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The Golden Rule - Applications open. Dole Bludgers need not apply.

The story of the unemployed is a simple one; they are the scum of our society. The dole bludger is the embodiment of walking immorality. The lazy slackers who refuse to get a job, instead living off of our hard work. And so, they are righteously and publicly chastised by the major media outlets, our politicians and public figures.

Except one detail is often left out of the story: the truth.

After the nightly news, squeezed in before the weather, the phrase “5% unemployment” is uttered out of TV’s across the nation. The unemployment rate, we are reassured, is low, desired, a sign of a healthy economy. One can only conclude, that like genetic conditions that afflict some percentage of people, there must also be a percentage of people who refuse to pull their weight: a ‘Natural Level’ of slackers.

But once upon a time, about 50 years ago, there was no such thing as 5% unemployment. 5% unemployment was the economic equivalent of the rapture. Politicians would promulgate the absolute truth: never would unemployment be as high as 5%. Because you see, for 34 years between 1940 and 1973 the average unemployment rate was 1.9%, not 5%.[1]

In 1945, as WWII came to end, a white paper was published. Its title; “Full Employment in Australia”. Having learnt the lesson that mass unemployment destabilises nations and can lead to war, a new fundamental principle underpinning the white paper was introduced. “The responsibility of Commonwealth and State Governments is to provide the general framework of a full employment economy.”[2]

The doctrine of full employment was accepted and enforced. And not just by the Chifley Government at the time, but by every subsequent government for the following three decades.

Until, that is, the economic crisis of the 1970’s. By the mid 1970s, interest rates on mortgages began to increase rapidly, the consumer price index and wage growth were both in double digits and businesses began to fail. This led to a tripling of the unemployment rate to 6% by the decade’s end. And the absolute truth of full employment was, no longer, quite so absolute.[3]

Australia between the ‘40s and ‘70s was a very different place than the Australia of today. ‘Full employment’ meant you could quit your job and find another one with ease; full employment meant businesses had to incentivise staff to not quit; full employment meant that unions and businesses were much more equally matched in power. But just as today, the goal for business is profit and the goal for unions is better conditions and better pay. The same was true in the past.

Consider, a car factory of that era. Each year the union and the owners would renegotiate their contracts. Often a wage increase was won. Unlike today, the owner couldn’t just move operations overseas - tariffs stopped that. Layoffs were not a possible when strikes would be the consequence. And unemployment was not a threat when the factory down the road needed workers too. The only option to keep profit margins the same, make products for less; improve efficiency.

This system worked. Eventually though, business could no longer make profits unless they increased their products prices. When enough employers did this, the cost of living increased and began to eat away at pay checks. In response, unions did their job, and demanded pay increases, and in response to that, businesses did their job, and increased prices. This became a positive feedback loop. The system broke.

Something had to change. International economist Professor Mark Blyth puts the response to this crisis best, “You liberalize, you globalise, you integrate, you privatize.” What we now call neoliberalism, had begun and continues to this day.[5]

Full employment was out, and, in its place, the phrase “5% unemployment” began to echo out of radios and TVs across the nation. And every single government since has enforced that a minimum of 5% unemployment is maintained.

To be clear, by government design, for the last 40-odd years, there have always been more people unemployed than jobs available.

How you ask? Dr Richard Denniss the Chief Economist of the think tank The Australia Institute explains; “when the RBA says it is increasing interest rates to ‘take the heat’ out of the economy, what it really means is “increase everybody’s mortgage repayments to lower their disposable income in the hope that they spend less money in the shops and cause a bit of unemployment’.”

Economic instability, as we know, can lead to disastrous results. We will never know if the economic circumstances that lead to WWII would have repeated if the crisis of the ‘70s was allowed to continue without the reforms that included a 5% minimum unemployment.

But we do know that the unemployed of this country have been unknowingly conscripted to ensure economic stability. It is believed that this sacrifice has protected us from the economic rapture of the 1970’s happening again. But belief is not reality; no one can honestly say with absolute certainty that this was a necessary evil, as it may well be.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The golden rule, I doubt comes as a shocking revelation to anyone. But what is startling is that no matter where one looks— whether that be different places or different times, with different people who have different gods or different mannerisms, with those who speak not as I speak, who think not as I think, or who know not what I know—the golden rule is there. It seems that part our morality, our humanity, is the golden rule. That is not to say it is always followed, but rather, it seems to may well be a moral conviction that is held universally.

Bushfire, terrorist attack, flood or plague. Circumstances outside a person’s control which causes their life, their livelihood, their health, to be harmed. Instinctively we try to help; we donate, we fix what can be fixed, we heal what can be healed and bring justice if justice can be brought. Seemingly independently, we all react in the exact same way. In those moments, after shit hits the fan, I posit, that the golden rule, morphs from a universally held moral ideal into an unstoppable force that must be acted on.

Except when it comes to the unemployed. Our government, our media and our public figures have Iied to us. They have convicted us to ignore our basic need to help as we would like to be helped. This lie has convinced this nation to harm, not help. The fabrication of the dole bludger has not just harmed the jobless, but the employed as well.

How many hours and how many dollars have been wasted on news reports, research, debates, and legislation based on false pretences. How many other issues have never been discussed, debated or funded because of this deception? And one is left wondering, what damage has been done as a result of a falsehood? And if I believed this lie, how many more baseless truths do I hold as absolute facts.

As we recover from COVID, the unemployment rate will eventually dwindle down to what it was pre-pandemic. I am apprehensive that the bullshit idea of the dole bludger will continue to be perpetuated. I worry that this lie is a drop in the bucket of lies. And I’m terrified for the future of this society if we don’t start seeing reality instead of illusion. As James Baldwin once put it “People who shut their eyes to reality simple invite their own destruction.” I don’t know about you, but personally I do not want our society destroyed. At a bare minimum, it's where I keep my stuff.

By Alex Thompson

[1] Australia’s century since Federation at a glance, The Treasury, March 2019.

[2] The 1945 White Paper Australia’s century since Federation at a glance, The Treasury, March 2019.

[3] Australia’s century since Federation at a glance, The Treasury, March 2019.

[4] Mark Blyth’s State of the Union (show transcript), Radio Open Source, January 2018.

[5] Of clowns and treasurers, Richard Denniss July 2015.

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