Explaining Morrison’s Momentary Munificence

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

J. K. Galbraith

 

There are many questions raised by the headline graph, but to begin with I want to focus on just one: the unemployment benefit.

Figure 1 — Australian daily incomes, before and after Covid

Here’s the question: What changed? What caused Scott Morrison and the Coalition government to double the unemployment benefit overnight?

You probably think you already know the answer, but I think you’re wrong, or only partly right. Let’s see.

Let me first answer the question from the other end, and ask what is the only sensible and valid reason for raising the unemployment benefit. I believe the answer to that is simple: you raise it when it isn’t enough for the unemployed to live on.

So while raising the unemployment benefit shouldn’t be a contentious act for a government, doubling it immediately raises another question: did the cost of living double? A ten-percent increase would be large, but possible. Twenty percent? That’s exceptional.

Double!?

Either the benefit was ridiculously inadequate beforehand, or there has been some massive overnight change in the cost of living. Which there hasn’t.

So what was the official reason given by the Treasurer in the Coalition government’s official announcement?

Businesses will close and people will lose their jobs. That is why we have doubled the welfare safety net.

Josh Frydenberg, 30/3/2020

 

Consider for a moment the sheer illogic of this “reason”. “People will lose their jobs”? That’s what the existing unemployment benefit is for, when people lose their jobs. Saying you’ll double it because people will lose their jobs is like suddenly saying you’ll double the existing pension because people will retire. It’s ridiculous and nonsensical. For the Federal Treasurer to say something so patently illogical can only mean that the real reason is either politically embarrassing or politically unsayable. Or both. Which it is.

Let’s deal with the politically embarrassing first.

It’s already clear that the benefit beforehand was, in fact, ridiculously inadequate. The graph shows how far it was below the poverty line, and it had been kept there for many years before Covid-19 by the Coalition despite repeated calls for it to be increased. So is this just a bit of spin to do the right thing but avoid saying “we were wrong”?

No. It’s not that simple.

Punishing The Poor

The cynics will already have a simple, plausible, even compelling reason: politics.

Morrison knew full well that the suffering being inflicted on over half a million impoverished and unemployed Australians hadn’t so far been enough to rouse serious community or political opposition—he and the Coalition had been steadfastly refusing calls for the benefit to be increased for years, and although those calls were growing louder they’d been rebuffed very clearly, even in the very recent past.

However Morrison also realised that if an additional two or three million Australians, who yesterday had been employed, quite suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves trying to survive below the poverty line then the backlash would be immediate, huge and politically untenable.

Morrison and the Coalition didn’t suddenly find concern for the unemployed or their survival, he was suddenly concerned for his own survival. So, overnight and with the flimsiest and most ridiculous explanation, the benefit doubled, and for the first time in many years the unemployed found themselves above the poverty line.

Political embarrassment avoided.

But this explanation, plausible though it is, still doesn’t explain all the facts.

The first, and most obvious problem is that as well as announcing an increase, Morrison has repeatedly promised that the benefit will revert to its previous, sub-poverty level at the end of September.

We’ve put a Covid supplement in place for the period of the pandemic and that’s what we’ve budgeted for and that’s what our policy is.

Scott Morrison 23/4/2020

 

This was an emergency response measure, this was not a change in the government’s view about the broader role of the social safety net in Australia.

Scott Morrison 29/4/2020

 

On the face of it, this is as inexplicable as the Treasurer’s ridiculous reason for increasing the benefit. The amount of money an unemployed person will need to live on is not going to magically change at the end of September, and so the reason for reducing the benefit back below the poverty line is even more illogical than increasing it now, because at least there’s a legitimate reason for that, even if it’s not the one given.

While it’s tempting to apply the same cynical explanation to this reduction as to the increase—namely that by September there will be far fewer Australians unemployed, so the backlash will be less—this simply doesn’t make sense. Regardless of the speed of any economic recovery, all economists agree that employment numbers will take much longer than September to recover to pre-Covid levels, so there will be many more unemployed.

