The Pirate Party Australia is running candidates for the Senate in the upcoming federal election. The Party is based around the core tenets of freedom of information and culture; civil and digital liberties; privacy and anonymity; and government transparency. We asked Sara Joyce, Pirate Party candidate for the Senate in NSW, to give their view on government employment policy.
If there's one thing we can all agree on, it is that unemployment is a problem. It is expensive. It steals the health and income of its victims. It narrows their opportunities. It subjects them to a host of dehumanising demands.
It seems unimaginable that any country would purposefully force a part of its population into unemployment. But the truth is, all countries do. Including our own.
The concept of a 'non-accelerating inflationary rate of unemployment' (NAIRU) gains little exposure beyond economics classrooms. The Reserve Bank and Treasury rarely mention it openly. Politicians never do. Yet, for 40 years, the NAIRU has been at the centre of economic policy;
Economists assume that when full employment is reached, employers are forced to compete for workers and wages lift rapidly as a result. This adds to the cost of production, leading to higher prices, then to further wage increases and an inflation spiral. The value of money will become eroded and people on fixed incomes will lose out, creating economic instability.
The only solution, said the economists, was maintaining a level of unemployment., A range of monetary and governmental authorities began imposing rules and charters to bring this about in the 1970s and 1980s. All central banks now operate with inflation targets: when full employment approaches, central banks are obliged to raise interest rates. This forces people with debts to pay more interest and leaving them less money to spend on other things. Reduced spending leads to lower demand, and the heat gets taken out of the economy. Unemployment rises, bargaining power shifts to employers, and wages and conditions are lowered.
The unemployed are the sacrifices—the ones thrown into volcanoes to appease the inflation gods. Coercion of the unemployed reaches new heights every year. Viewed in isolation, abuse of the unemployed might be merely unpleasant. In conjunction with a policy of forced minimum employment, it is diabolical. The state forces a proportion of its own people out of work. Then, it uses the condition it has imposed on them as a justification for a range of additional punishments and coercive measures. Politicians and commentators declare open season on their victims.
All too often, the unemployed and marginalised are used as guinea pigs for new forms of coercion. Cashless welfare cards began in remote commodities, but are now spreading rapidly to other groups. Work-for-the-dole—a modern form of slave labour—is being expanded at considerable cost to taxpayers. Employment “services”, which generally involve useless mandatory activities and busywork, are imposed with more and more frequency. Bureaucratic mistreatment and unwarranted penalties have reached new heights.
None of this can solve or reduce unemployment. All of the rules and pressures placed on the unemployed achieve nothing other than to waste money and human lives.
Commentators and politicians express no discomfort with this, reserving most of their venom for the unemployed themselves and for the tiny income they receive, as if the amount was too high, or as if unemployment was a moral failing rather than a goal of the economic system. Measures to reduce the misery of unemployment have for decades been politically unpalatable for major parties.
None of this is to suggest the unemployed are the only ones whose rights are under attack. More than 60 bills stripping away civil liberties have been passed by the Federal Parliament since 2001. Laws created to “fight terrorism” have expanded far beyond any justified scope. Laws developed to fight drug dealers now prevent ordinary people from getting simple pain relief at the chemist. Censorship of our digital spaces continues to ramp up. Cameras and security multiply. Festivals and social spaces die one by one due to shakedowns by police and regulators.
So much for the age of deregulation.
Yet, in pushing back at all this, it helps to look at those in the most coerced position of all. At the bottom of the heap are those stripped of their independence and health by state policy, and then subjected to such relentless targeting and pressure that survival itself becomes difficult. More than 2,000 people died after receiving Centrelink debt recovery notices. More than 420 of these were under the age of 35.
Coercive arrangements targeting the unemployed could be wound back with no ill effects - indeed, the impact would likely be positive. The money saved—billions each year—could be used to raise Newstart and invest in job creation. In the longer term, a basic income would resolve many of the ethical issues around forced unemployment and also give society a way to manage the challenges of automation. Other things—even more ambitious—could be considered. There are credible ways open for us to challenge the fundamental imbalances at the heart of our system.
After 10 years of flat wages, eroding safety nets, and diminishing freedoms, many countries in the west are experiencing social instability on a scale not seen in decades. Various counter-movements are emerging, growing in numbers and forcefulness. Some of these movements seek to curb the perpetual erosion of liberty and create more space for civil society. Others seek to improve the lives of the poor and push against economic inequality.
The plight of the unemployed could be an area where these strands of thought unite. As coercive powers expand, as measures employed against the unemployed grow in their viciousness and scale, the urgency to address them grows as well. The standard we ignore is the standard we accept. And the treatment of the unemployed today forms a precedent that could one day be applied to us all.