Have you seen The Walking Dead? It’s about isolated groups of people trying to survive after a zombie apocalypse. Soon enough, they discover how much their own fears, and a dog-eat-dog mentality, can destroy their thinly-protected communities. In the end, they’re not so safe from anyone. Rather than those dreadful zombies staggering around outside, some of the most dangerous people prove to be the proverbial enemies within.
Sign on to Newstart and you come understand this world. Unfortunately, that’s because you’ve been conscripted to the side of the zombies. Looking on from the outside at a so-called ‘healthy’ community, you see the corruption, false privilege and hidden horror you never noticed before. Your body fills with toxins of disgust and rage. But where does all this disgust and rage poisoning your system come from? Feelings so intense they almost choke you?
Why that’s easy to answer. It’s a mirrored response to the society you were once a part of – and the ways in which it so blatantly regards you now. You hear what you are in the very public language of politics and in casual conversation around you: a leaner not a lifter; a dole bludger; one of those types who has not received a ‘fair go’ only because you’ve failed to ‘have a go’.
It’s as if you have a disease. And you do. You know you do. It’s why you have started living your life like being unemployed is a terrible secret. If people find out, if it goes on for too long, you really are as good as dead. The gap in employment does not look good on your resume; real estate agents don’t like renting you a home (it’s obvious to them you can’t keep up); socially it all becomes shameful and pathetic. Your whole world tilts downward into oblivion. And everything you do to change things for the better seems to be an uphill scramble.
You can feel, by the day, how the sickness of poverty is something others prefer to steer clear of. Donations to a charity; an outrageous moment of financial sympathy for a street beggar, sure. Those better off can feel good about making such abstract gestures. But in general, decent people shy away from the unemployed. Lest something about you infect their own lives – and pull them down to a place they fear.
History whispers in the ears of the better off. There is a feeling our good life in Australia has always been on thin ice. One of the by-products of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 was that almost ten million homes in the USA were foreclosed on by the banks. Basically, people lost their properties or sold them at any cost. Anyone who thinks we are immune to that kind of disaster in Australia is kidding themselves. One has only to look at recent publicity around the bad behaviour of our own banks, and the fall in housing prices after years of ramped-up greed, to see we are in a heading into the red zone. A latent sense of this underlines the public distaste for, and growing fear of the unemployed – and the shutting of the doors on them. There but for the grace of God (so far), many more will go.
Next month in Las Vegas a conference called SALT is being convened, an annual event where some of the most powerful figures in American finance and politics will gather. It’s with something approaching grim irony that a trending theme will be concerns from the super-wealthy about an awful imbalance in their economy. Everyone is nervous another GFC is in the wind, or worse. One of the speakers at SALT, Ray Dalio – the founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund and a major investor in KFC and Walmart and other low-wage employers – has gone so far as to write an 8,000 word blog on LinkedIn calling the growing gap between rich and poor “a national emergency”.
In a recent interview in The Guardian covering all this, SALT’s founder Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House director of communications, cited similar concerns. Taking Latin America as the example to avoid, Scaramucci looked at where the USA was headed and said, “You don’t want to be the guy living in your McMansion in your barbed-wired security compound while your neighbours are struggling.”
Given that swathes of urban America already seem this way to us here in Australia, one assumes Scaramucci has a vision of things exponentially worse than they already are in the Land of the Free. And yet here we are, following the more extreme market principles of the USA towards an even more imbalanced society Downunder. Without any of the same cautionary observations, or vague sense of social conscience, from our own wealthy and powerful.
It’s quite amazing really. Somehow, every bastard under the sun on a big income in Australia has found out how to speak like they were born with a hard-earned beer in one hand and a battler’s meat pie in the other. The Prime Minister prime among them. All these ‘anti-elite’ millionaires in Parliament and on the radio (they love opening their jaws widest there), dishing out their can-do patter: the rich have ‘earned’ their wealth and their promised tax cuts deep into the next decade, they have ‘worked hard’; to deny them anything would be ‘anti-achievement’, mate.
Argue against this, say it all sounds a bit upside down, and right wing critics will attack you for stirring up a class war. Blaming the rich for your own problems. If you’re poor and struggling, if you’ve fallen into the grip of Newstart, well, no matter how hard you say it is to just get by, let alone find a decent and reliable job, the fact of the matter is you are getting more than you ever deserved. Newstart is not meant to be something you can live on, fool, it’s to assist you in securing work quickly. Can’t you understand that!
You wish this was true. But you know it’s a lie. And you know they know they are lying too. And they don’t care about their lies. Of course, it’s a class war. A war on a huge and growing underclass.