On top of that, there’s this: in addition to significantly increasing the benefit, the Coalition also massively increased the threshold at which a partner’s income would affect the benefit. That number wasn’t doubled, for some it was more than tripled. In addition to that, they completely waived the assets tests for the benefit.

Before the threshold change you would lose all your unemployment benefit if your joint income was more than $24,000 p.a. each.

By some amazing coincidence, that’s equivalent to each of you living on the poverty line. So before Covid-19 you would either receive a benefit that was well under the poverty line, or if together you managed to reach the equivalent of incomes on the poverty line you’d lose the benefit.

Suddenly, however, not only was the benefit doubled but the income threshold was massively increased and the assets test was waived completely.

Then, most amazingly, Morrison announces that this is all going away at the end of September for a reason that makes even less sense than the increase.

This doesn’t sound like political expediency, or rather it doesn’t sound like just political expediency. It sounds much more like the Coalition divided the unemployed into two groups: pre-Covid people who deserved to live under or on the poverty line, and post-Covid people who deserved double the benefit, deserved to be allowed to earn far more, and who deserved to have unlimited assets without affecting their benefit.

That second group of “deserving” unemployed were the ones who would have lost their jobs purely as a result of Covid, and who clearly were largely expected to be back in employment by the end of September. At that point anyone who was still unemployed—regardless of the reality that pre-Covid there were far fewer jobs than unemployed—those people deserved to go back onto the old, sub-poverty benefit.

Because that was all they deserved.

This is the politically unsayable part of the explanation: the poor and unemployed don’t deserve our support.

This not only explains all of the Coalition’s otherwise inexplicable actions, it fits perfectly with some well-established conservative beliefs about success, effort, and being rich or poor.

If my wealth comes from my effort, your poverty is your failure and your fault

It’s a remarkably simple formula, and it requires only three ingredients: privilege, wealth and cognitive dissonance.

Nobody who is privileged or wealthy wants to believe that their privilege or wealth is due to luck. There’s ample quantities of research to demonstrate just this, but ask any successful person and they won’t say “Actually, I was just really lucky to have been born white, male, in a developed country and with rich parents”. They’ll tell you instead about hard work, determination and skill.

All of which may still be true, but conveniently ignores the reality that had they been born in a third-world slum, or black, or just poor their chances of achieving the same success would have been far smaller. It’s just human nature to believe in yourself, and that’s not a problem. The problem is the corollary, which is that if luck and privilege didn’t play a part, then you have to believe it’s equally possible for a poor person to succeed with only hard work, determination and skill.

In order to maintain that belief—that success is due solely to personal intelligence, determination and effort—it’s necessary to conclude that anyone who doesn’t succeed isn’t poor because they’re unlucky or caught in a poverty trap. It must only be because they’re not sufficiently determined, didn’t work hard enough, or aren’t smart enough.

Therefore if I am rich and successful, poor people are poor because it’s their own fault. Q.E.D.

You don’t have to take my word for it, although I’ve written on it previously. Here it is from the conservatives’ own mouths. Most of these are from the U.S.A., however conservative thinking and world views are not confined to any nationality.

Here are some relatively recent Australian views, for example. We’ll compare these opinions with reality a little later, but for now note the disparity between conservative voters and others, regardless of any objective measures of social and economic inequality—which, by the way, are increasing.

Here is the starkest example. If you ask conservatives and liberals why the poor are poor, nearly two thirds of conservatives will tell you it’s because of lack of effort, not circumstances.

This logic doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny, as any poor couple who are both working multiple jobs and twelve-hour days will tell you, but in order for the lucky rich to maintain their own feelings of achievement and self-worth—and their consciences—they must equally believe that poor people are poor because it’s their own fault.

