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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The Letter I Wanted To Write To My Senators

My boyfriend came home crying on Budget Night. The nation of a Fair Go had just disappeared before his eyes. Joe Hockey’s speech took the Australia of opportunity, equality and shared prosperity and replaced it with an Australia that reserves the bounties of our nation for a privileged few. An Australia where your access to essential services like health and education is predicated on your ability to pay. An Australia that punishes people for their own disadvantage. A mean, selfish, ignorant Australia.

My boyfriend is 19 years old. He’s a second-year medical student, which means that he’s in class for up to 40 hours per week. He’s expected to put in another 20 hours of personal study each week to keep on top of the workload. In the minimal spare time he does have, he works for a taxi company, answering phones. They’ve recently cut staff and he now only works four hours per week, earning about $80. He gets Youth Allowance because he’s a full-time student and his parents aren’t in a position to financially support him. After rent is taken care of, the Youth Allowance amounts to just over $50 per week. He has tried to find another job and has been repeatedly knocked back – or flat-out ignored – by small businesses and by large employers, like Woolworths and Coles Group, alike.

I am 23 years old. I’m in the final year of my Arts-Law degree. I study hard to keep my academic results up, and I’ve been working hard in paid employment since I was 18, keeping a roof over my head, putting food on my table, and paying my taxes. My boyfriend and I live in a rented house near our Uni. Because I’m classed as independent, I get a greater rate of Youth Allowance than him. I also have the capacity to work more shifts, and thus also earn more that way. Without relying on my income, my boyfriend often has to dip into his modest savings into order to pay for day-to-day expenses. Our combined pre-tax income for this financial year will be just over $40,000, putting us in the lowest 20% of earnings in the country.

At the end of this year I will graduate from my degree and start looking for paid employment. Unfortunately the jobs market isn’t what it used to be. Two friends of mine, one with a PhD and one with an Honours degree, recently returned to study because they were unable to find work. Another friend, also with an Honours degree, works two days per week in a department store, because nobody will employ her to use the skills that she spent four years at University developing. Under Joe Hockey’s plan, if I am unable to find a job after graduation, both me and my partner will fall into poverty. With no government support I will not have an income, and there will be no money for food, no money for rent, no money for petrol, and certainly no money to pay for health care when GP visits cost $7 a pop.

Joe Hockey believes that this is my fault. He believes that if people who have spent their entire lives to date studying to gain qualifications can’t find a job, they just aren’t looking hard enough. The Government thinks that job-seekers’ standards are too high. The reality is that Minister Hockey’s standards are too high.

The reason that youth unemployment is as high as 25% in some parts of the country isn’t because young people are lazy, entitled, or afraid of getting their hands dirty. It’s because there are no jobs for them. People are actively looking for full-time work and they cannot find it. The Budget recognises that older Australians face age discrimination in the workplace and is offering a $10,000 incentive to employers to hire workers over the age of 55. Instead of recognising that young people face that exact same age discrimination, the government plans to blame young people for a job market and an economic system that actively disadvantages them.

Under this Budget, my partner will graduate from a medical degree with up to $100,000 of debt. Enormous reductions in hospital funding mean that he is less likely to be offered an internship placement. Without an internship position, he will never be a fully qualified doctor. If he is lucky enough to find a position and complete his training, he will be working in a hospital system that not only has less funding and fewer resources (including human resources like nurses) but that has to deal with increasingly sick patients. Look at any of the available evidence and you will see that out-of-pocket co-payments for GP visits, prescription medicines and medical services such as blood tests and X-rays actively discourage people from seeking medical treatment. The longer an illness is left untreated, the more expensive it is to deal with when help finally is sought.

I want the same things as other Australians. I want a secure place to live, I want a job that makes use of my skills and training, and I want a loving and healthy family. I do not mind paying taxes to support schools, to build hospitals, to maintain roads and to help those less fortunate than myself, but in order to pay taxes, I must first have a job. University used to be a ticket to a good job. Indeed, the HECS system is predicated on the idea that university graduates have a significantly higher lifetime earning potential. Initiatives such as Youth Allowance effectively ‘loan’ money to people in education and training on the understanding that this money will later be paid back to the government through income taxes. At the moment, however, the number of graduates is increasing while the number of jobs available to them is decreasing. Couple this with university fee deregulation and young people would be forgiven for wondering what the point of going to uni is, if at the end of your three, four or five years living in student poverty, you’ll have tens of thousands of dollars of debt and may still end up working an unskilled job in hospitality or manufacturing for not much more than minimum wage.

I have no doubt that this Budget, coupled with the very real possibility that I will not be able to find full-time work despite having tertiary qualifications, will not only negatively impact on my life but may actually directly lead to poverty. Australia has spent four decades implementing social safety net policies to protect and assist people who find themselves in unfair and unconscionable circumstances. The proposed changes to Newstart eligibility, the stricter conditions for Disability Support Pension recipients who are under 35, and the deregulation and uncapping of University fees are a direct assault on the young people of this country. We are supposed to be nurturing these people and encouraging them to fulfil their potential; instead the Government is trying to reserve power and privilege to a small number of citizens, people who already enjoy significant material wealth.

There is no budget emergency; our debt as a percentage of GDP is small on an international scale and this Budget will make literally no change to the amount of Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP over the next four years. I urge you to vote against the Budget in the Senate. Not only does it not save any money, it actively punishes people who are already disadvantaged. People who are chronically ill should not have to choose between buying essential medicines or buying food. Families of young people should not have to bear the burden of unemployment when that unemployment is the fault of the economy and not of the individual. Pursuing a medical degree should not be only possible if your parents are willing and able to support you through five years of full-time, intensive study. Opportunity should belong to everyone; the wealth of your family should not determine your access to healthcare or education, but that is the direction in which this Budget takes us. No child’s prospects in life should be determined by the identity or the financial means of their parents.

