We have a choice as to who must bear society’s risks

November 28, 2021

Many of us would argue that the prime minister, despite his best efforts, has not succeeded in shifting the blame for his lack of leadership in either the bushfire or Covid crises. But there is one thing he has successfully shifted. Risk.

Remember when we were “all in this together?” Now, according to the prime minister, it’s everyone for themselves. His declaration of faith in “can-do capitalism,” as opposed to “don’t do governments,” is neither new nor limited to the climate emergency. As he recently told a business audience:  “I think that’s a good motto for us to follow not just in this area, but right across the spectrum of economic policy in this country…”

But despite their protestations to the contrary, neoliberal governments don’t actually get out of the way. On the contrary, they intervene quite assertively, just not on the side of ordinary people. It becomes a matter of: To those who have much, more will be given. But from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.

Neoliberal governments might want us to believe that risks are “natural” and that everyone suffers them equally. But risks are decidedly social when they can be structurally and systematically reduced or eliminated. The decision to reduce the risk for those who own the most capital is a political decision. Especially when it is made by increasing the risk for those who do not.

When a government chooses to entrench insecure work and lower wages, when it encourages casualisation, it is intervening assertively on behalf of those who have much and against those who have not. When 60% of recently created jobs are insecure and when more of us are having to work two or more jobs than at any time since the ABS started keeping records, you have to start wondering whether the miraculous qualities of can-do capitalism are therapeutic only for those who own the capital, and not for those who sell their labour.

Ditto the evangelical zeal with which the federal government has bent over backwards to ensure a supply of visa workers without lifting the wages and humanising the conditions of the agricultural and other sectors where they are likely to be exploited.

The deprivation of safe and secure housing and the deprivation of safe and secure jobs are two of the most significant risks we face as a nation. Both of these risks are deeply connected with the climate emergency. As Sharan Burrow, former ACTU President, and General Secretary of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation since 2010, often reminds us, “there are no jobs on a dead planet.” Neither are there any homes.

The pandemic has taught us to see the connections between personal, social and economic risks. If we couldn’t see it before, surely we now see how, like insecure work, homelessness (which includes overcrowded or inappropriate housing), is a massive, and preventable, risk to individuals and to the community.

To be in government is to be invested in the identification and prevention of risk. But the very act of naming a risk is a hugely significant act in politics. Because when you name it, you look rather foolish unless you also name your strategy for reducing or eliminating it.

At a time when we need each other, personally, in the community, through civil society organisations such as unions, and through well-resourced public infrastructure, the prime minister has bizarrely nominated government as the biggest risk to the well-being of the nation. To be more precise, he has nominated the power of government to reduce inequality and social risk… as a threat to the well-being of super-profits.

Both insecure work and insecure housing shift the risk onto ordinary people as a way of reducing risk for big employers and investors. It’s not that the Morrison government is insensitive to the existence of risks. It’s just that the risks the prime minister is most concerned about revolve around the risks to ballooning profits rather than the risks to working people’s capacity to cope with cost of living increases, including the cost of housing.

Some groups are more viciously impacted than others. Last year, Adelaide academics, Drs Debbie Faulkner and Laurence Lester, reported that 240,000 women aged 55 or older and another 165,000 women aged 45-54 are at risk of homelessness. These are catastrophic numbers and it is reasonable to expect that they will have increased with the social and economic effects of the pandemic.

As for JobSeeker and other similar payments, these have failed to even keep people above the poverty line, let alone allowing them to keep pace with the cost of living. Punitive and paternalistic conditions in the social “security” system are designed to serve as a weapon of fear against low-paid and insecurely employed workers and humiliation for those who have been structurally residualised. As the late British economist, Joan Robinson, wryly expressed it: “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” 

While many employers go with gusto for the low-hanging fruit of minimising labour costs by maximising insecure work, they too face some serious structural long-term risks. For one thing, an insecurely employed workforce is not the most effective framework for the cultivation of, and investment in, a strong and continuous knowledge base in a given industry or sector.

Wages have fallen in real terms, with wage growth for the September Quarter at only 2.2% compared with a consumer price index of 3%.

It is clear that what some employers describe as a labour shortage is actually a stubborn refusal to pay decent wages and offer secure and respectful conditions. Employers who push for lower wages and insecure jobs are doing so for one reason only: because they can. It is our collective task to ensure they cannot.

As philosopher Judith Butler writes, “to live is always to live a life that is at risk from the outset.” But when a government actually increases the risks for one section of society in order to protect the interests of the very few, then you know it is no longer even pretending that we’re all in this together. Which is why we need to collectively assert that most of us are!


Dr John Falzon in The Canberra Times