From there it’s a very small step to believing that if people are unemployed they don’t deserve support, or if it’s given it should be minimal, in order to “encourage” them to greater determination, or to work harder. In its more extreme forms this attitude turns into Social Darwinism that views society not as a co-operative whole but as some sort of single-species jungle in which the benefits of society are conveniently ignored, as is luck, and life is viewed as some kind of primitive “survival of the fittest”.

Suddenly there’s a very simple explanation for Morrison’s momentary munificence that’s even darker than simple political cynicism. He, and his Coalition colleagues genuinely don’t believe that the unemployed deserve unemployment benefits. The simple reason why benefits have suddenly been doubled, thresholds raised through the roof and assets tests waived completely is that for once, momentarily, they can see a scenario in which people are unemployed through no fault of their own.

For an instant they can imagine even themselves losing their jobs and becoming unemployed due to circumstances totally beyond their control, and for an instant they can see a scenario in which people deserve at least some minimal support, certainly support beyond the poverty line, and support which doesn’t punish them for their own success through income limits and asset tests, punishments that bizarrely were thought appropriate for the pre-Covid unemployed.

You have to admire the cognitive dissonance that says that people who have larger incomes and more assets are more worthy of greater unemployment support than people who have little income or few assets, but there it is in black and white government policy.

The Coalition’s momentary glimpse of unemployment and poverty as being possibly the result of bad luck and circumstance is fleeting, though. It will last until September, at which point anyone still unemployed will, by definition, be out of a job through their own lack of application and failure to try harder, and as a result deserve punishment through below-poverty payments and punitive income and asset tests, not support.

That’s politically unsayable, however.

If you gave that as your reason for the doubling of the unemployment benefit, bravo.

As a reminder, the politically palatable reasons for this amazing performance are “people will lose their jobs, that’s why we have doubled the welfare net,” followed by “we’ve put a Covid supplement in place for the period of the pandemic and that’s what we’ve budgeted for and that’s what our policy is.”

In other words, no reason at all. You have to admire the subtlety in calling doubling the benefit a “Covid supplement”, though. That instantly makes it reasonable that it should stop when the pandemic is over, but carefully avoids the much more difficult question as to why a pandemic requires a supplement at all; that is, requires the unemployment benefit to double, when the cost of being unemployed hasn’t changed. As I said, no reason at all.

Now there are other plausible and equally cynical explanations for the Coalition’s treatment of Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens: it’s useful to keep the unemployed poor and desperate for work, since they form a convenient pool for companies that need casual, low-paid gig workers, and of course the very obvious reason that the lower the unemployment benefit, pension, NDIS and other support schemes the less tax money is needed to pay for them and so the more there is for rent-seeking donors, and the less needs to be levied from multinational corporations.

However all of these policies become much easier to explain and more palatable for their authors if you accept that fundamental premise, that it’s the poor’s fault that they’re poor.

Figure 2

A scan of the benches in recent Parliaments reveals many rich white males making our current policy decisions. Although parliamentarians represent us, they are not representative of us. For example, in the Australian population, about half a percent are lawyers by occupation. In recent Parliaments about 25% are lawyers, and Figure 2 shows the gap between parliamentary income and that of Australians in poverty, on unemployment or a pension.

Some of those Coalition members have recently claimed that they could live on $40 a day, without actually demonstrating it, of course. The same members of the Coalition then didn’t blink when it was doubled. A glance at MP’s salaries and their political ideology might give a hint as to why.

This is not a call to class warfare. Neither is it an assault on wealth. What I’m trying to point out is that there are well documented, honestly held beliefs held by conservatives and the successful that simply do not match up with reality. Those real beliefs, in turn, lead to policies that are generally harmful to people who are already vulnerable, and to otherwise inexplicable decisions like Morrison’s momentary munificence.

With a little thought the same basic philosophy can be seen to underpin the Coalition’s whole approach to social welfare, and in particular apparently vicious and vindictive programmes—or programs—such as Robodebt, and the “mutual obligation” requirements that put the unemployed with no hope of a job through humiliating and unnecessary hoops in the pretence that their failure to find work is their fault and not a systemic reality.

