Lazy Luddite Log



I recently had a letter published in the Australian Financial Review. This is a first for me and thanks to journalistic Jess for giving me some editing help. My letter concerns a key problem I encountered back in my time as an under-employed person receiving income support from Centrelink. I also composed a longer piece on the same topic but sent that to a few key non-government organizations. I reproduce its text here:

Last year, I stopped claiming Newstart Allowance. The thing that allowed me to become independent of Centrelink was not a new job, nor work found for me by the JobActive network. Rather, my casual employer of a few years had slowly been increasing my shifts, to the point that I could get by without public support.

Before that, I had applied for many other jobs, because a full-time role is theoretically better. However, prioritizing full-time over part-time work could have been a mistake. Had I been offered a 3-month full time temp job, I would have been expected to take it, cancel my shifts, and hope that a short-term role would turn into something more. But that could not be guaranteed. Another thing that could not be guaranteed was my casual employer giving me back my old hours, because my reliability would have been undermined. A short-term win might have turned into a long-term loss, as I went back onto Newstart with less work than before.

That never happened. Prospective employers talk of having hundreds of applicants to vet. The high applicant-to-vacancy ratio was never acknowledged by JobActive consultants, however, as they focused solely on personal factors. And yet, the unemployment industry seems ill-prepared to understand personal circumstances, such as the plight of an under-employed person who needs to keep in sweet with existing bosses. Quickly changing rosters do not gel with bureaucratic expectations and, while it is touted as a flexible and community-based network of service-providers, JobActive is another bureaucracy, and a fragmented one at that. At one time my service-provider lost its government contract to a new player. The result was duplication of effort, as I had to brief new consultants on my background, and they had to familiarize themselves with Centrelink processes. I would have rather had stability than an illusion of choice.

Centrelink payments are also poorly designed to serve the under-employed. A particular problem I faced, at a time when I was only getting sporadic shifts, was the expectation that one declare income at the time it is earned rather than received. As soon as Centrelink knew of any extra income, they would pay a reduced amount of the already paltry Newstart, even though my pay was still weeks away. This one procedure played havoc with my frugal budget. I had less than I needed to survive and sometimes turned to family for help. Thankfully I have that kind of support, and never became indebted to loan sharks. But even after my earned income arrived, it never seemed to compensate for the preceding hardship.

This procedure still exists, and changing it would make life for under-employed Newstart recipients that bit better. I wrote to various parliamentarians, including a past Federal employment minister. A staffer called me, and in true Sir Humphrey Appleby style, simultaneously said that, yes it was a problem but no, they would not do anything to change it. How hard would it be to let job-seekers only declare income once it arrives? Even though it no longer affects me, I still look on this experience with frustration.

I said that I got no government help in becoming independent, but that's not entirely true. The existence of Newstart itself made it possible by acting as a top-up to what had been an inadequate casual income. I was able to live the kind of life that is expected of someone in regular work, even part-time work, and participate in society as both producer and consumer. Newstart alone, or my casual earnings alone, would not have sufficed, but a combination of slowly growing casual income and downwardly adjusted Newstart allowed me to make a living.

In the long-term, political views on unemployment benefits need to change. A one-size fits all policy based on the assumption that jobs are there to be found makes life difficult for jobseekers, employees and employers. For me Newstart accidentally took the form of a low income top-up which allowed me to develop a stable and trustworthy relationship with a workplace that eventually grew my hours. It was only by sheer luck that Centrelink hurdles did not jeopardize that relationship. Maybe a low income top-up is exactly what we need. However, I would be satisfied with the more modest change of letting job-seekers declare income only once it is received. This would be a small boon for those who work but cannot find enough work.

I would love to make advocating for this last change a pet project of mine. I could definitely do way more than I have here to lobby for what should be a small and non-controversial reform. But right now I have other personal commitments and plans getting in the way. For now I will be satisfied that the issue is in the public record.