Labor goes from Robin Hood to the Sheriff of Nottingham

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Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of ThievesWhen Labor handed down its first Budget in 2008 many in the social welfare sector felt that Robin Hood might have just fired off his first humble arrow.

There are some good things in this week's Budget announcement: major reforms that should be warmly welcomed such as DisabilityCare and the Gonski school education funding.

But if you are an unemployed person or one of the single parents who at the beginning of this year was forced onto an inadequate Newstart payment, you could be forgiven for feeling that this Budget is less Robin Hood and more Sheriff of Nottingham.

The Newstart payment is now so low that it has become, for many, a path to despair instead of a path to employment. At around only 40 per cent of the after-tax minimum wage, our unemployment benefit has not seen an increase in real terms since 1994.

In an effort to catch up, we implored the government to lift it by $50 a week. We also sought a stronger investment in helping people into jobs. We argued that a modest redistribution of resources would result in a massive redistribution of hope.

The failure to do this is yet another kick in the guts of the people who are doing it tough.

We accept the fiscal constraints the government is under. We do not accept that people who are living in poverty should pay the price.

We accept, in the main, that a job is the best path out of poverty. We do not accept that people in poverty have only themselves to blame, or that you can help a person find work by making life hard.

You don't build someone up by putting them down. You don't help someone into employment by pushing them into poverty.

By keeping the unemployment benefit low, successive governments have deliberately humiliated people rather than improving their chances of employment.

To turn around and say that we'll give a few crumbs but only to those who are able to find some work, completely ignores the underlying structural causes of unemployment.

Along with the human cost of poverty comes the long-term economic cost of squandering, rather than harnessing, the enormous productive potential of 800,000 people.

The time is ripe to abandon the bipartisan politics of punishment. Tackling poverty should have been a budget priority. But as things stand we are looking down the barrel of entrenched exclusion for those who wage a daily battle for survival from below the poverty line. 


 

John Falzon headshotDr John Falzon is a political sociologist, poet and author of The Language of the Unheard (2012). He is Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent Paul Society National Council of Australia. This is an edited version of a speech he gave to the Press Gallery on budget night.

Pictured: Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.


Topic tags: John Falzon, Budget 2013, Newstart, NDIS

 

 

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Existing comments

Well and sadly said, Dr Falzon. The thundering lack of compassion towards or understanding of the unemployed's plight, parallels the stupidity of not properly funding the education and training sectors. This and all previous governments should have raised the level of unemployment benefits (an oxymoron?) to at least a living wage. Just as important is decent funding for skills training, and the recent political nonsense around 457 visas amplified one of the structural elements underpinning unemployment. In the long run we cannot afford to keep importing skills in lieu of training our workforce of any age. In the even longer run, we cannot afford to lose our souls by not caring.
Patricia R | 17 May 2013


If Labor has become the Sheriff of Nottingham who have the Liberals been - Prince John?
PETER | 17 May 2013


I'm so thankful that John Falzon is such a passionate advocate for those living in poverty in Australia. This is yet another compassionate article. I've just finished reading John's book, The Language of the Unheard. It shows an incredible understanding of disadvantage and poverty in Australia. I wish the powerful in our society would listen to the wisdom he has to offer. Thank you John for what you are doing.
Robert Van Zetten | 17 May 2013


John Falzon May 16, 2013 "We do not accept that people in poverty have only themselves to blame, or that you can help a person find work by making life hard." On the other hand, simply throwing money around does not solve the problem. Specific help for individual cases initially may be more expensive than the "one size fits all", but it is better in the long run. Just like the saying, "If you give hungry people a fish, that's a good thing; but if you teach them how to fish, that's better."
robert Liddy | 17 May 2013


John Falzon May 16, 2013 "We do not accept that people in poverty have only themselves to blame, or that you can help a person find work by making life hard." On the other hand, simply throwing money around does not solve the problem. Specific help for individual cases initially may be more expensive than the "one size fits all", but it is better in the long run. Just like the saying, "If you give hungry people a fish, that's a good thing; but if you teach them how to fish, that's better."
robert Liddy | 17 May 2013


I visit underprivileged, disadvantaged, disabled and unemployed people regularly as a volunteer in the low socio-economic community of West Heidelberg, Victoria in Jenny Macklin's electorate. Many seeking help are single mothers who will be forced on to Newstart Allowance from 1 july. Many are "unemployable", a word no politician will ever use.If there were 100 jobs available and one of these people was the only applicant she would not get the job! The decision of the Gillard Government to deprive these people is a cruel disgrace. Some are paying $80 0r more a week for one lousy room. They can't live on $35 as Jenny Macklin claimed she could.
Bill Barry | 17 May 2013


Thanks, John Falzon. Yours has been one of the prophetic voices for years and your argument, so clearly and forcefully argued, is incontrovertible. To me another sad thing is that by 6.00pm your piece has attracted so few comments. Just what does that say about the priorities of supposedly informed Catholics? What does it say about the readership of Eureka Street? You have said the same thing strongly a number of times since John Howard's day - it's of enormous importance. Keep saying it.
Joe Castley | 17 May 2013


A job is indeed the best path out of poverty. Which is why the minimum wage should be abolished, since it prices people - the most vulnerable - out of a job: something Whitlam Labor minister Clyde Cameron admitted towards the end of his life. (If minimum wages didn't have that effect, well, why not make the minimum wage $2 million a week?). And to say that "you don't help someone into employment by pushing them into poverty" is only a half-truth. Like it or not, you also don't help someone into a job by paying them unemployment benefits too close to the minimum wage either: I first hit the job market in the 1970's and had many friends who lived on the dole, surfing the beaches of NSW for years. But the point about structural unemployment is well taken. EG: why was the Woodside Browse Basin gas project abandoned last week which had support of local aboriginal groups and would have been great for their employment? Coercive union mandated high wages and the prospect of so-called "environmentalist" red tape. There's your key structural obstacles to employment dominating Australia's economy today. Dr Falzon, if you insist on getting political, think about that.
HH | 20 May 2013


As a 62 year old "New Starter", I am dismayed that my costs of job seeking (Fares for I/Vs, Paper, Stamps, for resumes, etc.) aren't reimbursed. When I do get casual work, CentreLink holds my pre- tax wage against me - talk about double dipping! And they deduct it from my allowance when I earn it - not when I get it (up to 4 weeks with the same gov't!)
Geoff S | 22 May 2013


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