They believe the poor are poor through their own fault.

Whenever the Coalition is challenged, however, the reason given is not “it’s the poor’s fault”, but “this is good for the economy”. It’s an argument that has been in considerable use during the pandemic, even to explain the inexplicable response to the $60 billion dollar error in costing.

It was $60 billion that on one day the Coalition was willing to spend for the good of Australians and “the economy”, and on the next day was completely unacceptable to be spent for the good of Australians, because it wouldn’t be “good for the economy”. The only reason for the change—they were different Australians, who only deserved the unemployment benefit, or Jobseeker, not the newly created and more generous unemployment benefit, Jobkeeper.

So let’s examine that convenient mantra, the economy, that can make $60 billion dollars disappear overnight.

It’s the Economy, stupid

The overall cost of pandemic-related government spending has been cited repeatedly by the Coalition as a reason for various decisions, and in particular for excluding some people from benefits. For example, the Attorney-General said

You have to have some kind of guiding limits on the outer edges even of a scheme that represents expenditure of this extraordinary amount

Christian Porter 6/4/2020


and the Treasurer later remarked

… we had to draw the line somewhere. This is a massive call on the public purse and it is a debt that the country will pay for years to come …

Josh Frydenberg 12/4/2020


and also

Australians know there is no money tree

Josh Frydenberg 11/5/2020


The Prime Minister has said

These emergency measures come at a great cost and clearly that level of cost is not sustainable beyond what we have flagged.

Scott Morrison 5/5/2020


“Clearly”… and also

It’s not just today’s taxpayers, it’s tomorrow’s taxpayers as well, and our Government will always be extremely prudent into not putting burdens on to future generations, let alone the current generation, in dealing with the challenges that we have today.

Scott Morrison 11/5/2020


I’d argue that “This will be good for the economy” is the neocon reboot of “The cheque’s in the mail”, or “I’m from the government, I’m here to help you”.

Have you ever heard a politician proclaim “Sorry, we can’t do this, it would be good for the economy”?

Likewise, have you ever heard “We have to do this because it will be bad for the economy”?

Never. “The economy” is our sacred cow.

It passes almost without notice, but justifying something because of “the economy” is really no different to invoking motherhood and apple pie, only it sounds more adult and responsible. It’s shorthand for something that is by definition always good for us. But what is “the economy”, really?

It’s invoked almost as though it’s a physical thing, or certainly something or some system that can exist without people, without a society. But it’s not. Clearly with no society there is no economy; the economy isn’t some piece of machinery that exists independently of people and society, it’s not something that could be left running on an uninhabited desert island.

Equally, though, is it possible to have a society without an economy? Again, no, and we know that changes in “the economy” can cause widespread and systemic changes in society.

So “the economy” is really just a part of or an aspect of our society, but we’ve been conditioned to believe that a “good” economy is by definition good for society, and a “bad” economy means it’s bad for society.  

So when politicians say something is “good for the economy” they’re not talking about a piece of machinery, they’re really claiming that it’s “good for society”, because it’s impossible for there to be a good economy and a bad society, right? Right?

It’s a wonderful sleight-of-hand.

With a simple gesture, the magician’s magic wand becomes a bunch of flowers. The economy has become society.

Ask yourself this: why do neocon politicians like the Coalition place so much emphasis on “the economy”. Why doesn’t the Coalition talk about its actions and policies as being “good for society” instead of “good for the economy”?

Why do they say “we can’t do this, it would be bad for the economy” when instead they could say “we can’t do this, it would be bad for everyone, for society”? Wouldn’t that be a more powerful claim and message?

There are two reasons. The first is that “the economy” is a magic password, a synonym for universal good that is never questioned, even though the same claims with “society” substituted would almost certainly be challenged.

Try this: “We need to keep the unemployed well below the poverty line, for the good of the economy”, versus “We need to keep the unemployed well below the poverty line for the good of Society”.

