Bosses banked JobKeeper, but welfare gets axed

JobKeeper relief payments went to businesses to subsidise workers’ wages during the pandemic. They were, Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially claimed, “a lifeline to not only get through this crisis, but bounce back together on the other side”. But the Liberal government handed billions to the bosses with no real strings attached, which made the scheme ripe for rorting.

Ownership Matters, a corporate advisory group, found that 34 companies on the ASX 300 pocketed $284 million despite reporting increased profits during the pandemic. And some companies paid tens of millions of dollars in dividends to their owners at the same time as they received the taxpayer-funded payments.

The same generosity was not extended to front-line workers risking their lives to continue production, often without receiving hazard pay. Morrison defended these outcomes, saying: “I’m not into the politics of envy”.

He is into the politics of punishment, though. Contrast his treatment of big business and the rich to everyone else. His government’s “robodebt” scheme supposedly found hundreds of thousands of overpayments to people on unemployment support. Debt-collection letters were sent outlining totals that frequently were more than $10,000. If you couldn’t provide payslips, sometimes from as far back as five years, you were assumed guilty of rorting the system.

Reports of severe depression and suicide prompted Centrelink to begin tweeting the details for Lifeline, a national 24-hour support and suicide prevention service. Many of these “debts” were completely made up because of the way the scheme averaged incomes over a year. That didn’t stop the government fighting tooth and nail in the courts to be able to keep collecting them.

Where are the threatening debt-collection letters for the CEOs who rorted the JobKeeper scheme?

Now that JobKeeper is being axed, up to 250,000 more people could be made unemployed, according to economist Jeff Borland, as struggling businesses cut costs. Those who lose their jobs will have to survive on a dole that’s well below the poverty line.

The JobSeeker payment took the previous NewStart allowance and added the coronavirus supplement of $550, bringing the total fortnightly amount to around $1,115. This was the first increase to the dole in real terms since 1994. As the supplement end date approached, public pressure mounted to increase the JobSeeker base rate. The Liberals announced a pitiful $50 fortnightly increase to compensate for the loss of the supplement.

Women are most affected. Data from the Department of Social Services and the Bureau of Statistics show that middle-aged women in rural areas are the most likely to require unemployment pay, and that women in general lost a disproportionate number of jobs during the pandemic.

“Mutual obligations” have also returned after being suspended last year. Under the threat of delayed payments, job seekers must attend appointments and training sessions with job service providers and potentially perform “work for the dole”. (Where are the “mutual obligations” for the businesses that received JobKeeper and every other bit of government aid?)

Within a month of mutual obligations returning at the end of last year, 74,000 people had their payments delayed. This included 12,173 First Nations people, 6,334 single parents, 13,169 people with a disability, and 9,100 people experiencing homelessness, according to figures provided by Senate estimates. Yet the jobs that the unemployed are required to search for are few and far between. According to the National Skills Commission, there are more than four job seekers for every job vacancy.

In other words, it is mathematically impossible for everyone to find work. Why then are those without a job being punished and forced to carry out all these punitive “obligations”? JobSeeker must be raised to a living wage, funded by increased taxes on big business.

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