Breachers and Job Seekers


Last month the Federal Government delivered its eleventh Budget. After squirreling away nearly $11 billion of taxpayers’ money as insurance against the hard times, they began throwing money at almost anything that was moving. There was new military hardware for the Australian Defence Forces, superannuation concessions for retirees, and personal tax cuts for those of us already receiving a substantial salary.

But for those in the community who have yet to find their seat on the gravy train, there was little joy. In fact, changes to the Federal Government’s ‘welfare to work’ package which took effect on 1 July, threaten to make life even tougher for those who struggle most to gain employment.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

On Tuesday 27 June, former Lord Mayor Ivan Deveson launched Melbourne Citymission’s Give Me a Break! report. The study looks at the personal experiences of 186 Melbourne Citymission clients who have received social security benefits from Centrelink in the last 12 months. The title of the report reflects how much those 186 people wanted to get a job and break out of the unhappy cycle of welfare dependency.

The study shows that disadvantaged job seekers would much prefer to work than to receive unemployment benefits, and most of them identified ‘getting a job’ as one of their key goals for the next 12 months. They are not motivated by some heroic sense of altruism, just a simple desire to bring structure and financial security to their often fractured existence. And perhaps to go away for a weekend, or see a touring rock band, just like ‘normal’ people do.

Being poor isn’t much fun, but even among the ranks of the unemployed there is a hierarchy of misery. Job seekers, who are homeless, in poor health, single parents, or living with a disability can find the employment market a hard nut to crack.

These people are often down to the bare bones of their emotional resources. They have often had their dwindling reserves of self-confidence dented by the knock-backs of prospective employers and the unfamiliar demands of the social security bureaucracy.

Over half of the people interviewed for the report have, at some point, had their payments suspended by Centrelink. These ‘breaches’ are usually happen when people fail to comply with the Government’s ‘mutual obligation’ requirements.

‘Ikram’ left school after completing Year 10. She began a further qualification but was unable to continue because the course fees were too expensive. Her home life became untenable and she was forced to take shelter in a youth refuge. Around this time, Centrelink suspended her payments because she had failed to advise them that she had left the course.

Melbourne Citymission understands that the overwhelming majority of Centrelink staff enforce the Government’s rules without fear or favour. It is the policy makers who have to recognise that applying punitive ‘breaching regimes’ to disadvantaged job seekers is counter-productive. It simply doesn’t work. Taking the whip to a horse that is already running at maximum speed arouses only resentment.

A small proportion of those who are ‘breached’ by Centrelink resort to illegal activities just to survive. It is surely false economy to deny anyone basic sustenance, regardless of their alleged crimes. This is not a matter of charity, just a recognition of the demands of security and good order.

The focus must be shifted to the provision of vocational and pre-employment training for job seekers, so that they can develop the skills that employers are seeking. The task is to increase participation and build sustainable employment. To help achieve this goal, governments must provide more assistance to employers willing to take on people who have been out of work for long periods, as well as increase the availability of childcare places and low-cost housing, so that those currently condemned by their circumstances to unemployment can find work and participate fully in the community.

Thanks to Emo.

Recently, Australia’s national unemployment rate fell below 5 per cent for the first time in many years, prompting a round of hearty self-congratulation in the Government. For official purposes, anyone working just one hour a week is considered to be ’employed.’ They are also likely to be desperately poor. But half a million unemployed Australians continue to draw money from the public purse while captains of industry cry out for skilled workers to alleviate their labour shortages. We haven’t got it right structurally.

Australia is currently experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity. There will never be a better time to invest in providing skills and training to those in our community who don’t currently have paid work.

Recently released OECD figures show this country is lagging behind in its spending on retraining the unemployed and actively supporting them to find work.

Let’s give these people a hand up so that they can become fully productive members of the community, and pay taxes rather than claim benefits. It’s a happy confluence of sound economic management and compassion.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.