(Image via @jarrapin)

The public are getting awfully tired of the hectoring tirades and dodgy facts from Senator Michaelia Cash. Her latest brainsnap is to starve 800,000 job seekers rather than feed one imposter, writes John Maycock.

JUST OVER 12 months ago, this author wrote two articles, here and here discussing various news articles, and highlighting not just the stereotyping vilification and vexatious labelling directed at welfare recipients, but also the twisting or skewing of information by the then Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison, and the journalists who published his rhetoric.

Indeed, I suggested they were driving division, using terms like  "bludgers", "lifters and leaners", "rorters", and cultivating notions of "deserving and undeserving" in the wider community.

Well, here we are, just over a year later and little has changed, though this time it is Employment Minister Michaelia Cash who has taken up the “stick”.

A quarter of all dole recipients shirking appointments and jobs

claims the Daily Telegraph’s headline (7 April 2016), though if you read the same article in the Courier Mail (print edition 7 April 2016) you were greeted by the headline:

Crackdown to dole out penalties for cheats’.

(Note: there is some subtle difference between the two articles but they are basically the same, authored by Lauren Wilson, while the article probably appeared in more News Corp’s publications than the two just quoted.)

You don’t have to go past the headlines to see that Morrison has been “channelled” here. Make it sound big, “a quarter of all”, make it sound anti-social, “shirking” and “cheating” reassure the public that justice should/will prevail, “crackdown” and “penalties” — and, of course, make sure you use the word “dole”.

As for the article, the first revelation is that

Around a quarter of all dole recipients are skipping job interviews or failing to accept decent work’.

Based on the fact that during July through September last year (note the use of the word "alarming" here):

‘... an alarming 276000 job seekers had their welfare payments suspended’.

We are also informed that

Most of the suspensions were handed down because welfare recipients failed to turn up for appointments, or shirked obligations like work for the dole, and were back-paid once jobseekers re-engaged with job active’.

Hate-filled snarling, angry psychopathic tirade by Senator Michaelia Cash. Truly frightening (Published June 28, 2013)

There is the first hint at what is going on. They were back-paid and Cash doesn’t think they have been punished enough.

Well, actually, she wants to use them as a political football:

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the high number of suspensions demonstrate why the parliament needs to pass tough new penalties for job seekers’.

And further on;

The tougher penalties, which are currently opposed by Labor Party MPs, extend dole suspensions to job seekers who fail to adequately hunt for work, and remove the waivers that allow people who turn down decent jobs to remain on welfare’.

Well it would seem that job seekers already face suspensions if they do not look for work, so that doesn’t sound right, but waivers? Elsewhere, Cash uses the term loopholes where she is obviously referring to these waivers. Now, without going to deeply into this, these waivers, that Cash calls "loopholes" that allow people to turn down jobs, would surely be things like travelling times, lack of transport/isolated areas, unsuitable hours due to carer responsibilities and such.

Now one “loophole” in particular, that came up in a telephone interview between 3AW’s Neil Mitchell and the president of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU), Owen Bennett, is wages.

People cannot be forced to take a job that pays below minimum wages  the suggestion being that job agencies are sending clients to below minimum wage jobs and then sanctioning them for refusing, and here we can assume that the unemployed person in this position, once they inform Centrelink of the matter, have their payments re-instated as per the rules.

However, Mitchell took the position that the unemployed should take below minimum wage jobs and that if they were “fair dinkum” they would take what they could get and, no doubt, his listeners will see that as fair, especially considering the emotive language around the whole issue. But this begs the question: Does Cash believe that protections from state sanctioned slavery are "loopholes"?

Note here that if you are a Newstart recipient assessed with a partial capacity to work and obligated to find, say, 15 hours a week of paid work, it has to be at or above the minimum wage. If not, you are obliged to work as many hours as it takes to earn the equivalent of 15 hours at the minimum rate.

Okay, Wilson does give Owen Bennett (AUWU) some space to point out that their hotline receives many calls from people being

‘…penalised for not attending an appointment that they didn’t even know about....’.

A point he also makes on Mitchell’s programme, but the AUWU president also raises some figures with Mitchell and on the AUWU site.

But firstly, along with those 276,000 people, according to Wilson’s article, there were another 8,900 people who were

‘…slapped with heavier financial penalties for repeatedly shunning interviews, failing to accept appropriate work, or for misconduct.'

Looked at from a different perspective, this suggests that almost 97% of those sanctioned/suspended had legitimate reasons for their actions and had their payments reinstated. When you take into account Wilson’s figures of 800,000 unemployed, the 8,900 represents just over 1% of Newstart recipients, not a quarter (25%).

But, though important, I digress. 

Here is what else Cash had to say:

Australia’s income support system is there as a safety net for people who genuinely cannot find a job, not as an option for those who simply refuse to work…. [and] [f]ailure to address loopholes results in taxpayer funds being wasted by those who have the ability to engage in paid employment but instead prefer to remain on welfare payments.'

Considering these figures for February from the AUWU (and reiterated on Mitchell’s program), there are 732,600 unemployed and 1,058,900 underemployed job seekers, all vying for 166,500 vacancies. That is almost 11 job seekers for every job. Cash’s words are revealed for what they are. She is pushing notions of the “undeserving” that belong to a bygone era.

Indeed, in this light, her words are nonsensical. According to Cash, there are around 500,000 unemployed people (presumably with the ability to engage in paid employment) who genuinely cannot find work. This is likely due to there being only 166,000 vacancies, while another 200,000 odd (with the ability to engage in paid employment) would find work, if only they were genuine — no matter that there is only 166,000 vacancies?

Notice also these words, “those who simply refuse to work”, “loopholes”, “taxpayer funds being wasted”, “prefer to remain on welfare”, and ask: how many people will hear the dog whistle and entirely miss the illogical reasoning behind the argument?

That’s right, folks; people are not allowed to be “happily” unemployed.

As an aside, I recall reading of the 19th century argument over welfare delivery, where one stream had it that only those deserving should receive assistance (godliness was one of the “tests”, as was sobriety, cleanliness and tidiness), the other stream held that it was better to feed a hundred imposters than let one needy starve. Senator Cash would have it as best to starve 800,000 needy than to feed one imposter.

Yes, all this is alarming, but not for the reasons implied by Cash and Wilson, where they suggest that “we” should be alarmed by the number of people who appear to be not searching for (non-existent) jobs. But rather, “we” should be alarmed that people already living in a financially precarious position are having what little income they receive suspended due to bureaucratic bungling and a dysfunctional system, while at the same time having vexatious, vilifying, victim-blaming labels applied to them in the public domain. . 

But, more alarmingly, Cash wants to punish them even harder, and she wants “us” to agree; and, it appears, she and others are more than willing to twist and skew information  and inject dis-information and discord into the community to achieve those ends.

You can follow John Maycock on Twitter @L3ftyJohn.

Senator Michaelia Cash's in 'Bombastic Abuse Mode' on WestConnex (Published 25 March 2015)

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