The reason I call this The Letter I ‘Wanted’ To Write is because this is far too long to put on one A4 page. Rest assured that I am, in fact, writing to all twelve Tasmanian senators to urge them to vote down the Budget Bill. You can find the contact details of Tasmanian senators here. If you’re from another state or territory, usually a Google search will provide you with sufficient details of how to reach your elected representatives. 

If you want more information about the actual facts and figures of the budget, there are good summaries here, here, here, and here, and also all over Twitter if you care to take a look.  

Joe Hockey’s Culture of Entitlement

The media has been doing a lot of scaremongering this week about the impending federal budget. Considering the noises being made by federal ministers, particularly treasurer Joe Hockey, about ‘deep cuts’ and the like, it’s probably fair enough. It certainly has been causing a lot of outrage on Twitter, not least because the money being cut from things like pensions and healthcare is, as it turns out, going to be used to buy a bunch of planes that don’t actually work. Before all of this started, we heard a lot from Minister Hockey about a ‘culture of entitlement’ that needed to end. In fact, Hockey’s been complaining about an ‘age of entitlement’ for a full two years now.

The victims of Abbott and Hockey’s rampage against the culture of entitlement will, as ever, be those already doing it tough. Hockey has all but admitted the government’s plan to raise the pension age to 70. Then there’s the new $6 GP co-payment which will affect those who are currently eligible to be bulk-billed. (Never mind the fact that most GPs will only bulk-bill you currently if you demonstrate financial need, for example by holding a Healthcare or Concession card from Centrelink.) No details on any particular areas of budget cuts have yet been released, but we are all waiting with bated breath for the budget announcement on May 13th. The government is allegedly using the Commission of Audit Report, to be released in full to the public next week, to direct their fiscal policy into the future.

Did anyone ever think that perhaps the ‘age of entitlement’ that Joe Hockey seems so concerned about is not so much about working-class Australians, but is in fact about those in our community doing well for themselves? Could it be that, rather than people who rely on Newstart or the Disability Pension to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables, it’s people like Joe Hockey himself who feel this overwhelming sense of entitlement?

Take this guy, for example. Despite being in the top 1% of wage earners in the country, he seems to feel entitled to label himself as ‘average’, perhaps even struggling. Never mind the fact that his meagre $21,000 left over after paying for all of life’s essentials is the same amount as my total taxable income for a year. You ‘only’ have $21k each year for holidays and/or savings? Boo hoo. Try living your life on that amount and then come back and talk to me about how hard it is to pay off a mortgage while putting two kids through private school.

How about Gina Rinehart? I think I could make a pretty good argument that she’s one of the most entitled people in the country. Who else could argue that welfare recipients are dragging this country into disastrous debt while being worth 29.17 billion dollars? And who could forget that time she said that workers should work harder for less money in order to compete with third-world producers? This is a woman who feels so entitled to her (mostly inherited) wealth that she has been embroiled in a court battle with her children over a trust for the measly sum of $4 billion. But still she continues to argue that it’s people receiving piecemeal government benefits who are the ‘entitled’ of this country.

Let’s talk about Joe Hockey himself. He’s repeatedly said that current pensioners need not fear any changes to their entitlements, as it is his generation who will bear the brunt of the proposed changes to pensions. Mr Hockey isn’t your average everyday Joe, though. As a Member of Parliament, his base salary is $195,130 per year. This is before we factor in the extra money that comes from holding a senior ministry position. Since 2004, federal Members have enjoyed superannuation contributions of 15.4% per annum – a little more than the compulsory 9.25% per annum that everyone else gets. In fact I doubt that Joe Hockey will ever need to rely on the aged pension, which in turn essentially means that he can retire whenever he likes. But by all means, talk about ‘your generation’ as if you share their future fate, Mr Treasurer.

We live in a Western social democracy. Part of our social contract with one another is that we sometimes have to help people who cannot help themselves. Sometimes, as in the case of the NDIS, we help people who, through no fault of their own, do not have the capacity to work for a living. Sometimes, as in the case of Newstart, we help people who are temporarily out of work. Sometimes, as in the case of the aged pension, we help people who have worked all their lives and who now need a bit of help keeping their heads above water in their final years of life. Sometimes, as in the case of Youth Allowance, we help people get food on the table while they are studying, so that in five or ten years time we have skilled workers in the community, paying taxes and contributing to the economy. And sometimes, as in the case of negative gearing for investment properties, we help people who already have lots of money make more money.

Which of those seems like the odd one out to you?

We have built a culture of social welfare. That much is undeniable. Subsidised medical care; safety nets for unemployed people, the disabled, the elderly and students; universal state-funded education: all of this is welfare. And we do it because it makes society better for everyone. It also upholds the human rights of everyone in the community – to be healthy, to have food and shelter, to have equal opportunity. People feeling entitled to their rights aren’t the problem. The problems come when people feel entitled to rip up this country in search of mineral wealth and expect not to have to share that wealth. When the government and the populace feel entitled to lock up innocent people, including children, for having the audacity to flee peril and attempt to come to this country on boats instead of on planes. When people feel that their tax dollars shouldn’t be used to pay for anything they don’t like or don’t use, despite us having some of the lowest taxes of the OECD nations. Yes, entitlement culture exists, but there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction punishing those already struggling. Instead, we should be questioning those doing well in our society, who seem to feel entitled to their position even when their success comes at a detriment to the rest of us.

  • 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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