and the swinging voters in marginal seats had other things on their mind.

But then a year ago a strange thing happened. Business leaders and right-wing politicians started joining the usual progressive groups in their campaign to substantially increase welfare payments.

Barnaby Joyce floored many on both sides of politics, as he has a habit of doing, when he publicly called for an increase to the Newstart allowance on July 18 last year. This followed similar calls from the Business Council of Australia and none other than former PM John Howard himself.

Even faced by this unlikely coalition, the current PM Scott Morrison resisted such pressure - buoyed by an unexpected election win and with his eyes firmly fixated on the long-awaited Shangri-La of a Budget surplus.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing the COVID-19 JobTrainer skills program at Parliament House this week. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Andrew Taylor
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing the COVID-19 JobTrainer skills program at Parliament House this week. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Andrew Taylor

My, how times have changed.

Now, with the economy brutally crippled by the coronavirus and its various accompanying lockdowns - most born of necessity, others of ideology - joblessness and poverty is no longer a fringe issue for an invisible underclass.

There are now around 13 jobless for every job. The official unemployment rate effectively doubled overnight after the mass lockdowns in March. Millions of others were kept in "zombie" jobs thanks to the JobKeeper payment or starved of the hours they needed. Countless more simply disappeared from the jobs market altogether by giving up looking for work because they knew they had no chance of finding it.

In other words, unemployment is now a mainstream occupation. And that makes it a mainstream problem.

There is nothing that sharpens one's sympathies like the knowledge that one day it might be you who needs the sympathy. I used to drink at the same pub as the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, a nondescript out-of-the-way place down the road from a homeless shelter in inner-city Sydney.

After watching the parade of desperate souls go past night after night he realised: "There but for the grace of God go I." Not long afterwards Vinnies got a cheque for a couple of hundred thousand.

That is the moral argument.

Likewise there is nothing that sharpens one's political antennae like the knowledge that what was once a problem for a few hundred thousand people in poor outer suburbs and country towns is now a problem for millions of people throughout the country. A problem that once had not a single vote in it has now become the single most important issue upon which all of these people's vote will rest.

That is the political argument.

But both of these arguments pale in comparison to the last great switcheroo that the corona crisis has pulled on society. Six months ago people on welfare needed us. Today we need them.

Or, to be more specific, we need their money. And the problem is they don't have enough of it.

Sydney residents in Darlinghurst line up at the local Centrelink office to claim benefits after losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Sydney residents in Darlinghurst line up at the local Centrelink office to claim benefits after losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

Just like with the Rudd Government's miraculously successful cash splash during the global financial crisis - in which imperial behemoths like the US and the UK were plunged into economic chaos while we didn't even drop a single quarter of economic growth - we need Australians to go out and spend money in Australia, which will support Australian businesses and Australian jobs and, well, Australians.

The difference this time is we basically have no one to sell to but ourselves. The international tourism and education sectors have been completely wiped out. A newly belligerent China, on whose growth we piggybacked last time, has already thrown up some trade walls and is threatening others. Our once wide-eyed, outward-looking and export-led economic strategy is now a closed circuit.

And herein lies the ultimate argument. Even if you dismiss the first two, even if you have no sympathy for welfare recipients and even if you don't care which party profits from their grief, we need their money. We need Australians to pump dollars into the economy and the only Australians guaranteed to put whatever money the government gives them into the economy are the ones who can't afford not to.

They are the ones who can't afford to squirrel it away, the ones who have no choice but to spend in order to survive. If you want to make sure your cash splash gets bang for its buck the best people to give it to are the poor.

This lesson has already been admirably learned and applied by the government. The $750 one-off payments were overwhelmingly plunged back into the economic maelstrom. The doubling of JobSeeker payments and the JobKeeper scheme are almost universally acknowledged on all sides of politics as the only things stopping us from looking like a third-world country right now.

If you want to make sure your cash splash gets bang for its buck the best people to give it to are the poor. Picture: Supplied
If you want to make sure your cash splash gets bang for its buck the best people to give it to are the poor. Picture: Supplied

But to be clear: All these things are obviously unsustainable in the long term - I do not believe in the magic of modern monetary theory, nor the pipe dream that debt is an illusion or the bucket bong dream of a universal basic income. I have been chained down in countless Budget lock-ups and I know there is not a bottomless money pit. It should be mandatory sentencing for every arts student.

And let me stress I enthusiastically despise Marxism, both of the neo and osteo varieties. Wholesale top-down economic policies inevitably fail. The constant cry that socialism has only never worked because no one has ever done it properly is self-evidently farcical. No government policy will ever succeed if its precondition is universal ideological adherence - at least not in any country that dares to call itself a democracy.

But an existing safety net for the poorest among us, harnessed from the benefits of capitalism, is a cornerstone of virtually every advanced Western liberal society. It is not too much to ask that that safety net ought to be enough to actually keep people safe. To provide them with enough to survive.

And were that not enough of a reason then we need to give them enough so they can plough it back into the economy and society which saves the rest of us from the gutter.

Because there, but for the grace of God, go us all.

Joe Hildebrand is a columnist for news.com.au and co-host of Studio 10, 8am-noon weekdays on Channel 10.

Originally published as 'Poor people' issue Australia can't ignore



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