Dole bludgers and other urban myths

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(Image via @MelbAnglican)

It's time to put the dole bludger myth to bed and focus on helping young people down on their luck, writes Tarric Brooker.

IN AUSTRALIAN CULTURE, there is a mythical villain that comes for “your tax dollars” — an image of an individual that is moustache twirlingly nefarious in the pursuit of living a comfortable life on other people’s money.

That mythical suburban villain, passed down from one generation to the next, like an Australian version of a financial bogeyman, is the so-called “dole bludger”.

These dole bludgers apparently live comfortable, carefree and easy lives as the rest of Australia's hard-working “lifters” support such do-nothing “leaners” — to use former Treasurer Joe Hockey’s extremely loaded and grossly oversimplified language.

In reality, however, there are very few people living comfortably solely on Centrelink payments, alone, without the help of parents, or other friends and family to help make up the inevitable shortfall.

The reality of exactly how hard life is on Newstart allowance (unemployment benefits) is frequently illustrated by studies and reports done by universities, charities and social welfare advocacy groups.

Despite life for most Newstart recipients being understandably grim, the true believers of the dole bludger myth press on with their attacks through stories in newspapers and television programs.

Politicians in both the major parties have done little to dispel the negative mythos around those receiving unemployment benefits. Prominent members of both Labor and the Coalition have made statements over the years that they could live on Newstart allowance, angering many welfare advocacy groups and Newstart recipients doing it tough.

Former Labor Minister Jenny Macklin said in 2013 that she “could live on” the Newstart allowance, leading to a major backlash during which she was forced to apologise.


Liberal MP Julia Banks said in a May ABC Radio interview:

“I could live on 40 bucks a day, knowing the Government is supporting me with Newstart to look for employment.”

These attempts to downplay the struggle faced by Newstart recipients has transcended multiple governments, with both major parties repeatedly rejecting a much-needed increase in the rate of Newstart allowance while they were in power.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has refused to commit to an increase in the rate of the Newstart allowance despite internal party pressures, saying instead that Labor will have:

“ ... a root and branch review of Newstart and like-minded allowances and payments.”

 Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in July (while he was Treasurer) that an increase to payments was not on the agenda:

"I support getting Australians off welfare and into work."

There is little doubt that the consistent “beat up” stories in current affairs TV programs and in newspapers has increasingly turned any major increase in the rate of Newstart payments into a political minefield.

As a result, members of the general public have been conditioned to believe that “dole bludgers” consume an inordinate amount of their hard earned tax dollars, despite Newstart and sickness allowance payments costing less than 2.1% of the total 2018 Federal Budget.

To put that number into perspective, assistance to families with children makes up 7.53% of the 2018 Budget and assistance to the aged, 13.67%. Both of these welfare programs cost a great deal more money than the total cost of unemployment benefits, yet it is unemployed Australians that are consistently demonised and looked down upon.

Greens Leader Senator Richard Di Natale proposed a $75 a week increase to Newstart allowance payments and has been pressuring Shorten to commit to the increased rate of payment. Senator Di Natale and the Greens have a number of unlikely allies in the battle to provide a greater quality of life to unemployed Australians including business groups, research firms and former Prime Minister John Howard.

A report by Deloitte Access Economics, published in September, concluded that raising the rate of Newstart allowance by $75 a week would create a “prosperity dividend”, which would generate 10,000 jobs, boost consumer spending and raise wages.

In May, John Howard came out in favour of re-examining the rate of Newstart allowance, saying that the 24-year freeze on the Newstart rate had “probably gone on too long”.

The increased awareness of the struggle faced by unemployed Australians is a welcome change to the traditional narrative of ignoring or belittling the difficulties faced by Newstart recipients.

However, as long as the “dole bludger” myth persists within the Australian psyche, raising the rate of Newstart Allowance will still require traversing a political minefield the major parties have been reticent to do in the past.

For the myth of the “dole bludger” to finally die, Australians from all walks of life need to see Newstart recipients for what they truly are: a group of individuals that are overwhelmingly good and hardworking people, who are just down on their luck and trying to get back on their feet.

Tarric Brooker is a freelance journalist and political commentator.

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