Now that Keynesian pump-priming is back in vogue the old depression era adage that governments should pay people to dig holes and fill them back up again is also back on the agenda. Better to do something, no matter how ineffective, than to do nothing at all it seems.
Anna Bligh’s new “Green Army” might well have been designed with this in mind.
The army will consist of 3,000 unemployed or school leaving Queenslanders, drafted to work on conservation and environmental projects around the state. While 700 of the places will be traineeships, which include working towards qualifications in areas such as Conservation and Land Management, Horticulture and Waste and Water Treatment, the majority - 2,300 - will be work placements.
More than 100,000 Queenslanders are already out of work, and this figure is set to rise. While the project is a sure-fire headline generator, it’s certainly not going to make a big dent in the unemployment rate. There are other reasons to be wary too.
Work placements will last for six months, with local councils, businesses and conservation groups proposing green projects to employ the workers. This means any organisation who was already considering hiring workers to undertake such projects will now have a big incentive to save their cash. Why spend money hiring someone when the government will pay to do it for you?
Long-term “real” jobs could give way to six-month Green Army placements.
This would be bad for participants, and bad for Queensland taxpayers. Time spent working on a Green Army project is time with which participants could be looking for a sustainable and ongoing job. Taxpayers money that could have been spent somewhere else, now won’t be.
The plan also appears to mirror the Federal Government’s “Green Corps”, which sees young people taking on six month placements in environmental projects, suggesting there could be a wasteful duplication of the Queensland and national schemes.
While their effect on long term jobs is doubtful, some “make-work” schemes -such as the tourist friendly bike path proposed for New Zealand perhaps - can have lasting economic or environmental benefits. However the Green Army appears to be untargeted and doesn’t aim to meet a specific need.
In the rush to get the scheme off the ground, the danger is that funding will be given to pointless or unproductive projects. Undoubtedly many communities will propose worthy conservation projects, but the imperative to create jobs quickly means that projects which are “shovel ready” will inevitably be given priority over those which are more worthwhile.
How will the projects be chosen, and how will their long-term benefit be assessed? Will job creation be given priority over environmental rewards, or vice versa?
Schemes such as this assume that the government is better at choosing which projects get the go-ahead than the market or local community. However, if a project is really worthwhile there is a good chance that someone - a local council or a tourism operator perhaps - is already doing it. If not, why not? Do we want taxpayer dollars pumped into projects which ultimately don’t deliver?