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It's the same the whole world over

By John Tomlinson - posted Monday, 23 January 2012


Unemployment can be a devastating experience exacerbating mental health, personality and identity issues. Even short-term unemployment challenges the way those thrown out of work see themselves and those around them. Deborah Padfield, who has experienced long term mental health difficulties, writing about the cost that flexible labour markets inflict on vulnerable workers notes that:

Income and self-respect matters hugely; employment can represent structure, an outlet for energies, hope of a future, colleagueship. You no longer have to fudge answers to "what do you do?", let alone "What are you?"

But there is work and work. Insecure, low-paid work means none of these things.

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In many countries, including Australia, unemployment benefit schemes require those out of work to take any job irrespective of how demeaning it is or how unsuited to a particular applicant. Such short-sighted policies seldom provide the first step on the ladder of opportunity. For many, such policies result in their being deskilled and living an increasingly precarious existence in an ever increasingly flexible sector of the labour market. Lost is their sense of occupation or trade or profession.

In a seven-year longditudional study, Peter Butterworth (from the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University) found that generally "being employed was better for mental health than being unemployed" but "moving from unemployment to a poor quality job was actually associated with a significant decline in those people's mental health and well being." Butterworth also found that there was no evidence that moving into one of these poor quality jobs led to an increased likelihood of moving into a higher quality job" over the 7 year period.

Why have we become meaner?

The accepted wisdom, at least on the left, is that when John Howard came to power in 1996 he set out with alacrity to win the culture wars in relation to winding back workers rights, ending the Black armband view of Australian history, lessening welfare generosity and stopping asylum seekers arriving by boat. However, this is only a part of the story. From at least 1987, Brian Howe was ranting about the surge in "welfare dependency". Even in the Whitlam Government there were ministers rabbiting on about the ranks of the unemployed being swelled by "workshy lion tamers". This was years before Peter Costello warned against allowing the unemployed to become "job snobs". It was Howe who started increasing the obligations the unemployed had to meet before they would be paid benefits.

It was in 1992 that the Keating Government introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat. It too was the government that drafted the Native Title Act. Keating increased the requirements forced upon the unemployed, which he called "Reciprocal Obligations". Howard may have won the culture wars but he was greatly helped by many in the Labor Party.

Mal Brough may have been the one to introduce the Northern Territory Intervention but it has been continued and extended by Rudd, Gillard and Macklin. Macklin has even gone so far as to use the Aboriginal Benefit Account (into which mining royalties owed to Aboriginal communities are paid) as her own little slush fund.

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She has been criticised by the Auditor General for this. She even used the Aboriginal Benefit Account to pay $9.5 million to communities whose town leases she has seized. Aboriginal people are incarcerated for petty theft in disproportionate numbers whilst nothing happens to this minister.

Yes, "It's the same the whole world over.
Ain't it all a blooming shame.
It's the rich what lives on clover
and the poor what gets the blame."

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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