Joe Hockey’s New Mantra: Earn or Learn

Joe Hockey was ‘grilled’ on the ABC TV program Q & A last night, much to the glee of the audience members who lined up to take shots at Mr Hockey over last week’s budget. The clip above shows a young Tasmanian asking where young people are supposed to find jobs when the numbers of unemployed Tasmanians are so much higher than the available job vacancies. Mr Hockey refuses to answer the question, instead repeating the words, ‘if you’re under 30, we need you to earn or learn.’

Well, Mr Hockey, I’m 23 and I am both earning and learning, and I still can’t afford a $7 co-payment every time I go to the GP. Many Tasmanians, and in fact people all across the country, are engaging in higher education or looking tirelessly for work. Many people who have already completed the ‘learning’ part of their apparent obligation to the government are now struggling to find meaningful employment. In five years time, young people with professional qualifications will likely still have the same difficulties finding a job, except that they will also have three times the student debt that today’s graduates are saddled with.

Jobs do not magically appear out of the air just because people wish it. The government does not directly create jobs – although, counter to Mr Hockey’s assertion, the government (at all levels) does in fact employ many people – but it helps to shape the economic climate of the nation. The government’s own budget papers predict that rates of unemployment will actually increase over the next 12 to 18 months, before stabilising.

While we’re at it, it remains unclear to me why the government feels the need to establish young people as a separate class of persons, somehow less deserving of the government’s assistance. The six-month waiting period (and subsequent on/off eligibility) on Newstart and the ‘tightening’ of eligibility of the Disability Support Pension apply exclusively to under-30s and under-35s respectively. Joe Hockey himself makes it very explicit: ‘if you are under 30, we need you to earn or learn.’ Why is it so much more important that today’s young people are economically productive members of society? Why does this draconian requirement not apply to other generations? As a number of people (I think principally Greg Jericho) have pointed out, the proportion of unemployed young people is actually smaller when compared with unemployment in the general population. Yes, there are a small number of young people who do not wish to study or work. These people are a drain on the economy and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. However, most young people who are not (or soon will not be) in study or work are victims of circumstance. The jobs market, particularly for young people (who generally lack required experience), is in pretty bad shape right now, although there are geographic variances. Compounding the problem is the government’s proposed changes to HECS and student fees, which will discourage young people, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, from going to university. This is particularly the case when those young people believe that a university degree – that takes three or four years out of their life and can cost up to $100,000 – will make their chances of securing a decent job only marginally higher.

Forcing young people into poverty and desperation when they are supposed to be in the prime of their lives is morally reprehensible. If it truly is necessary to change how Newstart is paid to young people – an assertion I would dispute, but let’s assume for a moment – why not do it another way? How about paying unemployed under-30s Newstart unconditionally for the first six months of their unemployment. This would allow them to concentrate their full energy on finding a job, without having to worry about whether they’ll be able to afford food that week or whether they might get evicted from their rental property. People are much more likely to get a job when they’re showing up to interviews well-rested, well-fed, well-dressed and on time. These things are only possible, however, when you’ve got a regular income to rely on. If people haven’t found a job after six months, then by all means, restrict or reduce their payment. I still don’t think it will have been their fault that they haven’t found paid employment, but if the government is so desperate to reduce welfare spending, this is a much fairer way to do it. It would also mean encouraging young people to get jobs instead of punishing them for a situation over which they have no control. Although, put in context, perhaps the government is deliberately trying to be punitive.

In short: Mr Hockey, answer the damn question. Tell us where to find these magical jobs, because there are a lot of people out there who’d really appreciate the heads up.

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A Quick Thought on Gender

Yesterday, while my boyfriend was in the shower, I was just hanging around on the internet, as I am prone to do when given free time. Following a trail of links that began on Tumblr, I found this article which then linked to this article. I thought both of them made good points, and when my boyfriend came back I asked him to read them so I could see what he thought.

Now, my boyfriend is a genuine certified Good Guy. So when I showed him the first article, his response was essentially to say ‘Yeah, I agree, but isn’t it all stuff we’ve heard before?’ On the one hand, it gives me hope that not all men are awful, but on the other hand, he also said something else. When I tried to assert to him that feeling the urge to catcall women on the street or otherwise provide unsolicited commentary on their appearance is misogynistic because we live in a world where women’s bodies exist for the benefit of men, and thus any presentation of the female body must automatically be an invitation upon men to provide judgement, he simply said, ‘construction workers aren’t that smart.’

