Lazy Luddite Log


Less Than Nothing

The Abbott Government has recently expressed an interest in shifting some welfare recipients from the Disability Pension to the Newstart payment for jobseekers. This kind of proposal is nothing new and I witnessed the implications of a similar move under the Howard government in the late 90s. In this post I shall relate that anecdote and comment on it (while omitting any names of persons or specific organizations).

At the time I was working for a service provider that was part of the Job Network (I think the name was changed since to Job Services Australia). They employed me to accompany a client of theirs to a one-day food handling course. This client had been on Disability Support. They were now making an effort to get her into normal work. The plan was to get her a food handling certificate and then into café work. I was informed that she understood the subject matter but simply had difficulty interpreting the written test she would sit at the end of the one-day course. I would simply be there to help her interpret the questions rather than give her the answers.

It was an interesting one-day course and made me re-think a lot of the snack foods I habitually consumed at the time. Things seemed to progress well and my charge seemed to understand what was happening. Or at any rate she was familiar with the practice of nodding and smiling. Finally we came to the written test and I discovered that her understanding was far more limited than I had been told.

The clincher was the questions to do with safe temperatures at which to store and cook foods. We hit a metaphorical wall with the concept of negative degrees Celsius. Our test taker had never been told or had forgotten the concept. I understand perfectly. I think negative numbers are stupid and will argue that with anyone on the grounds that you cannot have less than nothing. However I do understand that as a convenience Celsius sets 0 degrees at the freezing point of water and that things can get colder than that. If only we used Kelvin.

I did my best to pull apart the concept and help her comprehend but it was hardly the best circumstances in which to do this. My role was never to give her the answers so I had to fall short of that. As a result of this and other things I recall that she did not pass the test.

I think there were many flaws in the thinking of the Job Network service provider and the government they were serving. Even basic jobs can be rather complex and taxing. Working in a café involves many skills and also a particular temperament. I personally think that even if technical issues like the Celsius thing were absent from this scenario there would still have been problems for the client to work in a busy customer service and food handling setting. But the state apparatus had this simplistic notion of what a low-paying and low-skilled job is.

Behind that was also a flawed concept of what constitutes a fulfilling life. The test-taker had a rich life with her wider family and with friends drawn from her interest in a particular sporting activity. She was a part of the community even if she lacked a normal job. But just because she was competent to walk to the corner store and buy milk they then assumed she could do anything. They talk of work as necessary for human dignity but all that back-and-forth with quasi-government organizations and confusing tests would hardly enhance self-respect. Thankfully she was a pretty relaxed person.

Historically it has been progressives who have argued that everyone is the same. And in terms of human rights this is true. But in the hands of contemporary conservatives the concept has been distorted to say that we are all the same and therefore everyone can do anything if only they try. We need to recognize however that there are limits to this. Both nature and nurture have a big impact on the motivation and capacity of every person. Those who overlook this variation in human ability betray a kind of naivety. However behind that naivety is something more sinister.

The Abbott Government needs to be miserly in some ways so it can be extravagant in others. The Disability Pension is more generous than Newstart and the key motive for shifting recipients from one to the other is that of cutting government costs by neglecting poorer and more marginalised Australians.

Cross-posted here.