In the wake of the latest Budget 2019 you therefore can’t stop thinking about why people with the highest incomes need the biggest tax cuts? Or, how wealth in our society keeps concentrating itself among fewer and fewer people at the top of the social pyramid, rarely, if ever, ‘trickling down’ to assist those at the bottom of the social strata.
News that the banks, among others, have been operating criminally while you’re surveilled and harangued within an inch of your life on Newstart is just another contradiction you are supposed accept. Just forget about that, mate. The rich need help, the rich need support, the rich need freedom. And it will all improve for you.
Eventually, of course, it just doesn’t add up. And you ask who the parasites really are?
Here are a few ‘facts’: Newstart pays $278 a week. It will only take a few months trapped on it before you are behind in your rent, unable to pay your electricity and phone bill, and incapable of affording public transport. So, you go back to Newstart, or your dreaded ‘job provider’, to talk about how you can ever fulfil ‘compliance’ obligations – the standard 20 job applications a month, the endless routine ‘interviews’ you are made to attend that usually involve someone ticking a box after a lengthy wait. Centrelink and the job provider have the same answer: there are computers here you can use at our offices; there is assistance you can request each time for a public transport journey to a prospective employer.
If you’re lucky, that means a half hour walk up the road to Centrelink or the job provider, rain or shine. Otherwise you jump a train or bus illegally, and hope you don’t get caught. Plenty of waiting time, again, of course. Whatever way you manage it, you must comply with this, or your Newstart payments will stop – and things will get even worse. In the meanwhile, you can’t afford a haircut, or new clothes, let alone visit a dentist. Everything about you gets shabby, even your smile. If you do your best to look good, people will say you are coasting on the system; if your appearance gives away how bad things are going, they say it’s no wonder you can’t get a job.
Have you ever been into a job provider? No? Well imagine this: all those corner shops and failed laundromats back at the turn of the century, buying up a few crap computers and repurposing themselves as ‘internet cafes’. That is what many job providers are like. Half-baked, ad hoc enterprises exploiting a business opportunity. As for them offering vocational guidance, you will get more sympathy from a checkout person dealing with a long line at the supermarket. Which is to say, not much sympathy or help at all.
On and on it goes like this. By then, you see that the system is not meant to work. It is simply meant to drive you away. Most people end up in casual or part time work, doing anything to escape being harassed and demoralised by the system, borrowing from friends and family till even those avenues run out and all support is exhausted.
Sadly, some 70% of people in Newstart are on it for a year or more. 44% for over two years. It’s punishing; its endemic; and it will destroy you the longer you’re there.
Raw data is bringing the numbers of those unemployed in Australia up to near a million people today. The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) estimates that some three million in all are living in poverty in this country, around 750,000 of them the children of sole parents. So much for family values. Almost 40% of those living in poverty do have a job. Unfortunately, one in four Australian workers are only casually employed, which could mean anything from one hour to 19 hours. The percentage of people we have in casual and part time work is the highest in the developed world. That level of under-employment is enough for the government to hide our true levels of poverty and unemployment, helped along with a vicious Newstart system that pushes people off a bureaucratic cliff into anything they can do to scrape by. People don’t get these kind of ‘facts’, they get the stats. And the stats are a massaged to look good. Oh yes, unemployment is down; jobs are available. Millions living casually week to week, never sure of their earnings, sick to their stomach about whether they have a job they can ever rely on.
There’s only one kind of pleasure to be had in this experience, and it’s entirely perverse. Best evoked by a cheery singalong to the old Ben Lee pop tune, ‘Catch My Disease’. For the more people suffer in the same way, the more they fall into the ranks of the unemployed and under-employed, the more the ‘broader’ public come to an understanding of how things are. By then, of course, it will be too late for them too.
Payments on Newstart have not changed in real terms for a quarter of century. The Raise the Rate campaign is asking for a $75 per week increase right now. It would actually take $175 per week to get people on Newstart up to the poverty line. But does anyone really give a damn about the low levels of Newstart – and the Raise the Rate campaign being waged to try and haul people free of crushing poverty and systemic abuse? Hardly anyone, it seems, who is not already caught up in the awful struggle to exist today.
It appears a great and terrible awakening is required. A toxic shock to our wider society. And then, in retrospect, the Raise the Rate campaign to boost Newstart won’t seem so much to have spent on all those people struggling. Let’s change our ways – and move towards a fairer world while we can. Or we can hardly complain when we find there is hell to pay. Raise the Rate now. Pull our country from its shadows.
This story was first published on 30th April 2019 at the website for the Addison Road Community Organisation (‘Addi Road’). It came out of Addi Road’s partnership with the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) to launch the ‘Raise the Rate’ campaign in Sydney – and draw much wider attention to the need to substantially boost Newstart payments for the unemployed in Australia.