Monthly Archives: July 2020

Should Scott Morrison abolish all unemployment payments?

A: No. Why ask such a ridiculous question?

When it eventually dawned on the Australian government that a global pandemic requires governments to spend money, the prime minister was devastated. As treasurer, Morrison handed down the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 federal budgets. All were in deficit. Morrison and the Canberra press gallery called these deficits ‘bringing the budget back into surplus’, a typical tory time machine lie.

In 2019, prime minister Scott Morrison, as ousted prime minister Malcolm Turnbull did before him, leveraged his artificially inflated budget bottom line to launch the Liberal Party election campaign. He also shut parliament for most business other than passing supply bills to avoid losing more votes on the floor of the house. The other prongs of his campaign strategy were: preference deals with Clive Palmer, who has been charged with fraud; giving billions of public dollars to Liberal and marginal seats; a stunt a day for the nightly news; and constant lies about his political opponents.

All of this was faithfully covered by the press gallery in ways that consistently served the interests of the Liberal Party campaign, whether ignored (the handouts), minimised (the Palmer deal), amplified (the stunts), or legitimised (the lies about Labor policy).

[Bear in mind that the richest areas tend to vote Liberal, so higher amounts of needs-based public funding should land in Labor electorates. Yet when the national press (as opposed to regional newspapers giving free publicity to people like Georgina Downer) did, eventually, start reporting on handouts of public money based on Liberal Party campaign priorities, their comparisons to Labor government funding models are false equivalence at best. Anyone comparing a Mt Druitt football field to Mosman rowing club knows nothing about Mt Druitt, needs based funding, or the role of government.]

Fast forward to March 2020. There is a global pandemic. Evacuees from Wuhan have been sent to the Christmas Island detention centre, 1500 kms from the Australian mainland. Cruise ship passengers are allowed to embark in February and then disembark in March to spread out across the country. Various levels of isolation restrictions are implemented by the Premiers and Chief Ministers. Scott Morrison maintains he will go to the footy and then walks it back.

Various ‘stimulus’ polices are announced, staged and piecemeal. He starts by announcing, in early March, that there will be one-off $750 payments to unemployed people in May and people on other income support in July, aimed at propping up the quarterly figures. At this point, Morrison still thinks he can manipulate the numbers sufficiently to avoid the appearance of recession.

This is despite the fact that the economy is already in recession in all but name, papered over only by federal government defence spending and the migration intake. The economy has been tanking since the first Abbott-Hockey government budget. Economic management under Liberal Party leaders Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison is so dire that the Reserve Bank governor has been calling for stimulus for years, including lifting the rate of unemployment benefit.

Also in early March is the announcement of more public subsidies for business owners who employ apprentices. This is aimed at corporations in unionised male-dominated industries and blue collar male business owners in swinging seats. They receive an eye-watering expansion of instant tax write-downs, from $30,000 to $150,000 for ‘tradies’ with turnover of up to $500 million (previously up to $50 million).

The big one.

In late March, the prime minister calls his third press conference in three days. Wringing his hands, hoping and praying, he announces ‘jobkeeper’, a wages subsidy to businesses for paying employees rather than standing them down. The announcement is aimed at stemming a steep rise in unemployment figures. A huge headline figure, later cut by $60 billion, is splashed all over the press. Also later, the subsidy is expanded to wealthy corporate religion, so the catholic church for example is collecting public cash; several rule changes are made to be absolutely certain public universities are excluded; and it is withdrawn completely from the childcare sector.

There is also a ‘corona virus supplement’ to top up the ‘jobseeker payment’. This is aimed at stopping footage of long unemployment queues – and heavy handed policing of destitute people in the queues – appearing on the nightly news. Still to come are almost a billion dollars for wealthy home renovators via builders aka tradies; and $650 million in announcements for the arts, of which about a third is for local industry and two thirds for Hollywood. These are framed by Scott Morrison as directed not only at performing arts creatives but also… tradies.

Each of these deeply ideological measures are reported as heroic. The accompanying slogans, carefully designed to confuse and mislead, are faithfully broadcast and published, with the desired result.

Barely two months after wage subsidy and income support supplements start rolling in May, the Morrison government starts leaking its plans for the future of the payments after its September deadline, to favoured journalists. This fuels endless press gallery speculation about a political statement slated for Thursday 23 July. The Juy statement was offered up by the government to replace the federal budget, which they cancelled.

Morrison then brings the income support component of the political speech that is supposed to replace the budget forward by two days. Why? Hard to say. Incredibly*, this political communications strategy generates blanket coverage that income support is to be ‘extended’. The narrative is aimed at well-off people who vote Liberal and like comforting pabulum to obscure the fact that the rest of us fund their investment properties, private health insurance, and elite school fees.

