Can You Help?

This website is in imminent danger of being shut down. It has been online since 1995, but the personal circumstances of the owner, Malcolm Farnsworth, are such that economies have to be made. Server costs and suchlike have become prohibitive. At the urging of people online, I have agreed to see if Patreon provides a solution. More information is available at the Patreon website. If you are able to contribute even $1.00/month to keep the site running, please click the Patreon button below.

Become a Patron!

Down And Out In Centrelink And NewStart

The first welfare rort I ever perpetrated took place inside a Job Network provider’s office.

CentrelinkLike all cheating, it started with a small lie, so small that it seemed churlish to resist. I acquiesced as my “case worker” entered three hours on the claim form, even though I’d only been there around an hour. My scrawled initials of consent didn’t seem as serious as a proper signature.

The justification was simple enough. It helped speed the process. There was mutual benefit in claiming the maximum time allowed for the process of putting in place a job agreement. After all, I wasn’t worth much to the provider. They didn’t get paid much for dealing with me. It would be better for both of us if I had some kind of disability or could be classified as long term unemployed.

I was something of an oddity at this establishment. “We don’t get people like you,” I was told. Professional people don’t use the Job Network. I went to work in a collar and tie. I had a stable employment history. I knew what to put in a curriculum vitae. I didn’t need training in how to write a job application. I had my own internet connection and computer at home so I didn’t need to use the facilities they provided. I was already familiar with the list of employment websites they gave me.

Many of the “clients” at this place were middle-aged, unskilled men retrenched from a closed down factory. Some were relatively unskilled women returning to office work after a period out of the workforce raising their children. There was the usual quota of resentful, withdrawn young men and women who’d dropped out of school and were now struggling to find and hold down regular employment. Chewing gum seemed to be their constant companion.

It was a confronting experience to get to this moment. I was over 50 and I’d only ever had three weeks out of work since leaving university. I’d never been inside a Centrelink office. Until I looked it up, I didn’t even know where the nearest office was.

My experience of social welfare had always been from a position of strength. Child endowment payments to my parents had been the source of funds for my first savings account. Later, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam relieved my parents of the need to pay my university fees. Simultaneously, Premier Rupert Hamer paid me a generous living allowance in return for my indentured employment with the Department of Education.

My welfare experience had been characterised by tax concessions, rebates and deductions. Paul Keating boosted my superannuation balances. John Howard offered all manner of goodies to suburban dwellers like me. Not even Rudd or Gillard attacked the Howard welfare rort better known as the private health insurance rebate.

But the Job Network version of welfare was different. It was apparent from the moment I joined the queue at Centrelink. You look at your assembled companions and wonder what’s happened to their lives. How did we all end up on this day in this government office, standing on these plastic footpaths guiding us to assorted counters and work stations?

The Centrelink worker I spoke to was considerate, courteous and, dare I say it, dignified. She told me they’d had a scare a few days earlier when a man with a knife caused a lockdown of the building.

I departed with a card and number, a number that stays with me in perpetuity as far as I can tell. I sat in the car and dialled another number I’d been given. A fastidious-sounding young man on the other side of the country took my banking details and made the appointment with the Job Network provider. Their office was just around the corner from my home but I’d never noticed it before.

Now here I was the next day explaining my circumstances to a total stranger. In one of those absurd role reversals, I ended up counselling her on how to tackle her daughter’s problems at school.

By now it was becoming clear that there was little assistance here. Aside from the list of employment websites, there was no advice to be had. It was all very civilised, all very considerate, all very professional. There was plenty of official paper to be shuffled, numerous declarations to be made, many boxes to be ticked. But it was all futile.

No-one was actually being given employment options. The occasional job was on offer but the Job Network provider and most of the “clients” were merely jumping through an endless series of hoops. It was busy, but to what end?

The next day I returned for the first of a compulsory set of “training” days. The instructor had just received a new training program and was struggling to find her way around its assorted “action plans”. I had manfully adopted a positive attitude. Perhaps I could still learn something about how to prepare a resume, how to write a covering letter and how to attach references.

It was a dispiriting afternoon. One of those resentful young men sat and played with his mobile phone, occasionally whining and then asking, “can I leave now?” An enthusiastic woman in her late thirties couldn’t quite disguise the trepidation she felt about fitting back into the workforce. Another woman proudly displayed the growing list of job applications she had submitted. An older man simply seemed sad and uncomfortable as he fumbled with the plastic ringed folder of advice we’d all been given.

The next day’s training was cancelled. “You know all this,” I was told. My innate tartness reasserted itself as I gave silent thanks for this relief from her abysmal teaching methods.

I returned on just one more occasion to explain to my case worker why I was withdrawing from the process. My decision was in part a recognition that full-time work was not to be gained this way. But it was also a reaction to a demeaning process.

I never collected a cent. Perhaps I cut off my nose to spite my face. Two hundred and thirty-something dollars a week doesn’t even begin to pay the bills but I suppose it would have helped at the margins. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t do it.

The experience gave me a practical insight into what had always been a theoretical understanding of one aspect of the social welfare system.

My admiration for the political skill of the Howard government in putting this charade in place reached a new high. The Orwellian ingenuity of calling it NewStart was something to behold.

But forgive me if I don’t cheer our platitudinous Prime Minister or our brutish Opposition Leader as they seek to out-do each other in the pursuit of welfare “reform”.

Of course Gillard is correct when she asserts that education, training and workforce participation are preferable to life on welfare. Of course a culture of high expectations is desirable. Of course self-sufficiency trumps dependency.

But don’t tell me her speech this week or Abbott’s miserable effort last month demonstrate any understanding of people who are unemployed or how to get them back to work.

The real welfare rort is a privatised unemployment system where individuals are counted as income-producing units for Job Network providers.

Meanwhile, Gillard and Abbott luxuriate in the vote-winning headlines about “crackdowns” on “welfare cheats”.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email