Originally published in The Guardian on October 16, 2019

by Richard Denniss
[Originally published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 October 2019]

When Barnaby Joyce starts making more sense about inequality than Scott Morrison, you know the Coalition is heading for choppy waters. In July, the former Nationals leader suggested that the unemployment benefit needed to rise significantly.

“Certainly $555 or thereabouts a fortnight is difficult, especially in regional areas. Especially if your rent’s $250 a week. Well, you’re not really going to get by,” Joyce said.

But while Joyce is concerned with the very real issue of poverty, Monday’s accidental release of the prime minister’s talking points made clear that the government is more concerned with spin than substance. The leaked memo suggests that instead of talking about Australia’s pathetically inadequate Newstart payment, government MPs should “play to our economic strengths” and focus on the “misuse of welfare”, the “expansion of the cashless debit card” and “trialling mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients”. Government MPs were again reminded: “Newstart is a safety net. It’s not meant to be a replacement for a salary.”

While such skilful misdirection may have been enough to win Morrison the last election, it does absolutely nothing to help the 723,000 Australians on Newstart.

Morrison loves to talk about having a go, giving a go and getting a go. But the simple fact is that after six years of Coalition government, there are a lot fewer “goes” to go around. There are now 716,800 people officially defined as unemployed in Australia and a further 1,159,400 as “underemployed”. If the Coalition is so good at economic management then why has public debt and the number of people in need of work risen so sharply over its two terms in office?

Parliamentarians get more money to spend in a single night in Canberra than unemployed people are expected to live on for a week. The prime minister defends the inadequacy of Newstart on the basis that people aren’t supposed to live on it for long, but this is based on the idea that the Coalition is good at creating lots of jobs. The scoreboard makes clear it isn’t.

The average Newstart recipient stays on the payment for 156 weeks. That’s three Christmases making do on $559 a fortnight. The public knows it’s not enough, the Business Council of Australia knows it’s not enoughJoyce knows it’s not enough, but Morrison’s advisers spend their time drafting spin sheets instead of speaking truth to power.

Alan Jones wasn’t convinced. In an excruciating 18-minute interview with the prime minister, Jones audibly sighs and moans his way through Morrison’s excuses about his failure to help victims of the drought. It’s great radio, but it’s trouble for the Coalition.

The Coalition has been in power for six of the seven years that drought has ravaged parts of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. This timing prevents Morrison from relying on his favourite trick of blaming Labor for his government’s failures. But it’s not just the timing of drought that’s hurting the prime minister. It’s the location.

The Liberals never cared too much about the unemployment that the closure of the car industry caused in the safe Labor seats of Melbourne’s west. In the words of John Howard’s finance minister, Nick Minchin:

“It’s extremely disappointing that it was the first Coalition government … that presided over the closure of the car industry. It would not have taken much to ensure that, maybe not Ford but Holden and Toyota maintained capacity in Australia. Instead they were basically told that they could go away and that we couldn’t care less.”

But it seems not all unemployed people are created equal. The Nationals have no choice but to look concerned about unemployment in regional areas. If they don’t, One Nation and other rightwing minor parties will quickly fill the compassion void.

And while conservative MPs can get away with saying the most appalling things about Indigenous people, refugees and inner-city youths who can’t find work, it’s funny how there is never any victim blaming when the victim is a white bloke from a rural community. You won’t hear Morrison blaming regional unemployment on so-called job snobs, drug addiction or a lack of skills.

So without the ability to blame Labor or the victim, Morrison is stuck in the uncomfortable position of having to take responsibility and solve a problem. It’s not going well.

Like most modern conservatives, his first instinct is to splash a lot of other people’s money around. But given the symbolic importance the Coalition has placed on getting the budget back into surplus, he is constrained on that front. It leaves him stuck, selling a grab bag of small weirs, weed control programs and a few top-up welfare payments to farmers as a “drought-busting strategy”. The quiet Australians’ loudest voices aren’t having a bar of it.

Jones was excoriating in his dismissal of the prime minister’s suggestion that spending $15m on pest and weed control would help farmers feed their starving cattle.

And Joyce, freed from cabinet solidarity and the subsequent duty to spout Morrison’s talking points, has headed off into unexpectedly honest territory suggesting that:

“People who have not made a profit in the last 10 years really need to seriously think what are you doing with your life, what are you doing on the land? If your place is just not viable, $36,000 just isn’t going to make a difference and people have to answer their own question in their own mind, if this job is the life for them. We don’t want to keep people in perpetual poverty.”

It’s easier to shift responsibility for problems than to take responsibility for them and no one shifts responsibility better than Morrison. But while he has so far succeeded in blaming climate change on China, unemployment on the unemployed and his government’s six successive budget deficits on Labor, he is struggling to pin the blame for the drought on anyone but God. It’s a dangerous position for our most visibly religious of leaders.

It’s possible that the heavens will open, the drought will break and we can all go back to pretending we don’t need to address the failings of Australia’s climate policies or the inadequacy of Newstart. But it looks like we are in for a long, hot summer with more mass fish kills, more dead livestock and more regional unemployment.

The quiet Australians who elected Morrison are getting fed up, and with no whipping boy in sight the prime minister is – for the first time – expected to solve a problem of concern to his base. Joyce says we should be honest about the need to boost Newstart and for some farmers to leave the land, and Morrison wants to pretend all is well. When Joyce is the sensible centre for the Coalition’s economic policy, we do indeed live in interesting times.

Richard Denniss is the chief economist at the independent think tank the Australia Institute

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