More than eight million Australians collectively clenched their sphincters in anxious unison last week, as the plan to gradually scale back the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes finally became a reality. In Victoria, where about 1.4 million of those recipient Australians are located, the sensation was especially heightened, owing largely to the fact that the state is still subject to some of the most severe lockdown measures seen internationally over the course of the pandemic.
The notion of frugality that guides the reduction is reasonable in the abstract, especially given the massive cost that the pandemic has already inflicted on the national budget. It is premised, however, on the idea that it is incentivising movement back into the workforce. On the national level, some would say this is premature, especially in a climate where even outside of Victoria an advertisement for a dishwashing position can attract 6190 applications. In the city of Melbourne, it is downright delusional.
For the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, reopening in the sense of having a workforce to return to simply has not happened in Melbourne. It is not even close to happening. Take hospitality, for example; possibly the most impacted of any industry and one that is integral to the fabric of the city, economically and otherwise. It has been largely reduced to skeleton-like, cobbled together takeaway operations that are lucky to turn a profit even with JobKeeper, if they can justify opening at all. Restaurants, bars and cafes will be able to seat patrons outdoors perhaps in a month, perhaps not, provided they have an outdoor area. If they don’t, they may be allowed to set tables on the footpath, which on the hilly slopes of Flinders Lane will make for some fascinating experimental forays into extreme incline dining. After that, it’s only a few short steps of further restrictions conditionally hinged on transmission targets before restaurants can return to functioning at a level where they can become self-sufficient again. Normality, in other words, is a very long way away.
Put on a suit, get a neat haircut and find a job interview has been the message from fellow Victorian Josh Frydenberg — except that you can’t try on a suit, you’re not allowed to get a haircut and your job interview will need to be within five kilometres of your house. That will help thin down a few thousand applicants at least.
Both the state and federal governments are complicit in this. Save the cute hyperbolic nicknames for “Chairman Dan” that allude to socialism or some other dystopian state – they cheapen the argument and make it too easy to dismiss criticism as tinfoil hattery. Leave the blame game for the bungled quarantine until we have at least brought under control the resultant outbreak, though blood has already been paid by Jenny Mikakos and more will surely follow.
It has been right to aim for zero community transmission, as is consistent with the rest of the country, and Victorians have overwhelmingly pledged their support with a great deal of sacrifice to their personal freedoms. But it is incumbent on Dan Andrews as the architect of these severe lockdowns to also ensure that the people abiding by them do not suffer the injustice of losing their ability to provide for themselves and at the same time have their income support diminished. Having had “a conversation with the Prime Minister” where he “made it clear that we would always want more support instead of less” but that “those are matters for him” hardly gives the impression of the issue having had the Premier’s full-throated conviction at the negotiating table, and it does not seem to be a matter that to him has any great urgency at all. It is an infuriating truism for anyone staring down months of financial uncertainty to say that getting the economy open and people back to work “is the best form of JobKeeper.” Quite so, Mr Andrews – and what ‘til then?
Because that is still rather an exotic destination, at least if we are to go by the “Coronavirus Roadmap,” which has proven to be a fairly living document as far as maps are concerned. The latest iteration prescribes that in the case of restaurants, for example, trade will resume at levels that approach normal after clearing another three steps of restrictions that could take months and with any number of caveats regarding outbreaks, which we now know all too well are very big ifs indeed. That is less an indictment of the government’s attempts to make some sort of plan in an incredibly difficult scenario than it is an exhortation for it to take seriously the fact that re-entry into the workforce and income security is anything but certain for a very large chunk of the population.
As for the Prime Minister, he has shown himself to be every bit the gaping void of leadership the nation feared he was during the bushfire crisis. Determined from inception to pass the buck as much as humanly possible and devolve responsibility for managing the pandemic to the states, as demonstrated early in the piece with the Ruby Princess debacle, Morrison has created a precedent where his main function is to stand idly by and proselytise dreamily about the fact that Australia was meant to function as one country while the premiers squabble over borders and play viral whack-a-mole. He has predictably tired of his role as self-appointed Eunuch-In-Chief of late and so is withholding further financial support from the Andrews government, hoping to force an end to the lockdown and clear the way for him to bring about his Grand Vision For A United Australia. Never mind the fact that a Victorian outbreak soon becomes a national one. That’s a problem for the people charged with controlling the virus, not the Prime Minister. Anyway, a dogmatic obsession with shrinking welfare support as quickly as possible while also exploiting it for political capital is more than enough responsibility for one man.
This peculiar separation of responsibilities, of course, is exactly why so many Victorians find themselves in such a precarious financial situation. If either government was responsible for both the lockdown measures and social security, there would be no possibility to shirk the issue back and forth in the manner that is now happening. Such as it is though, the gap between them is yawning, and a million and a half Victorians are looking down into it.
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