I might be about to engage in some serious misrepresentation here, but I want to try to explain boyfriend’s point. He told me that men don’t think about cat-calling women in the way that women think about it. I said I’d been shouted at on the street a number of times, and he used a particular example of a bunch of young men in a ute. According to him, men don’t yell at women because they feel the need to compliment the individual woman; in fact, the individual woman is more or less irrelevant. The men who cat-call women in front of their friends do so as a show of dominant masculinity; a demonstration of strength and manliness designed to maintain or further their place in the social hierarchy. It’s not about respect or disrespect towards women, because women are seen as ‘other’. The men simply aren’t considering the feelings or reaction of the woman at all when making the decision.

As I pointed out to him, this is a great example of the patriarchy: the men may not intend to cause any harm in what they’re doing – they’re just not thinking about it very deeply – but if we were living in a culture which really valued women, we’d have been teaching men since they were small children that disrespecting people in this manner, regardless of their gender, is not okay. But regardless of who is right in this particular argument, one thing really stood out to me in the way that he had phrased his point: women are ‘other’. Further, they are not a part of the male social hierarchy and thus don’t understand how the act of harassing women fits in. Then I read this article about religious gender segregation and got thinking again.

We hear it all the time: opposites attract. Women and men fit together in a way that women and women or men and men simply don’t. Children need a mother and a father. Men are from mars, women are from venus. Men are leaders, women are nurturers. That’s all just off the top of my head and I could probably go on for hours. Why are we so obsessed with highlighting ‘differences’ between men and women? Why is it so difficult for us to see validity in people who choose to be somewhere on the gender spectrum that isn’t strictly ‘man’ or ‘woman’? Why is it only now that we’re starting to see equality of genders? Why are we unable to recognise that we are all people and that the similarities and differences between individuals are far more pronounced (and probably more interesting) that the broadly generalisable ‘differences’ between genders? So much of what we feel and think and experience is shared that it seems somewhat ludicrous to try to divide people into two ‘opposite’ groups based on their reproductive organs.

Trying to make sense of privilege and poverty

Recently a friend of mine went on a bit of a diatribe on Facebook about just how good we have it, here in Australia. This particular friend is currently in India; I’m not sure exactly what it is he is doing there but it may have something to do with teaching impoverished children how to read and write. It was sparked by a post he’d seen, directed at Prime Minister Gillard, where a young man complained that he was ineligible for Youth Allowance while studying at University, while “a person that lives their life on drugs and that has no intention of getting a job” is eligible for government assistance. My friend was absolutely scathing about Australians who complain about the ‘difficulties’ of life here or the exorbitant cost of living.

I want to defend those people. No, I don’t think it’s right to complain incessantly about what are, rather crudely, elsewhere called ‘first world problems’. I certainly do think that a large number of people need to pause, look around, and try to appreciate just how good they have it – not just compared with many other people in this world, but in and of itself. But these things aren’t simply caused by wilful ignorance and stupidity: they are actively encouraged by the society in which we live.

There are two kinds of poverty: absolute poverty (also known as extreme poverty), and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is a standard set by the World Bank; it approximately means that you live on a total of less than US$1.50 per day. Relative poverty is like, not being able to afford a computer while everyone else in your neighbourhood has a high-speed internet connection. In Australia, the poverty line has been set at 50% of the average median income.

When you’re more likely to compare yourself to Gina Rinehart than an anonymous Chinese sweat-shop worker, I can understand why you might feel like you’re being ripped off. If Ms Rinehart can become the richest person in the country by inheriting a financial empire – and then have the audacity to claim that ordinary Australians should be willing to work for poverty wages – why can’t I afford to buy a brand new car? The media have a vested interest in keeping us discontented. That is how advertising works: make people feel like they don’t have enough. To get people to buy things, you must keep them believing that they deserve a certain standard of living, and then get them to work towards that standard of living. Next step: profit! Not to mention the fact that the federal opposition continue to tell us about how difficult life is under the carbon tax and skyrocketing cost-of-living pressures. Never mind the fact that the cost of many of the essentials of life has either remained stable or actually decreased over the past decade (compared with the average wage): if the Opposition can convince us all that there is a widespread problem, then maybe they can win the next election by convincing us that they have a solution to that problem.

Yes, it is absolutely, shockingly ignorant to think that middle-class Australians are somehow having a hard time of it. But when our daily lives consist of news stories about super-wealthy people like Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, when politicians tell us that we’re having trouble heating our houses through (incredibly mild) winters, or even when we feel a bit jealous over our next-door-neighbours brand new Ford SUV, it can be hard to put this back in perspective. Most of us do not travel to developing countries or view news stories about wars, famines, and natural disasters that afflict the global poor. The problem is that telling people that they’re oh-so-privileged to live the life they lead just isn’t profitable.

