That’s quietly remarkable. To see this, consider that we’re in one of those rare moments where politics is in the process of finding new orthodoxies. Ever since Tony Abbott’s disastrous 2014 budget, the central theme in Australian politics has become “fairness”. It’s only mildly simplistic to say that’s why Labor is in such a strong position. It’s why it is so confident offering policies that were once unthinkable, such as on negative gearing or franking credits. It’s why Labor’s response to the Coalition’s budget last week was so obvious and predictable: outbid on tax cuts for lower and middle income earners, and reject them for the highest income earners. Everything Labor does right now plays to this script.
So, how is it, at a time when politics is increasingly sympathetic to the struggling, and when the idea of fairness is so cardinal, that even Labor cannot find its way to making a clear statement of intent on Newstart? How does Newstart somehow escape the fairness calculation?
Perhaps the clue is in the very notion of fairness. It’s self-consciously different from the more old-fashioned notion of equality. Equality implies an outcome that is inherently desirable. Fairness suggests only equitable treatment, even if the outcome ends up being unequal. In this way, fairness carries a sense of people being treated as they deserve to be. That sounds obvious and unarguable, but really it masks all kinds of fundamental value judgments. For example, by what method do we figure out who deserves what? It can’t merely be need, otherwise the Newstart allowance would have increased long ago.
Newstart remains stalled because, for now at least, our notion of fairness is tied to the worker. It doesn’t extend to the unemployed. You hear this most nakedly in Scott Morrison’s repetitions that “if you have a go, you get a go”. But you hear it more subtly in Kevin Rudd’s famous obsession with “Australian working families”, and even Bill Shorten’s overtures on stagnant wages and penalty rates. Labor’s narrative is currently one of an economy whose benefits flow upwards; of bosses who get wealthier while their employees don’t. The unfairness here is one of work not being rewarded. That’s different from work not being afforded in the first place.
In this vision, the worker is being exploited. That’s what makes the treatment undeserved. But it’s hard to exploit the unemployed in this way. We’re left with a sense that Newstart recipients get benefits as a matter of our own largesse, rather than as of right. Follow this logic a distance and you reach a point where Newstart recipients deserve nothing much at all. And once you’re there, even a manifestly paltry allowance ceases to be unfair.
Neither major party would put it in such stark terms, of course. But the truth is that so much of our public culture over decades has found it extremely easy to take a punitive approach to the unemployed. Sure, it was a miscalculation of the government to deny them the energy rebate, but there’s a reason it was possible to imagine doing so in the first place, just as it’s possible to penalise Newstart recipients for overpayments they might never have received.
The mythology is that people are unemployed more by choice or weakness than because of bigger, structural factors beyond their control. Hence the logic of “mutual obligation” underpinning the work for the dole scheme that has survived more than 20 years. This assumes the unemployed need to be pushed into work. The spectre of the dole bludger, rorting the system, persists. The aim of policy is to prevent them from doing so. Hence governments’ fondness for “crack downs”.
Over time, this becomes ingrained as a kind of mental reflex. The result is that we think of the unemployed as though they’re not present, as if they’re not part of our political community. Political solidarity doesn’t extend to them, so the concept of fairness can’t either. That’s why it’s so hard to close your eyes and imagine a press conference where a prime minister announces they’re raising the dole. It doesn’t feel like something to be trumpeted.
Perhaps that will change soon enough. My guess is that Labor could announce an increase in Newstart with little real controversy. My guess is that, leaving aside the internal ructions that follow it everywhere, the Coalition could too – even if it needed to hide behind the imprimatur of the Business Council to do it. Or maybe they could do it together. They’ve sustained one mythology. Surely in time they could create another.