Or this: “We can’t afford to pay casual workers JobKeeper, for the good of the economy”, versus “We can’t afford to pay casual workers JobKeeper, for the good of Society”.

Or this: “For the good of the economy we need the average Australian to earn roughly $90,000 a year and to have around half a million dollars in assets”, versus “For the good of everyone we need 20% of Australians to own 1% of the wealth, earn 4% of the wages and to live below the poverty line”, versus “For the good of everyone we need one fifth of us to own two thirds of the wealth and to earn half all the money”.

It’s easy to see why they say “the economy” and not “society”, or “everyone”.

From mccrindle.com.au

Now for the second trick—measuring what’s “good for the economy”. Having succeeded with the sleight-of-hand that makes “good for the economy” a synonym for “good for society”, neocons can now use measures of the health of “the economy” that are very different to what most of us would consider good measures of the health of our society.

Consider this: most television news broadcasts have two segments that never vary. One is the weather, and the other is the stock market.

That’s despite the fact that only a third of Australians actually own shares, and far fewer than that have large holdings or take an active interest in the market. But we’re told about the market daily because we’re being asked to believe that the stock market is a good indicator for the economy, and that it in turn and by implication is a good indicator for the health of society.

So is it?

Here’s a chart of the stock market, measured by the ASX200, from 1996 to June 2020.

From tradingeconomics.com

Over that time, until the Covid pandemic the ASX200 grew from 2,000 points to 7,000 points, or 250%. Even including the Covid pandemic, it has grown by 200%, and in the ten years from 2010 to the beginning of 2020 it increased by around 46%, or an average annual growth of 4.5%. There were a few hiccoughs, but none lasting more than a year, and the overall trend is clearly upwards.

That must be good news, because a growing stock market means a growing economy, and that means a healthy society. Doesn’t it?

Here’s another chart. This is a number that isn’t reported every week-night on the news. It’s a measure of the average length of time an Australian who’s unemployed spends looking for a job.

Average length of unemployment (weeks) 2010-2020
(ABS 6291014a)

In the ten years from 2010 to the beginning of 2020 the average length of time an unemployed Australian spent unemployed increased by roughly 36% to slightly over 48 weeks, or nearly a year, an average annual increase of 3.6%. The median length increased by 23%.

From 2010 to 2013 under the Labor government the length changed very little. Under the Coalition, from 2013 to the present, time spent unemployed increased steadily by a total of 32%, or an average annual increase of about 4.6%, roughly the same as the ASX200…

Now I’d argue that in a healthy society, people who want to work shouldn’t have to spend nearly a year looking for a job. In a healthy society I certainly wouldn’t expect that length of time to be increasing. In particular I’d argue that if “the economy” is getting better, as measured by the ASX200 and as a proxy for society, then I’d expect other measures of social good to be getting better also, not worse. In fact, you could even argue that in a “good economy” the length of unemployment should be decreasing, but that’s a different argument.

If “the economy”, as a proxy for society, is good and growing, then so too presumably are other measures of social good. For example, if corporate value—as a measure of the economy—is increasing, then so too should wages be. Let’s look at actual wages growth, compared to the predictions of the government, the people who decide what’s “good for the economy”.

The black line is actual, the coloured lines are successive annual government projections

Unlike the ASX200, wages growth has been declining sharply for ten years, however every single year the government has been telling us that growth will improve, or at worst remain constant. In fact the projections of improvement have become larger and larger even though the decline continues. But the ASX200 is growing nicely, so this must be “good for society”.

If the ASX200 is increasing then presumably so too should pensions and other benefits—that’s another measure of “good for society”.

 

This graph tells a very different story to the ASX200. It tells us that from 1993 to 2019, twenty-six years, the unemployment benefit really hasn’t increased at all in real terms. The minimum wage has only barely increased, and even pensions have been increasing far more slowly than the median wage.

What’s also apparent is that there is a growing gap between the median wage and the average wage, evidence of growing inequality.

