The Big Issue : Edition 462
THE BIG ISSUE 4 – 17 JULY 2014 29 culture police Fiona Scott-Norman ILLUSTRATIONBYGREGBAKES;ORIGINALPHOTOGRAPHBYMILESSTANDISH NEWSTART HAS BEEN REJIGGED AGAIN, AND THIS TIME IT’S NOT ONLY THE UNEMPLOYED WHO MIGHT BE SQUEEZED. The Doledrums A central plank of the no-dole-for-six-months-if-you’re- under-30 scheme is that people will be required to apply for 40 jobs a month for the entire non-payment period. That is an epic amount of paperwork. Bad enough for the case-managers at Centrelink, and the poor sods who have to find 40 jobs a month to apply for, but what about the businesses? Every position will attract a tsunami of ‘obligation’ applications. Who’s going to wade through them all? How can it help businesses to be fielding applications from people who aren’t qualified? Last time I was on Newstart, I was applying for jobs like ‘engine machinist’ just to tick my Centrelink boxes. I wasn’t even taking the piss. There just weren’t many advertised jobs in the ballpark of what passes for my skill set. Even way back, when I was actively, genuinely, looking for hospitality work, I never landed a gig through Newstart, an Employment Pathway Plan or an official job centre. As a creative person, I’ve found them achingly useless and far too happy to encourage me into jobs like ‘engine machinist’. Even back in the 1980s and 90s, when the dole was affectionately considered an unofficial arts grant – and known as the ‘Hawke’ or ‘Keating’ scholarship for its services to a generation of comics, musicians and writers – it was a challenge to live on. It’s patently not enough now. Particularly, of course, if it’s removed entirely for six months at a time. You’d think that zero planning has gone into how thousands of under-thirties will survive with no government support. I’m not so sure. As someone who supplemented her dole for a while with, er, illegal waitressing, I have a theory. They will work under the counter. Businesses, discouraged by the palaver they go through each time they advertise a position through official channels, and having access to a newly desperate workforce, will have an army of under- thirties available for no awards and less than minimum wage. Minimum wage goes down, dole payments go down, unions disappear. Tony Abbott? He may be some kind of genius. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I’ve spent very little time on the dole. A few months here and there, mostly early on, when I fell between the stools of waitressing and freelance writing. I doubt I’m on my Pat Malone in finding it a dispiriting experience: I’d rather punch myself in the face than repeat it. Sure, free money when you’re skint is brilliant, and I still remember the giddy relief of having my rent covered. But you can’t wash off the humiliation in a hundred hot showers. Where does this notion come from, that the dole is a lifestyle choice, like spanking. Or owning a Great Dane? Certainly not from the peeps who’ve needed it. Not from anyone who can see no alternative to swallowing their pride and queuing to be grilled about their bank balance and assets. Australia spends so much time assuring everyone that people on unemployment benefits are bludging layabouts. So, when lay- offs happen and we’re at Centrelink waiting for a number with all the other losers, the shame can be overwhelming. I was once asked by Social Security how much I’d get for my car and furniture if I sold them. There’s something skeweringly awful about having to admit to a blank-faced stranger that your assets are worthless, a perspective you ignore when op- shopping and bogging up the rust in your ageing Austin 1800. It’s also terrifying, when you don’t have an income, to be told that the slowly saved $1200 you have in your account, all you have in the world, has to be exhausted before they’ll help you. There is nothing comfortable about being on Newstart. There’s nothing ‘party-time excellent’ about holding your breath to cover your barest living expenses. There is nothing confidence-building about being seen as lazy and a leech. The bureaucratic requirements are onerous and, mostly, let’s be honest, busywork. Like the anti-homeless spikes popping up in alcoves all over London, being required to apply for jobs you’re not qualified for serves no purpose other than ensuring that you don’t get snug while sheltering from the wind. I’m intrigued by the latest pronouncements from Canberra about unemployment benefits. I almost get the economics. We will save money by removing Newstart from the under- thirties. Harsh, casually cruel even, but at first glance it makes fiscal sense. It’s a saving. Where I get lost is, what happened to the second glance? » For virtually more FSN, visit fionascottnorman.com.au or follow her on Twitter @FScottNorman.