There’s an argument that providing welfare breeds a culture of entitlement. I think it’s a valid argument to make, but I also think that even if it is true, providing some kind of welfare is worth it. The problem comes when middle-class recipients of welfare masquerading as tax breaks start to believe that they are more entitled to their Family Tax Benefit than the long-term unemployed are to the money that literally allows them to eat and keep a roof over their head. Claiming that you are entitled to government benefits by virtue of being a university student while simultaneously denying the right of impoverished Australians to try to build a better life makes my head spin. These kind of people seem blissfully unaware of the fact that if you are born into disadvantage, it can be very difficult to find a decent, permanent job or obtain appropriate long-term housing. It’s much easier to advocate for the doctrine of ‘personal responsibility’ when your parents have coddled you all the way to university.

Yes, we live in an incredibly privileged society and yes, we need to stop sometimes and look around and understand how good we have it. But none of us lives in a vacuum; the way that we interact with society influences the way we make sense of our lives and of the world around us. Having a go at someone for acting entitled is valid, but there are larger things to blame than just their own sheltered ignorance.

Why I Love Sociology

I don’t make new friends very often, which is sad… but that is a subject for another post at another time. So, when I do meet new people, it’s kind of a big deal for me. Recently I met someone new and we got to talking. Among other things, he challenged me a few times to justify what it was that I found so compelling about the discipline of sociology. I declare my love for it often and loudly, but when I tried to explain to him the basis of this love, I seemed to come up short. Perhaps this was because I was inebriated at the time; perhaps it was because I seem to steadily be losing my ability to accurately express myself. Regardless, it has been bothering me for some time now, and I think I’ve come up with an answer that I’m happy with.

An acquaintance of mine once said that she joined the ALP because she simply couldn’t bring herself to believe that ‘poor people are poor because they just haven’t worked hard enough.’ Forget about the political affiliations and the debates we could be having about that statement: the truth is that this is exactly why I like sociology. I refuse to believe that we are a product only of our ‘choices’. We are shaped as human beings by external factors, to a huge extent by the society and the culture in which we live. I love people, I find them fascinating, and I love trying to figure out why they are the way they are.

Each of us is shaped by the choices that we make in life. But the choices that we are given – the opportunities that we have access to – are shaped by much larger forces. I was born into a middle-class family with loving, supportive parents; I have had numerous and wonderful opportunities provided to me, not least access to a very high standard of education.

The level playing field is a myth: even before we are born, we have differing chances in life. The location of our birth and the socio-economic status of our parents are some of the most determinative factors in our lives. Children who fall behind in health status or educational development in the first six years of their lives are unlikely to ever catch up. Having parents who work long hours or are otherwise unable to help with learning, having parents who are drug addicts, having parents who are unable to afford adequate healthcare, having parents who can only afford to live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is never the fault of the child. But it will significantly affect the opportunities that are available to them throughout their life, and it will affect the choices that they make.

I could probably use sociology to explain why it is that I wear the clothes that I wear, or read the books I read, or like the TV shows that I like, but I won’t. Suffice to say here that people are not simply a product of their personal choices. Society may be an abstract concept, but it is an important one. By understanding the ways that society affects individuals, we can start to change the structural barriers that exist to prevent everyone having the same opportunities to live their lives that I and my friends have had. Knowing what we’re up against in terms of disadvantage and discrimination is the first step to overcoming it.

Fear and Gender

One of the strangest things that has ever happened to me occurred a few days ago. Once or twice a week I go for a jog through the suburbs near my house. Occasionally people stare at me from their cars for a little longer than is appropriate, but I have never felt unsafe. On Wednesday, as I was jogging along the road – with my headphones in, I might add -, a man stopped his car, got out, gestured towards me and, when I reacted, began speaking to me. I don’t remember ever seeing this man before in my life, but his first words to me were “you work at [my workplace]!” I affirmed that yes, that was true. He then began a long-winded story in which he alleged that someone I had been in a car with the week before had said something nasty about him, which he knew because he had the ability to lip-read.

Without stopping to allow me to confirm or deny this observation he had apparently made, he went on to tell me about his rare and confusing neurological condition and the effects it has had on his life. He continued to assert that he wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t trying to be weird, that he’s actually a pretty intelligent guy, that he’s not paranoid, that he doesn’t take things personally any more… All while he appeared to be trying to politely berate me about the fact that I shouldn’t stand for it when other people say unkind things about him.

All I could think about while he was speaking to me was ‘who will hear me if I scream? If I go missing how long will it take someone to notice? Can I run faster than this guy? Could I hurt him badly enough that I would be able to get away if he tried something?’

