Jobs and Skills Summit is good start to ensuring workers are no longer left behind

August 29, 2022

If anything could be described as a political touchstone for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, surely it would be his oft-invoked ambition for “a country where no one is held back, and no one is left behind.”

Former prime (and multi!) minister Scott Morrison took a markedly different approach with his “those who have a go get a go,” a folksy iteration of the obscene gospel of prosperity, with its clear inference that if you’re not getting a go, you have only yourself to blame.

Cold comfort for the more than 850,000 people who have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet, the highest number since the ABS started tracking this trend in 1994.

Or for the workers who are punished for the sin of unemployment by being forced to survive on $46 a day while certain private “employment services providers” profit from their misery.

Or the workers engaged in the heavily gendered, unpaid, or extremely low-paid, work of caring.

The neoliberal years have inculcated in many of us the erroneous view that the difference between being left behind and being held back is that the former camp is populated with those of us who need help from government while the latter camp consists of those who just want government to get out of the way.

The truth though is that we all need help from each other throughout our lives and that government services should be there for all of us.

We also know that those who want government out of the way have historically benefited enormously from government interventions on their behalf.

All of this against the backdrop of a climate emergency that means our planet that is being held back from living, let alone flourishing.

Rather than seeing government, as per the neoliberal lens, as a fall-back for the failed, we need to see it as the means by which we achieve collectively what we cannot achieve alone.

Rather than justifying disastrous deregulation and stage three tax cuts, the idea of no one being held back should be considered a tad more inclusively.

Workers are currently experiencing the biggest fall in real wages and the lowest share of the national income on record.

So have we been left behind by the very same market that has abundantly bestowed its blessings on the chief owners of everything from banks to mines to supermarkets?

I would argue that the truth is even harsher. Workers, rather than having been passively left behind, have actually been deliberately and systematically held back.

We are held back, not by shyness, but by an industrial relations framework designed to suppress wages and to restrict, and even punish, collective action.

If only we applied the same kind of vigour in restraining prices! Or taxing super profits!

The attempted atomisation and disempowerment of working people, including those who are not in paid work, holds pride of place in the neoliberal project.

Which is why we need to look at a reconfiguration of our social security system in tandem with a reconfiguration of industrial relations, and, as per the ACTU’s very reasonable proposition, a consideration of how we might regulate prices for essentials such as energy.

Aren’t people, whether they are in paid work or not, being held back when tents become their default mode of accommodation, as is being increasingly reported across Australia? Or when they are discriminated against with lower wages because of their gender? Or when someone is unsafe in their workplace or in the community or in their home due to gendered violence, queerphobia, racism, ageism or ableism?

Margaret Thatcher famously claimed: “It is our job to glory in inequality, and see that talents and abilities are given vent and expression for the benefit of us all.”

But inequality is never the measure of our glory. On the contrary, inequality is the measure of our shame. Inequality is neither natural nor inevitable and it can be boosted or reduced by the actions of governments.

The sturdiest basis for drawing out and sharing our talents and abilities is not inequality but its opposite: democracy! It is the nurturing not only of political democracy but of social and economic democracy as well; building an economy that works for people. It means ensuring that each of us is able to enjoy well-resourced, publicly provided, education and training, public health services of the highest quality, and safe and appropriate housing in safe, inclusive communities with good social and economic infrastructure.

And it means a full employment framework where workers are in secure jobs with good wages, and safe and respectful conditions, without being hindered from unionising and acting collectively.

And that when any of us are not in paid work, we are able to live in dignity rather than poverty.

The Jobs and Skills Summit, and the process that follows, is a good place to start in shaping a future where none of us are held back, and ensuring too that the suffocating burden of neoliberalism is left behind.

Dr John Falzon in The Canberra Times