I was pleasantly surprised that Labor Senators voted on 24 February for a motion by Rachel Siewert from the Greens, noting “that the Government is making a deliberate choice to keep people on the JobSeeker Payment living in poverty” and calling on the Government to “urgently increase Jobseeker Payment to be above the poverty line.” That Labor voted for this is a tiny opening for supporters of living incomes, to demand more explicit commitments to $550 a week minimum income support to be made by each and every Labor MP, candidate, affiliated union and ALP branch.
The opening is tiny. There were no impassioned speeches for setting a minimum income above the poverty line, and no clarification of which poverty line measure they support. Whilst it is better for JobSeekers to get a $4.57 a day increase than zero, neither Labor nor the Greens used disruptive parliamentary tactics against it to highlight the inadequacy.
About 70% of people are for a much higher unemployment benefit, according to opinion polls over several years. So what will it take to get a living income? The Government has set a poverty amount of $308 per week / $44 per day. Big names and big organisations endorse the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) proposal for $455 per week / $65 a day. The Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Governor of the Reserve Bank favour more than the Government. The ACOSS Raise the Rate campaign has been going for years, with much letter writing, pollie contacting, petitioning and so on. Winning public support for a rise in the dole is important. But it’s not enough. The government can put up with passive dissent, public opinion, lobbying, letter-writing, rational appeals to budget possibilities and the benefits to the economy of stimulating demand.
In whose interest is it for people short of work to be living in poverty and anxiety about how to keep themselves and their children sheltered, fed and clothed? The loudest complaints about the higher level of JobSeeker were from employers in harvesting, meat processing and hospitality. JobSeeker took away the “incentive” to work. The lower income support is (and the more people there are competing to be employed), the less employers need to pay to attract labour. The lowest wages can be kept in the bargain basement.
Even if some employer groups, such as the BCA, favour an increase in the dole, they are still trading off the incentive (i.e. desperate poverty) to take jobs against meeting people’s needs (i.e. relieving people from desperate poverty), with the former weighing more highly than the latter. They won’t advocate lifting everyone above the poverty line, because the threat or experience of poverty disciplines the workforce, both in and out of work.
Whilst the Government sets income support levels, and presents the amount as a question of what the budget can afford, it is really about the conditions that significant employers want for employing labour that are decisive in the government’s thinking.
Labor tries to balance between the demands of both sides. Labor politicians convince union leaders and workers that they can only win government with very moderate concessions to workers. Perhaps they’ll be able to do better once they win, they say. But in fact they tend to do worse. Remember Labor’s paltry concessions of the Fair Work Act, failure to lift unemployment benefits, and forcing single parents off parenting payment onto NewStart. So while a Labor Government might provide some improvements, we can’t rely on it to do so. The unemployed and low-paid workers have to be a stronger force than employers, to be able to be more disruptive to employers, than employers can be to livelihoods, in order to force Labor to concede demands for living incomes, and deny the employers.
If we had a much stronger, more organised, committed and determined labour movement, passive dissent could readily be mobilised as active refusal to accept the government’s poverty machine. The vacuum left by labour movement leaders will not be tolerated indefinitely. There is a surge of organising amongst people on income support who want to break the poverty machine, and they are seeking allies who are willing to act, in the union movement.
The Living Incomes For Everyone Campaign is bringing together organising groups.