I don’t think that he stopped me on the street because I’m a young woman. He certainly didn’t make any kind of sexual remarks or advances. But my mental reaction to the situation was absolutely gendered.

This is what happens when, instead of teaching boys and men not to sexually victimise others, we teach women a culture of ‘risk management’. Don’t go out alone at night, don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t drink alcohol or take drugs: basically, live your life in fear (or not at all). This doesn’t just disadvantage women, it disadvantages men. How many men are there in the world that have been looked at with suspicion, brushed off, avoided or been otherwise adversely reacted to by women – even when their intentions were completely non-sexual – because of the way we talk about things like sexual assault? Every man becomes a potential threat if you keep telling women that they might become a victim at any stage.

I wish I hadn’t felt threatened by this man, but I did. It was clear to me that he didn’t have the best social skills, and it’s certainly unfortunate that any person thinks that they can just stop a stranger on the street and talk at them for fifteen minutes. That’s just bad manners. But the thing I hate the most is that I’ve grown up in a culture of fear that makes me wary of people who are otherwise perfectly nice, just because they’re one gender and I’m another.

Blow whistle on harassment – Hobart Mercury

More intelligent, more accomplished women – and probably men – have been saying this stuff for decades. But Bec Fitzgibbon gets it published in a small-town newspaper and suddenly everyone is all ears?

It’s no wonder that I get my news from Tumblr rather than my local rag.

That said: yes, it’s an important message and a good article. But it shouldn’t take something like this to make people realise that this is how life works.

She’s not perfect, but I’m still proud of our Prime Minister

After her incredible Question Time speech in Parliament on October 9th – the news and YouTube video of which have apparently gone viral – Prime Minister Gillard is receiving, well, even more attention than usual. Many people, men and women alike, are praising the Prime Minister’s courage, as well as her oratory skills, in calling out Tony Abbott and others on ridiculous statements they have made in the past.

It’s true that those whose watched the entirety of the day unfold, and not just the Prime Minister’s speech, have a somewhat different (and more cynical) view of the whole affair. But nothing even comes close to the bile that Peter Hartcher today expressed in his column in the Sydney Morning Herald. I beg you, please read the whole article, but just in case you’re lazy (like me) I’m going to extract a few key quotes.

“If there was one thing that should have been different about Gillard’s prime ministership, it should have been that Australia’s first female prime minister should have been a flag bearer for women.”

In the next paragraph he goes on to say: “She started on her long trajectory of electoral disillusionment when, bit by bit, she revealed herself to be just another politician.”

And then: “If Gillard will not defend respect for women, what will she defend? Just another politician indeed.”

I have three points to make here.
1. Hartcher seems to be implying that Julia Gillard should have been a certain kind – a different kind – of prime minister simply by virtue of her gender. I would argue that every politician is ‘just another politician’. Prime Minister Gillard doesn’t have an obligation to act any certain way simply because she is a woman. Yes, it is inspiring to know that we as a country and a society have advanced enough that we can elect  a woman to our highest office. But Julia Gillard is a human being just like any other, and she is constrained by the workings of her party and the wider political arena just like any other prime minister would be. Much like those who label women ‘shrill’, ‘hysterical’ and ‘aggressive’ when they act just like men, Hartcher seems to be implying that by virtue of her gender Ms Gillard ought to somehow be better, more principled, less jaded than the men who have preceded her. I was alive for less than two months of Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister of Britain, but I’m sure if anyone told her she should have ruled the country differently because she was a woman she would have had a cow.

2. Julia Gillard is a flag-bearer for women. Did you somehow miss her entire speech? Fifteen solid minutes of calling out the sexist, misogynist pigs that Ms Gillard and every other woman in the country has to deal with on a daily basis. Trying to tell me that my prime minister is somehow not sticking up for my rights the day after this speech really just makes me think you’re an imbecile.

3. Ms Gillard wasn’t defending Peter Slipper. In fact, she quite explicitly called out Tony Abbott for his continuing close friendship with Mr Slipper, which all went down the drain – probably for political point-scoring – when this whole text messaging scandal emerged. The Prime Minister, in no uncertain terms, condemned Mr Slipper’s actions in sending those text messages.

I’ll leave you with this delighful snapshot of another wonderful human being – a commenter on Hartcher’s article – who seems to think that femaleness is a reason to be a whole different kind of Prime Minister.

The only other thing I have to say right now is go and read this article because it is utterly fantastic, more comprehensive and eloquent than anything I could ever manage.

  • Things about me:

    My name is Mel, I'm a final year law student from Australia. I'm interested in politics, feminism, sociology and science, among other things. You can find my Twitter account below; I am more active there than here.

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