The system we have to help those in need return to work is broken, so why is the government pleading ignorance? Picture: iStock
The system we have to help those in need return to work is broken, so why is the government pleading ignorance? Picture: iStock

Our dole system is a broken bad joke

"THAT'S fine," Mike said, when I asked if I could give him a call after he emailed me about last week's column on centrism, which took a well-aimed swipe at the way welfare recipients are relentlessly demonised these days.

"Just keep in mind I do my WFD on Thursdays and Fridays."

Question: WTF is WFD?

Answer: Work for the dole.

Mike, who is 58 and educated to PhD level but who has been unemployed on and off for six years, does 30 hours of volunteer work a fortnight to qualify for the miserable Newstart allowance - which, if you're single with no dependent children, is $275.10 a week, and good luck living on that, including the cost of getting to and from your WFD. Mike tries to supplement it with as much part-time work as he can find, as well as continuing to hunt for full-time work.

Mike's in a similar situation to a good friend of mine, Milly, 62, made redundant from her high-flyer international marketing job in 2011 and who has struggled ever since to find full-time work, despite going back to uni and retraining. Unlike Mike, she hasn't yet opted for the 30 hours of voluntary work (an option for those over 55) to qualify for her Newstart, preferring to continue to try to find full-time work, while managing to work about 15 hours a week.

On Tuesday, Liberal MP Tony Abbott tweeted, “People on unemployment benefits are supposed to be looking for work. Applying for one job a day is hardly unreasonable. These proposed changes show Labor is now the welfare class party not the working class one.” Picture: AAP/Mick Tsikas
On Tuesday, Liberal MP Tony Abbott tweeted, “People on unemployment benefits are supposed to be looking for work. Applying for one job a day is hardly unreasonable. These proposed changes show Labor is now the welfare class party not the working class one.” Picture: AAP/Mick Tsikas

Like Mike, she is required to report everything she does to her job services provider, though in her case this includes providing proof she has applied for 10 jobs a fortnight. She must make at least one face-to-face meeting a month with the provider and attend a "hub" session which may entail the umpteenth lesson delivered by a 12-year-old with no qualifications, on how to write a resume.

And, again like Mike, she says her job services providers - she's switched from one "hopeless" one to another - has not sourced a single suitable job for which she could apply.

And, finally, like Mike, if she doesn't jump cleanly through every single hoop she risks her provider unleashing the demerit system on her which could result in suspension of her payments.

Newstart is $137.10 per week less than the single aged pension. It has not increased in real terms for 25 years. It, like the even lower Youth Allowance paid to job seekers under 22, is a highway to poverty. The calls for it to be raised by up to $75 a week have become an urgent and strident chorus, to which the Coalition and Labor have so far turned intractably deaf ears.

I've got another riddle for you.

In the past 40-odd years what have sucker electorates got when their (usually but not always) conservative governments, all hopped up on and preaching the Word of the Very Reverend Adam Smith, announce the privatisation of a sector?

In its current format, our national dole scheme simply does not help people return to work in the way that it should. Picture: iStock
In its current format, our national dole scheme simply does not help people return to work in the way that it should. Picture: iStock

Answer: Smithy's invisible hand up our collective wazoo extracting billions of dollars, which is immediately handed over to politicians' best (donor) friends in the private sector.

But I'm just going to digress for a mo to talk about being unemployed.

It may have been no more than an interlude in the overall time frame of my working life, but the eight month period I was unemployed in the 1990s during the recession we had to have, and while I was temporarily stuck in north Queensland, newly separated and quite without a cent to my name - is indelibly stamped in my memory.

I wasn't worried when I'd left without a brass razoo because I was completely confident of finding work, recession notwithstanding. This was because I'd never been without work since leaving school and had a cracking resume with fabulous work and character references, including from some deadset pillars. And, yet, as the weeks and then the months played out, I found I couldn't get so much as a job cleaning dunnies.

Eventually, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness the whole thing engendered forced me to take drastic evasive action and I returned to the marriage, until I could regroup.

But at least it was the Commonwealth Employment Service with which I had to deal while unemployed - before the Howard government with its ideological bit between its teeth (giddy up Adam) privatised the whole shebang, enthusiastically adopted the "welfare poison" mantra and ramped up the "mutual obligation" rhetoric and criteria. (And it's definitely not just the conservatives engaging in welfare policy bastardry because another thing I'm grateful for is avoiding the bloodied blade of the Gillard government hatchet when, in 2013, it ruthlessly moved 100,000 single parents on to Newstart from the old Parenting Payment as a budgetary saving measure - $170 million over four years - and never mind the human cost.)

Opposition Employment Minister Terri Butler has said that if elected, Labor will overhaul the system. Picture: Kym Smith
Opposition Employment Minister Terri Butler has said that if elected, Labor will overhaul the system. Picture: Kym Smith

But so came to pass this faux privatised employment system - currently called jobactive - which comprises a network of private and NGO employment service providers.

Sit down while I tell you what it is costing over four years - $6.5 billion.

What have we got for that? The Government's own "I want to Work: Employment Services 2020" report released last year reveals just 4 per cent of employers use the system, while 65 per cent of job seekers have been in the system for more than a year.

Here's what the Council of Small Business of Australia head honcho, Peter Strong, had to say about it in The Australian yesterday: "We are creating millionaires on the back of the long-term unemployed by paying providers to offer a failed service. The people (who) win are the service providers, not the unemployed or the employers."

The Australian has previously revealed providers are receiving multiple payments for placing the same person in different, short-term, insecure jobs and harassing former clients for pay slips from their new employers to claim bonuses.

A Senate inquiry into the system, which reports next month, was told providers had imposed 5.2 million penalties on welfare recipients since July 2015, with Centrelink having overturned on appeal about half of the record 2 million penalties imposed in 2015 alone.

This is only scratching the surface of the jobactive carbuncle.

Opposition spokeswoman for Employment Services, Terri Butler, was yesterday out and about spruiking Labor's aim to reform the system, while maintaining mutual obligation requirements. Predictably this was greeted with howls of dole bludger horror from the Liberals cries that Labor would "fundamentally weaken" them.

Mutual obligation? There's nothing wrong with that. I'd just like to see it is all - as would the 710,000 unemployed Mikes and Millys out there.

Margaret Wenham is the Courier-Mail's opinion editor.



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