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No time to sleepwalk out of hibernation in uncertain days

Friday, 2 October 2020  | Gordon Preece

Melburnians are hopefully about to awake from our second state-wide economic hibernation and see whether we have a bear (falling) or bull (rising) market, or a ‘snapback’ market (Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s earlier phrase).

As God’s people we need to discern the signs of the times to help shape our future society in light of the coming Kingdom and City of God. Over these three months I invite you to eavesdrop on Diocesan Social Responsibilities Committee (SRC) meetings on awakening our spiritual and democratic discernment so we don’t sleepwalk into the future. ‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep, for salvation is nearer … than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light … the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom 13:11-14).

This article addresses earlier social defects that the pandemic has magnified, particularly for the unemployed and under-employed. In the October issue of The Melbourne Anglican I’ll address the quieting or cancelling of the critical sectors of society, including the church. And in November I’ll evaluate the 6 October Federal Budget as a moral document.

Pre-existing social conditions and COVID-19

Understandably, a pandemic named novel coronavirus attracts seemingly endless descriptions of being ‘unprecedented’, ‘once in a century’ and so on. But this hides the fact that pandemics exploit pre-existing conditions or vulnerabilities, for example those of our natural environment, which is suffering as a result of climate change and as humans invade habitats and eat exotic animals.

Pandemics also probe structural weaknesses in our social ecology or body politic, disproportionately affecting people with precarious housing or work conditions, stressed in space and time, on the streets or in cramped high-rise public housing like ‘vertical cruise ships’, as acting Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly put it. Others are workers in abattoirs, aged care facilities and the gig economy, security workers, short-term visa workers, refugees, prisoners, childcare workers, teachers, students and workers in various vulnerable roles in global education, tourism and transport networks. The health dangers of globalisation, long warned of by epidemiologists, have come home to roost. And in a perfect storm, where global agencies and supply chains for PPE and essentials are severely stretched, and the need for global communication and cooperation is essential, COVID-19 followed the rise of populist nationalists like Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Duterte, Putin etc.

These ‘leaders’ flagrantly flout medical advice, rolling the dice on their people’s health, lives and livelihoods. They pose like macho-men, without masks, and violate social distancing. As anti-science populists, they authorise ill-informed, impatient and self-sovereign individualists demanding economies and entertainments be reopened prematurely. This leads to a stop–start–stop rhythm, like a teenage learner driver immune to instruction.

Now that blame and buck-passing have begun we should still be prayerfully thankful (1 Tim. 2:1-3) that our leaders, federal and state, Liberal and Labor, have generally been much better, clearer and more unified than the leaders above. Earlier in the pandemic, Christian (Porter) met Sally (McManus) halfway; Scott met Dan; IR regulations were relaxed to enable businesses, like my daughter’s, to stay afloat and many jobs to be kept, actively or in storage; and JobSeeker was increased.

Full JobKeeper and JobSeeker should be keepers

The 2019 Melbourne Synod passed my motion supporting a considerable increase to Newstart. The pandemic was more powerful than Synod, but we reflected the consensus of social welfare and business leaders that Newstart should be increased on human rights, health and economic grounds.

Originally a measure by Hawke Labor in the ’90s at 90 per cent of the aged pension to incentivise youth job-seeking, the advent of chronic, long-term unemployment made it inadequate, onerous and stigmatising.

Further, Newstart being indexed by the Howard government to inflation, not average wages (unlike the pension), has made it utterly inadequate at around 60 per cent of the pension (prior to the coronavirus supplement or JobSeeker). Most on Newstart couldn’t afford rent, food and transport to seek work. With the IMF predicting a circa 9 per cent unemployment rate by the end of this year, and with as many likely to be under-employed, this is a massive generational injustice, risking a new generation of despair, the COVID-generation.

The renaming of Newstart to JobSeeker and the doubling of benefits until 29 September was a positive step. Sadly, the government then cut the rate by around 20 per cent, contrary to the advice of 60 per cent of economists surveyed and the Business Council of Australia. The expectation of further cuts early in 2021, possibly back to $40 a day, makes no economic or equitable sense. The reductions as they currently stand leave 1.6 million workers struggling to survive on a bare $58 a day, up from Newstart’s $40, but still below the poverty line. The original increase was premised on having one wave of the pandemic. Now that a second wave has hit Victoria and threatens NSW, and affects Australia’s supply chain, the original increase should be retained.

The government’s pragmatism is giving way to its default ideology, leaked by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s back-to-the-’80s lionising of Thatcher and Reagan austerity, except for increased spending on warfare over welfare.

The idea that originally increasing JobSeeker created a disincentive to work was from 'dole bludger' anecdotage, blind to there currently being only one job vacancy for every 13 people on JobSeeker or Youth Allowance. These COVID-19 compensation measures (including turning super savings into job insurance) are too little too late to address major generational and gender justice implications likely to lead to at least another decade of demoralisation for younger people and many women still reeling from the GFC.

God’s people need to wake up to these challenges so that Australia doesn’t sleepwalk into becoming a ‘hiber-nation’.


Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos; Director of the Religion and Social Policy Network, University of Divinity; and Senior Policy Officer for Catholic Social Services Victoria.

You can order a copy of the 'Going Viral' edition of Zadok from info@ethos.org.au.


This article was first published in The Melbourne Anglican’s September 2020 issue, p.14. Republished with permission. This is the first of three articles in this series by Gordon Preece.

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