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Calls For Overhaul of Welfare System as Talk Turns to UBI

25 August 2017 at 5:09 pm
Wendy Williams
Australia’s social security system has come under scrutiny in a number of talks held this month exploring the future of work and basic income options.

Wendy Williams | 25 August 2017 at 5:09 pm


Calls For Overhaul of Welfare System as Talk Turns to UBI
25 August 2017 at 5:09 pm

Australia’s social security system has come under scrutiny in a number of talks held this month exploring the future of work and basic income options.

Unions NSW, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) and the Right2Work coalition held a discussion in Sydney on Thursday, featuring world renowned experts Professor Bill Mitchell and Dr Eva Cox debating the universal basic income (UBI) and full employment proposals.

AUWU president Owen Bennett told Pro Bono News the latest ABS figures showed there were 17 job seekers competing for every listed job vacancy, which was forcing millions of Australian’s to live on a social security payment.

He described the situation as a “national emergency”.

“Today is one of the hardest periods in Australia’s post-war history to be looking for work and collecting social security” Bennett said.

“The Turnbull government has yet to even acknowledge this crisis, let alone do something about it.

“It is up to every progressive force in the country to demand the Turnbull government provide everyone with a decent job and a liveable social security payment as a right of citizenship.”

Bennett said the Right2Work coalition was hosting a series of conferences around Australia to “get people thinking about government responsibility when it comes to creating a human social security system and creating enough jobs to go around”.

Cox, who also spoke at an Alfred Deakin Institute Policy Forum last week on the future of work and basic income options for Australia, told Pro Bono News the welfare system needed a complete overhaul.

“We have a complete disaster in the entire welfare system at the moment and it is about time that we actually took a good long look at what our welfare system does and try to modernise it instead of making it Victorian,” Cox said.

“I just think the welfare sector has got it’s head in the sand on this sort of stuff, it tries to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that and it just doesn’t work.

“Two issues that really bug me around this sort of stuff is that if we actually had a universal basic income, it would be one of the ways of closing the gender gap and recognising the fact that women still do the bulk of the unpaid work.

“If we did that lots of people could cut back and spend more time doing the unpaid stuff, rather than pushing us all into the workforce full time which is what this government thinks is good for us.”

Cox said it wasn’t enough to fix some of the problems in isolation

“We can’t just keep fixing bits of it. We’ve been doing that for the last 40 years. We need to start thinking about what’s happening in a time when there may not be as much paid work around, where attitudes are changing, where a lot of younger people in particular, don’t mind the idea of part time, gig economy type thing, as it gives them time to work on stuff that they are interested in for themselves. That creates a completely different social and economic background,” she said.

“Some people around the union movement and old fashion lefties still think that the only thing that matters in life is a paid job. But maybe it is time, particularly from a feminist point of view and from some other points of view, to start examining what makes a good life rather than assuming the only thing that counts is paid work.

“We have so many problems with the current welfare payment system, from the robo debts through to the cashless debits cards for people with a drug addiction that maybe it is time to overhaul the whole idea of what we pay people into something that is actually creative and productive rather than punitive.”

Her comments follow a discussion at the ADI Policy Forum, convened by Dr Elise Klein and Professor Jon Altman, about the likely decline of paid employment in the future and appropriate policy responses to the situation.

The forum was convened in conjunction with a workshop, sponsored by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, looking at unconditional basic income as progressive social policy; and considering concrete ways that such policy might be implemented in Australia despite governmental scepticism.

Altman told Pro Bono News a “neoliberal shift in the provision of income support” had changed the narrative to a punitive approach that was presenting people who were jobless as “undeserving”.

“One of the things that came out very strongly [from the workshop] is that both the old and the young are quite unsympathetic to that point of view,” Altman said.

“We’ve got so much global discussion at the moment of poverty, growing inequality, intergenerational inequality and so on, the feeling is that if unemployment rates are just going to escalate because of automation and artificial intelligence and technological innovation, there is no point in maintaining this approach that treats people who are unfortunately unemployed as somehow undeserving.”

He said there had been a shift in language away from talking about social security to talking about welfare.

“Welfare has got negative connotations and it is almost as if there is a sense that to engage people in the labour force you have to make them feel socially insecure rather than secure,” he said.

“That is an ideological position I think that is taken, but the reality is no matter how insecure you make people, if the mainstream jobs are just not available then there is nothing productive to be gained from having these punitive regimes, activity testing, Work for the Dole.

“At the workshop we looked at a lot of different interest groups and one that I looked at in particular was Indigenous people, who live in remote parts of Australia where we know there just aren’t enough jobs for people of working age, and yet these people are under the most draconian Work for the Dole regime in the country and they are continually getting penalised for not turning up for 25 hours of work for the dole, even though there is no option for exist into mainstream employment.”

Altman said the overwhelming view at the workshop was that it was inevitable that some sort of UBI would be introduced in Australia.

“We went round the table and I would say around 90 per cent of the participants were both very supportive of the concept of a universal basic income and thought that it was inevitable that it would be introduced in the future,” he said.

“The question is how soon, and to some extent, to what extent will this be a measure that is driven by popular demand as distinct to, as we’ve seen with so much policy in Australia, something that politicians are reluctant to lead on if you like.

“One of the people at the workshop, it was actually Tim Dunlop, has written this book called Why the Future is Workless, he said that even though UBI might have problems, particularly about how one might finance it, he hasn’t heard of a better idea for the future if we’re going to have rapid escalation in joblessness.

“It is all very well to be critical of universal basic income, some people say it doesn’t have to be universal, it could just be a basic income for particular groups of society that are marginalised in the labour force, but the bottom line is, let’s get some discussion going about the range of possibilities.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

One comment

  • brenton thomas says:

    If you are prepared to recognize that minimum salary is a government legislated cost and add that to the plethora of government payments then we already have all the building blocks of UBI.

    Simply put minimum salary would need to disappear because workers already have basic income. It would create true negotiation on the amount an employer would need to offer for a job.

    For example a current job at $15 per hour job. If UBI was worth lets say $10ph – would that person consider doing the job at $5ph? Perhaps the employer would have to offer $7.50. Both the employer and worker would be better off strangely.

    Cost wise perhaps not as bad as you would think. Yes there would be a tax rise – but that would be more than offset by savings in administration and lower wages. Think of it as a redistribution of existing costs.

    But you can’t have both UBI and minimum salary and penalty rates etc. You would have to accept true negotiation on the value of work. An economists wet dream.

    By the way that is the way to sell it – the people who oppose it are also the types that oppose penalty rates,,,,,,


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