Here’s another measure of “the economy”: from 2000 to 2019 total Australian company profits more than tripled—increased by more than 300%.

From 1993, a much longer time, there has been no more than a total 10% increase in the unemployment benefit. There has only been a 30% increase in median wage, a 50% increase in the average wage, but from 1993 to now there has been a 250% increase in the ASX200, the number we’re given every night on the news.

So should we continue to believe that “good for the economy” really means “good for society”, or should we start demanding other measures of “economic good”, some other single number we’re given on the nightly news that tells us whether our society is improving or getting worse?

Clearly when a Coalition politician tells us some decision has been made “for the good of the economy”, or that something can’t be done because “it would be bad for the economy” we should immediately demand to know who in society will be advantaged, and if it’s not all of us, who is it?

Sixty billion reasons to write this essay

The other aspect of Figure 1 I want to discuss is the newly created “JobKeeper” benefit, and the $60 billion fiasco that followed in its wake.

It was an error of breathtaking size, taken absolutely, but it was also huge in that it was nearly 100% of the actual amount. That’s not a slip of the pen, it’s a colossal bungle.

It’s hard to grasp numbers that large, so for scale, sixty billion dollars is double Australia’s annual defence budget…

It’s over $20 billion more than the entire annual education budget, and it’s three quarters of the annual national health budget.

It was going to be spent in six months, a rate of spending equivalent to spending the entire national health budget in nine months.

That’s a vast sum of money.

In the Coalition’s own words that vast sum, in fact the entire package was intended “to protect the lives and livelihoods of Australians“, and “to be as inclusive and reasonable as possible“. It was to be available for six months at least, and the Prime Minister said “we’ve put the commitment in to support Australians over that period of time“.

Noble, stirring words: commit, protect, support, inclusive, reasonable, livelihoods, lives. Sounds wonderful. No mention of the economy. However I’d make three observations.

Firstly, those are all things that a government is supposed to be doing all the time.

Secondly, objective measures we’ve already discussed clearly show that over the seven years they’ve been in power before the pandemic the Coalition has failed miserably in achieving those social goals.

Thirdly, that the Coalition’s actions during the pandemic clearly show the hollowness of that rhetoric, and expose the real ideologies at work. The Coalition actually cares nothing for people, and nothing for society. It’s all about individual wealth, and nothing more, wrapped up in socially acceptable rhetoric.

The language used to justify introducing this spending was all couched in pro-social terms, not economic ones; it was about “protecting lives and livelihoods”, and it was to be “as inclusive as possible”. However all of the arguments about refusing to cover certain groups of people, even when $60 billion fell into their laps, was economic, “no money tree”, “massive call on the public purse”, showing the true colours.

Just as the suddenly doubled unemployment benefit flushed out the social Darwinism really driving Coalition policies, so the JobKeeper benefit simply confirmed further details.

In reality JobKeeper formed the third tier of the Coalition’s four-tier view of Australia’s social hierarchy. This is a government for the top tier, by the top tier.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are people who are so low-caste that they can’t even qualify for unemployment benefits. This is regardless of their skills, qualifications, or even whether they’re paying tax. Referring for a moment to Figure 1 you will see that the Tax-free threshold in Australia lies below the poverty line. That is, if you earn money the Coalition will start levying tax on you even before you’ve earned enough to work your way out of poverty.

You could be a university graduate with at least two year’s experience working in a skilled graduate job, say casual tutoring at University. Thanks to the Coalition’s generosity, you could be paying tax, and yet you won’t qualify for JobKeeper thanks to their changing the rules to exclude Universities. Even if Universities qualified you’d still be excluded, because you’re not continuously a casual. And if you’re under 22 you won’t even qualify for unemployment benefits. You are economic roadkill, regardless of your contributions, skills or length of employment.