Some detail, and some context

Firstly, as the government fiddled around with eligibility for the wages subsidy based on its political priorities (like misogyny and religiosity), the ‘jobkeeper’ budget was cut by a whopping $60 billion inside the same month payments commenced. Now we are told it will be cut by $300 per fortnight per full time employee after September and by $750 per fortnight per part time or casual (under 20 hours) employee.

In addition, the corona virus supplement will be cut by $285, to less than half the original $550. The supplement is paid to people on ‘jobseeker’, and is aimed at deflecting from the huge realisation about to sweep through the population that our social security system, far from providing a safety net, is onerously punitive and pointlessly cruel. It creates and exacerbates mental health conditions. It drives people to despair up to and including to suicide. It also costs squillions in public money given ‘job agency’ proprietors like Liberal Party donor Sarina Russo.

The cuts are reported as ‘extending’ income support because he is announcing in July what the lower rate will be after the September deadline which the government announced in March. Clear as mud, I know.

Missing from media reports is the fact that the base unemployment rate had already been rebranded, from newstart to jobseeker (JSP), before any fiscal response to a global pandemic. At the time, it was routine Morrison government activity, cosmetic fiddling while Rome burns. Social security since the Howard government has been text book neoliberalism, designed to construe people on income support as latent jobs. The rest of society is invited to see poor people as responsible for what is caused by capitalists, as nothing more than the potential value of their labour to bosses. A degrading and punitive compliance regime, which forcibly transactionalises human relations and commodifies members of the working and underclasses to benefit rentseekers like Sarina Russo, has been called a digital workhouse.

Dickensian, but online.

Meanwhile, the news cycle is dominated by announcements and misinformation. Arguably worse is what top Australian psephologist and fellow blogger Noely Neate describes as scottysplaining. This is the fantasist editorialising on what Morrison could do (be a decent person, act in an intelligent and timely way, implement policy in the public interest) rather than who and what he really is (a heartless stentorian, a monstrous and profligate liar).

Morrison has long shown us who he is and we ought to believe him. This is a man who lies about charity workers and refugees in detention, costing us billions; who unlawfully extorts money from the lowest income workers to fabricate a budget bottom line, costing us billions; and cancels the parliament but will solicit corporate clients at the football, costing us billions. This is but a sample of what passes for Liberal Party ‘economic management’.

The political economy of the Liberal Party

The most critical element of the Liberal Party comms strategy is press gallery journalists invariably reporting, above the fold, on the home page, at the top of the bulletin, what Scott Morrison said. No matter what its relationship to reality, anything said by Morrison (or his ministers) is ascribed priority, and what Scott Morrison (or his ministers) say is what the Australian people, the audiences and readership out in the electorate, see and hear first. It is extraordinarily difficult to get cut-through for the purpose of refuting their lies.

This gift is not a function of who is in government. Only Liberal-led governments enjoy the vast benefit of this reporting model. Liberal opposition leaders have no difficulty in getting their deranged and false claims about Labor governments onto the front pages of  murdoch mastheads. The key is aligned corporate interests. The Liberal Party are the party of business, of awarding huge contracts, billions of public dollars, to the corporate sector – usually to see it wasted on greed and incompetence, as capital will.

A strange thing happened today.

The inspiration for this post is that something odd followed Morrison’s announcement about cutting the rate of jobkeeper wage subsidy and jobseeker corona virus supplement today. The press gallery departed from their devoted practice of unquestioningly reporting Morrison setpieces as policy facts and instead told us that the base jobseeker rate will not stay at its present low rate. Bewildering stuff.

To conclude, a brief overview of unemployment payment at the time of writing:

    • ‘Jobseeker’ is a pre-covid rebranding of newstart, sickness benefit and other income support payments. It is not a virus response or stimulus policy. It is the base rate of unemployment benefit that has not increased in real terms for over 25 years.
    • reporting that Scott Morrison has decided ‘to extend jobseeker’ is meaningless and not ‘news’, unless you think Scott Morrison could or should or would abolish unemployment benefits.
    • The corona virus supplement was announced in March 2020. Actual payments commenced in May and it was legislated to expire in September. The prime minister has now announced the supplement will be cut rather than expire at that date.
    • When asked if the base JSP rate is too low, the prime minister said his government is not considering the matter.
    • When asked if the base JSP rate is too low, the prime minister said his government is not considering the matter.

Recall that the first sector to lose access to ‘jobkeeper’ wage subsidies was childcare. Almost all the workers are low-paid women; and almost all working mothers depend on childcare to participate in the paid workforce. While today we are inundated with breathless reports of future cuts to the rate of jobkeeper as an ‘extension’, it has already been ‘extended’ to the catholic church and company directors; withheld from public universities, migrant workers, and the arts; and withdrawn from the child care sector.