*Guest post by Paul “Gummo Trotsky” Bamford (I’ve invited Paul to join the Troppo stable/pony club, and am pleased to advise that he’s accepted. So expect more from Paul very soon).
The mythical – or legendary if you so prefer – figure of the dole bludger has haunted our political folklore since the Whitlam years of the 1970s. In, I think, 1973 the Whitlam government outraged the editors of the major Australian newspapers by doubling the dole and not long afterwards, the public opinion informed by those papers was equally outraged.
The Melbourne Herald did some especially sterling work to raise public awareness of the insidious problem of dole bludging. For a while it ran a regular feature of inside stories about dole-bludgers thwarted from a source within the CES.
One choice example featured a bloke who went to CES to claim the dole saying he was a lion tamer. As there was a circus in town, the CES worker rang them up and asked if they would be prepared to take him on. Suddenly the would-be dole-bludger discovered a revived interest in factory work. With the benefit of hindsight I’d say that the so-called CES insider was no further from the Herald’s newsroom than the sub-editors desk.
Thanks to a lot of newspaper op-edding and talk-back radio shock-jocking the idea that much of Australia’s unemployment – definitely too much, and probably most of it – was voluntary became conventional wisdom in the community at large. Everyone knew of someone who was living the easy life at the taxpayer’s expense. If you were unemployed it wasn’t because of a lack of jobs – for many it was a lifestyle choice.
For many, unemployment remained a lifestyle choice even after Reserve Bank and Federal governments accepted an official unemployment rate of 5% of the Australian workforce rate as ‘full employment’. At least so says the myth.
In reality policy makers have accepted the 5% rate as the natural unemployment rate and stopped worrying about how much of it was frictional – people temporarily out of work while they were changing jobs – and how much was structural that is, caused by economic conditions and the government’s economic management.
When you’re stuck with an official unemployment rate of 5% and op-edders and shock-jocks are telling the public that it’s mostly dole-bludging, why bother to correct them? In pragmatic political terms, they’re on your side. Ratings hungry TV current affairs producers might even prove a source of electorally attractive policy proposals such as ‘Work for the Dole’.