The second tier of the Coalition’s hierarchy is made up of workers who make up the unvalued workforce that drives several of Australia’s largest economic sectors. They will, temporarily, qualify for the doubled unemployment benefits, but only until September. All of the casual workers in tourism, hospitality, education, arts and entertainment, disability and local government aren’t good enough for JobKeeper. Added to them will be all those who would have qualified for JobKeeper except the Coalition excluded their sector; that would be the entire Tertiary Education sector, one of Australia’s largest “invisible exports”, as well as the place where we’re expecting people to discover Coronavirus vaccines and perform all the other basic research that we need. They’re now on the employment scrap-heap, again not because they’re less valuable members of society, not because they’re second-class citizens, not because they haven’t paid taxes or contributed to society, but because of arbitrary rules.

Let me remind you that those rules were drawn up with the government knowing and expecting to spend $130 billion. Yet when it turned out that the cost would be far, far less than that, they wouldn’t change the rules. Even when it was calculated that to include the rest of these people it would probably cost only $20 billion—far less than the $60 billion error—the Coalition still didn’t change the rules and extend the scheme to protect these people’s livelihoods. That tells you everything you need to know about the real motivators of Coalition social policy—and it’s not and never has been the welfare of all Australians.

The third tier is the unemployed who are now receiving the newly-created, even more generous unemployment benefit. The intention of this benefit has been unashamedly to protect industries and companies, not individuals. The money goes, via the company, to the individual, but instead of simply increasing the existing unemployment benefit to the “JobKeeper” level, the Coalition has created a higher class of unemployed, who for some reason deserve an even larger benefit than the others. While there’s no argument against having scheme to protect the structure of existing workforces, it remains a fact that these people are functionally unemployed just like tier one and tier two. The rules drawn up to decide who qualifies and who doesn’t have nothing to do with the individual, beyond the disqualifying conditions that condemn large numbers of workers in some industry sectors to tier two. If you’re a permanent employee it doesn’t matter whether you empty waste-paper baskets or design nuclear reactors, the other qualifying criteria have nothing to do with you, your income, your assets, or anything else. They’re determined by your employer.

In other words, on tier three the Coalition has thrown away any pretence of the scheme being about people. If it were about people you’d have to ask why people on tier three shouldn’t receive the same amount as people on tier two—they’re all unemployed, after all. Contrariwise, you could reasonably ask why, if the economic and social dislocation caused by Covid justifies an even higher unemployment benefit, why isn’t everybody eligible? But tier three isn’t about people. It’s about companies.

It’s at this point that the usual arguments about “if it’s good for the economy, it’s good for society” are deployed. If all of these companies collapse, the argument goes, that will be bad for the economy and the employees will end up unemployed anyway. While that’s true, it’s also true that this “trickle-down” argument has been in use for nearly a decade, and the results are clear to see in the graphs already shown. Apart from there being no certainty that this will or won’t keep companies alive or return people to employment, what’s really the motivation here is protecting tier four. Keeping companies alive will protect the profits of the owners and shareholders, but it won’t do anything for the employees beyond a job, and even that is uncertain. Why these people should be worthy of a greater benefit than those on tier one or tier two is completely unclear, and in entwining corporate welfare with individual welfare the Coalition has, yet again, replaced “society” with “economy”.

What is crystal clear is that the Coalition was happy to commit $130 billion to this three tier scheme, yet when the probable cost reduced by $60 billion they immediately refused to change it to include people previously excluded, on the grounds of “the economy”.

This makes as much sense as the Treasurer doubling the unemployment benefit because people were going to be unemployed—none—unless you recognise that tier one and tier two people are considered worthless by the Coalition, and tier three people aren’t valued for themselves, simply because industries might suffer greater losses. They’d have to be paid unemployment benefits anyway, this way provides greater protection for tier four.

Tier four is everyone who’s basically unaffected; I don’t mean nurses and cleaners and bus-drivers, who have had to keep working, I mean the independently wealthy whose income doesn’t rely on a fortnightly wage, who possibly do no real work at all but who sit in the top quintile that owns 63% of Australia’s wealth. They are the shareholders and Directors and others whose concern, like the Coalition’s, isn’t with society or people, but with companies and profits. For some of them the pandemic isn’t a problem at all, it’s a great opportunity. They own pathology laboratories, or medical supply companies, or employment agencies. They know that any argument about “the economy” is really just about maximising their profits, and they make generous donations to politicians to ensure it stays that way.

