After all those dole diaries and ‘mutual obligations’, it turns out Australia’s privatised employment services don’t work

December 3, 2023

This is another legacy of John Howard and the neoliberal ideology he and his fans pursued despite the evidence

A parliamentary inquiry report on 30 years of privatised employment services is out and it is damning.

So it should be. Workforce Australia issues the largest spend on contracts from the government – second in amount only to defence – yet it’s been deemed inefficient, fractured, “broken”and responsible for holding back Australia’s entire economy by failing to supply the labour the country actually needs.

A massive congratulations to the neoliberal architects of this system on having a comfy, fun and lucrative three decades of experimentation at Australia’s expense, just to throw up their hands at the $9.5bn annual waste and go “whoopsie”.

Thirty years of pointless personal “resume writing workshops” in communities where unemployment resulted from shared structural realities of collapsing industries and offshoring. Thirty years of vacuous chats with “job specialists” who were, in many cases, less qualified or experienced than the people obliged to take their advice on employment prospects in industries they knew less than nothing about. Thirty years of dole diaries and “mutual obligations” and the ridiculous insistence we constantly applied for jobs we could never do. This last caused despondency in jobseekers, frustrated employers and achieved the rare accomplishment of wasting literally everybody’s time.

I crashed headfirst into this system during several bouts of unemployment. From job rejection to job rejection (memorably, I got rejected from a job at … the Reject Shop) to the “job club” photocopying group workshops and the individual resume-writing consultations, the unique “hysteresis” that afflicts the unwillingly idle unemployed metastasised in me to a full-blown nervous breakdown. I ended up on the disability support pension and I often wonder if I’d had that breakdown – at volume – anywhere apart from the floor of the actual Centrelink office I would have been that lucky.

It was a scheme that from its outset incentivised failure; its private providers could only profit from service provision to the unemployed while there remained unemployed people to service. Handily, the report reveals they were terrible at finding people jobs. This, despite labour shortages all over Australia. A fun story made the tabloid rounds a couple of days ago in which a Tasmanian pub advertised “We are desperate for staff. Police record? Who cares. Drug habit? Join the club. Alcoholic? Don’t get me started. If I can’t find anyone before Xmas, I won’t have a business after Xmas.”

The desperate ad takes on a somewhat darker implication in consideration of the inquiry’s findings: almost 500,000 people have been using the privatised employment services for over a year. Fifty thousand people – 50,000! – had been on their books for 10 years! To paraphrase Nye Bevan: “This island is made mainly of jobs and only an organising genius could produce a shortage of them.”

Organising geniuses, or Coalition governments – because, like most things sour and unfair about the Australian economy, the privatisation of employment services is another legacy of John Howard, and the Friedmanite economic ideology of small government and trickle-down prosperity he and his fans pursued despite the inconvenient burden of observable evidence.

Full props to the leader of this inquiry, Labor’s Julian Hill, for being the first politician in a long time to stare down the elephant in the room of employment services disaster with an actual elephant gun: the description of the system as “broken”, remarkably, comes from him.

Hill’s proposal that government be returned to the centre of unemployment service is practical and cost-efficient, given the inquiry revealed private providers were spending 50% of their time not on facilitating jobs but administering their own operations. Unlike private provision, there’s no loss to government in solving unemployment jobs, either, given that the spare capacity of public servants can always be redeployed to – amazing! – servicing the evolving needs of the community.

The task ahead for Labor to reform the system beyond denouncing it is unenviable, given the dehumanising twin tropes of the “dole bludger” and “fat cats” of the public service have now been in poisonous circulation since shadowy conservative thinktanks inserted them into the discourse at the time unemployment spiked during the oil shocks of the 1970s. Persuading Australians after 50 years that the unemployed are the structural consequence of deliberate policies designed to create a “reserve army of labour” and keep wages low rather than aspirational aristocrats extorting taxpayer funds to play the lute is not as easy a task as it should be.

Hill is therefore speaking carefully of retaining “mutual obligations” and work-for-the-dole as a “last resort”, which hardly satisfies the desire of those like me who long to burn it all to the ground. The long-term employment advocate Emma Dawson, from thinktank Per Capita, made the point that were mutual obligations a “genuinely mutual” meeting of individual need with government service, with tailoring of programs to provide “education and training, skills matching services and social supports such as treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues”, the language may remain but the results would be transformational.

The whole sorry saga reveals a strange paradox in which the unemployed have been collectively, uniformly punished for a structural problem, when the response to the structural problem should’ve been confronting barriers to employment by meeting individual needs. All of us, from government, to employers to, God help us, the unemployed, have instead been made to learn the lesson that the market has its limits – by smacking our faces into an economic brick wall.

Originally published by Van Badham in the Guardian Australia, 3 Dec 2023.