On 28 September, the Morrison government plans to throw millions of workers, students and the unemployed into poverty and insecurity amidst a worsening pandemic and historic economic crisis. This is the date when the government’s COVID-19 support measures will be radically pared back.
The JobSeeker payment will be cut by $300 a fortnight. There are currently 1.3 million unemployed workers claiming that payment: from the time of that cut, they’ll have to survive on as little as $815 a fortnight, a level substantially below the poverty line.
The JobKeeper programme will also be slashed, with payments driven further below the minimum wage. A two-tiered system will be introduced. Full-time workers will get $1,200 a fortnight, and part-time workers $750. Eligibility criteria will also be tightened, and the Treasury projects that 2.1 million workers will be pushed off the payment after September.
These attacks have been a long time coming. When the programmes were initially announced, the government made their motivation clear. JobSeeker and JobKeeper were a “temporary lifeline”, short-term measures to prop up the Australian economy during “hibernation”.
In an April speech, Morrison signalled the Liberals’ post-pandemic policy agenda, warning: “We are going to have to have economic policy measures that are going to have to be very pro-growth, that are going to enable businesses to employ people.” In Liberal terminology, this means tax cuts for the rich, attacks on social spending, wages, and working conditions.
Morrison began laying the groundwork for the slashing of welfare last month, when he argued that people were turning down good jobs because the Jobseeker payment is too high: “We are getting a lot of anecdotal feedback from small businesses, even large businesses,” he told 2GB radio. “Some of them are finding it hard to get people to come and take the shifts because they’re on these higher levels of payment.”
Of course, this is a lie. In the depths of a global pandemic and historic economic crisis, there is no glut of jobs being turned down by picky jobseekers. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that in mid-July, for every available job there were at least 13 unemployed jobseekers.
Morrison’s comment reveals the underlying logic of the welfare system under capitalism. Centrelink is deliberately punitive, with payments set at intolerable levels in order to drive people to take whatever work is available.
This dehumanising welfare system has been bipartisan politics for decades. During the pandemic, so-called “opposition leader” Anthony Albanese refused to endorse calls to make the JobSeeker increase permanent, arguing: “I don’t think it should be kept at the level where it is, where JobSeeker is higher than the aged pension. That’s not a reasonable proposition.” Invoking the gruelling poverty faced by pensioners in order to deny millions a liveable welfare payment is gutter politics.
In response to the government’s latest announcement, Albanese has adopted a new strategy, astonishingly criticising Morrison for excessive generosity toward low paid and casual workers receiving JobKeeper: “We know now that some 875,000 people were paid more than they were earning before this crisis,” Albanese complained when interviewed by Radio National, “and that’s resulted in literally billions of dollars being added to what will be a record deficit and record debt that should not have been in the original design of the scheme.” But Labor failed to show similar concern for fiscal responsibility when they waved through a recent government announcement committing to an extra $70 billion in military spending.
The prospect of millions of people having these schemes cut off in the midst of a historic economic crisis is a disgrace. Instead, Jobseeker should be increased to match the $1500 JobKeeper payment, and the full JobKeeper subsidy of $1500 a fortnight should be extended.
But we need to go further than that. Both Jobkeeper and Jobseeker are far from universal programmes available to all. More than a million casual workers, those with the least job security, have been excluded from Jobkeeper. Migrant workers and international students have been excluded from both schemes, creating a desperate situation amidst the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Reports last week have revealed international students, long treated as cash cows by the government, living on one meal a day in Melbourne, and depending on charity to survive.
When they doubled welfare overnight and spent $70 billion on wage subsidies through JobKeeper, the Liberal government has already undermined the long-standing excuse that Australia’s pre-existing welfare payments were adequate for dignified human survival. By splashing money on military spending, they’ve shown that they have money to burn on the things they value. Now we need to fight to make the increased welfare payments a permanent state of affairs, and make sure that payments like JobKeeper are accessible to every worker who needs them.