Since Morrison and the Coalition announced the $130 billion—or $70 billion— package there has been a steady trickle of announcements changing or “clarifying” the initial structure. We know that right at the beginning the Coalition had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to consider some sort of assistance package, and as time goes on it becomes clearer and clearer that despite initial appearances the leopard hasn’t changed its spots one iota.

The Coalition is still driven by those warped, politically unsayable values, and is still prioritising wealth and profits over people and social good.

The chronology, structure and evolution of JobSeeker and JobKeeper—and the $60 billion—are all the proof you need. There’s no munificence involved at all, just calculated selfishness and self-interest.

______________________________________________________________________________

PostScript – I Shouldn’t Have To Say This

I’m adding this as a postscript, and you can ignore it—assuming you’ve persevered this far—without affecting the arguments above. It’s just a longer exposition on the moral imperative for all of us, politicians included, to recognise and make the contributions necessary to maintain a society.

A fundamental flaw in conservative and particularly neoconservative values, as mentioned in the opening quotation, is that they want to benefit from being members of a society without making the necessary balancing contributions, and this addendum just expands on that a little.

Humans are social animals. A single human, no matter how clever or strong can build the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or a jet aeroplane, a computer or a smartphone. When stated like this it’s a ridiculous idea that an individual human can accomplish anything without the benefits of living in a society.

Those benefits are not free, however. If you expect the help and support of others, and expect cooperation to achieve your individual goals then of course you have to contribute help, support and cooperation to others. It’s the social contract, an agreement that as a civilised society we are not a random group of selfish individuals but a mutually supportive and mutually reliant whole.

It is only as a cooperating society that we can create our complex systems of health, education, and laws, and only by cooperation we can maintain the order necessary to enjoy those systems. The benefit of that cooperative society is the ability to live peaceful and productive lives. To maintain that environment we must observe our mutual obligations, and just as parents care for their children, society must care for those who are disadvantaged.

Just as education isn’t a cost to society but is really a benefit for the whole of society, so caring for the disadvantaged isn’t simply charity, it’s really enlightened self-interest, because ultimately it results in a better society. An ideology that proposes “survival of the fittest”, or anything like that, but simultaneously expects to operate within a society that, by definition, relies on mutual assistance and cooperation is clearly a contradiction in terms. Those individuals are relying on and expecting society to provide them with support and cooperation and all of society’s benefits to achieve their goals, but are offering nothing in return.

In short, no individual can expect to benefit from a society without also contributing.

Australians expect that whatever the ideologies and policies of the elected government, once in office they are there to govern for the benefit all Australians; that’s the job.

As individuals they’re elected to represent an electorate, not just the people in the electorate who voted for them. As a government they’re there to govern for the nation, not just for people who supported them.

That’s the expectation, and the Australian Constitution makes it abundantly clear that in turn, the government’s powers extend to all Australians, not just the people who voted for them or supported them:

5. This Act and all laws made by the Parliament of the Commonwealth under the Constitution, shall be binding on the courts, judges, and people of every State and of every part of the Commonwealth

Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act

Unfortunately the Coalition seems to enjoy its power over all Australians but forgets its equivalent responsibility. It doesn’t govern for society, for everyone, it governs very clearly for the principal beneficiaries of “the economy”, the top quintile.

2 thoughts on “Explaining Morrison’s Momentary Munificence

  1. Thanks for such a comprehensive and comprehensible explanation of what is the reality behind our current government’s “strategy”. You have encapsulated lots of my thoughts about the current situation. Cheers, Wendy 👍

    • Thank you! There is more (alas), but the article is already too long so I left it at that. Events since I posted it have only confirmed my theory.

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